Our world is filled with gadgets that have been born out of tragedy. Seat belts. Smoke alarms. Safety scissors. Life jackets. Sun screen. House alarms. Each of these items is designed to protect us and keep us safe. Talking to our children about child sexual abuse is absolutely no different. We wouldn’t allow our children to cross a street without first talking to them about how to do it safely because even though not every car will hurt them, some can. Likewise, we know that the vast majority of people out there will not harm our kids. However, some will. And we do them no favors by ignoring this fact. So, here are some quick guidelines on how to discuss this topic with your kids:
STEP FIVE: We talk about it.
Child sex abuse education begins with talking and modeling some basic healthy relationship characteristics: boundaries and our body rights. Every child needs to understand that they have boundaries and other people have boundaries too. No one should cross their boundaries and they should not cross anyone else’s boundaries. They need to be taught that their bodies are precious and that they have rights to their bodies. For young children, boundaries should be described as the areas covered by their swimming suit and “rights” should be modeled for them. For example, adults should not force kisses and hugs on a child. An adult should ask for a kiss or hug and if the child says, “no,” then no kiss or hug should be given. For older children, boundaries should be described not only in the physical sense but also in the emotional sense meaning not only does no one have the right to touch them in their private areas, no one has the right to make them feel guilty or ashamed for saying, “no,” and if someone does make them feel that way, then they need to feel empowered to appropriately handle that person by being given permission to distance themselves, etc. And if someone forces themselves on the child, the child needs to have permission to tell. Offenders are excellent at manipulating and making even the most self-confident child feel responsible – so they need to know that if someone asks them to keep a secret, they can tell. If someone threatens to hurt someone or something they love, they can tell. And they need to be assured that the adult they choose to tell will handle it appropriately which means reporting it to the authorities, not hunting the perpetrator down and killing them. If kids don’t think the adult will handle it correctly, they often err on the side of not telling to protect the adult from doing something rash.
After establishing the basics, it is then important to discuss the specifics of child sexual abuse. Younger children need to understand that only when someone is keeping them clean and healthy should someone touch them in their private parts. Run through scenarios with your child to help them grasp the concepts. Label relationships by telling them that no one has the right to touch them inappropriately and that means cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, parents, friends, coaches, Sunday School teachers, etc. They need to hear the relationships to help them understand that this could be anyone. Older children need to understand that force can occur even when it doesn’t feel like force. A beloved relationship may be all it takes for child sexual abuse to take place.
Remember to keep it age appropriate. Explain it succinctly but allow them to ask questions. Use the proper terms for body parts so there is no confusion in what someone is talking about. Make sure to have the conversation more than once. Ideally, boundary and body rights discussions should be ongoing themes in every household.
Use teachable moments. Talk to kids when it is on the news or when they are learning to potty or when they are going to the doctor (because they will be keeping them healthy), etc.
And probably most importantly of all – model respect. Every healthy relationship is built on respect. Respect is difficult to teach if a child is not seeing it before them, but respect is a powerful tool in creating healthy boundaries and establishing solid body rights. When children see us treating them with respect, children will feel empowered. They will know they have rights. They will understand they are allowed to establish boundaries. This is a good thing. The more respect a child sees modeled for them, the more they will give it to others, and the more they will expect it out of others towards them. This is important because offenders are not respecting their victims. Educating our kids on healthy relationships is not about them protecting themselves. That is never their job. However, providing them with tools to understand and participate in healthy relationships is our job – and it also happens to help in situations like the Duggars.
So, what should we be learning from the Duggar situation?
We should be educating ourselves on child sexual abuse.
We should be educating ourselves on perpetrator behavior.
We should be educating ourselves on the impact on the victim.
We should be reporting the abuse swiftly to the authorities.
We should talk about it.
Then, we will be able to say, “The world is a better, safer place because I stepped up and did something.”
Written by: Valerie Craig, Co-Founder and Director of Education