How to Talk to Little Kids about Sexual Abuse

April 4, 2014 · 6:30 am

[Trigger Warning]

The thing I remember most about that night, is that it was perfect: it was dusk and a salty breeze had just started to chill the air.  I was six and we were on vacation in Mombasa on our way to see the acrobats.  A funny memory popped into my head for no apparent reason and I giggled.

“What’s so funny?” asked my mom, who was walking beside me.

So I told her the strange little story about me and the schoolteacher who lived down the hill from our house.  I told her how I’d seen him in the shower, and how he told me about his private parts and asked me about mine.

Somehow, in the way that her expression froze, or the glance she shared with my dad, or the barrage of questions that followed, or the fact that no one laughed, I realized that my strange little story was not okay.  I got an anxious, guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach, so I stopped talking and didn’t tell that story again for over twenty years.

I was lucky. I wasn’t physically hurt or left with emotional scars. But to this day, every time I remember that brief encounter I’m filled with shame and I push the thought away. When I think of how much stronger this feeling must be for those who weren’t as lucky as I was, it’s easy to see why sexual abuse is still such a taboo subject.

I’m writing about this now, because it has shaped the way I approach the subject with my children.  April is Child Abuse Prevention and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and I want to share how I talk to my kids about sexual abuse, and hear how you talk to yours.  *I’m not an expert, so I welcome any advice or feedback.*

small children sexual abuse

If you suspect your child is being sexually abused, get help.  You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or visit the online hotline at online.rainn.org.

1. Start Now: My story happened when I was six, and by the time I was seven I had already started hearing information about sex from my friends (they called it mating). Some of them who were younger than I was had already been molested. I look at my kids who are two and four, and I want to believe that they are too young to have to know about this, but history tells us otherwise.  If your children are old enough to understand you when you talk, it’s time to start the conversation.

2. Stay Calm: Sexual abuse is a terrible thing.  This is a serious topic and I want my kids to know I’m serious when I talk about it.  At the same time, I don’t want any anxiety I might have to rub off on them.  I try to find a balance. If Nati starts joking around while I’m talking to him, I smile, but gently redirect him to the conversation.  I keep it casual and bring it up when he’s on the potty, in the bath, or getting ready for bed.   It’s not a long, drawn out talk every time, but just a reminder here or there, or a questions to see what he remembers.

3. Teach Boundaries: There are two parts to teaching kids about boundaries. The first part is teaching them what is and is not appropriate.  I explain to Nati that no one else is allowed to see or touch his private parts and he is not allowed to see or touch anyone else’s private parts.  I tell him that if anyone tries to see or touch his private parts, he should say no.  The second part is something my sister Rebekah shared with me after hearing a talk about sexual abuse prevention: teach them that they do not have to give or receive physical contact that they don’t want.  This means that I need to affirm my kids’ choice to say no to a goodnight kiss, or to refuse to hug relatives, etc.  Obviously this can be frustrating and uncomfortable at times, and I do find myself having conversations with Nati about being polite and considering other people’s feelings.  But in the end, I need to reinforce that he is never obligated to give physical affection to people, and he has the choice to refuse contact that he doesn’t want.

4. Teach Anatomy: This is important because it gives children the vocabulary they need to tell you if they have been abused.  It can also be a preventative measure.  Sexual predators tend to be  wary of kids who use correct terms for anatomy, because it increases the chances that someone will find out. This is another tip that my sister shared with me, and it was a hard one for me to accept. I grew up with three sisters and no brothers, and I blame this for the fact that I find the word “penis” distasteful. (And now I’ve said it on my blog!)  But I have a son, and he has a penis. When he was little, we called it his pee-pee, but when I learned that using correct anatomical terms could help protect him, I started saying “penis.”  He still says “pee-pee” sometimes, so I just ask him what else his pee-pee is called to make sure he’s comfortable using the term “penis.”  He also knows the names for his testicles and anus, and when he sees me change Lily’s diaper, I explain to him that she has a vulva and a vagina instead of a penis.

5. Answer Questions: It’s important for kids to know that all things sexual and reproductive are open for discussion. A few days ago, Nati asked me why Lily doesn’t have testicles.  He knew that she had a vulva and vagina instead of a penis but wondered what she had instead of testicles.  I explained that she has ovaries instead of testicles, which are inside her body, instead of outside.

6. No Secrets: At some point, the kids will be old enough to have secrets. But for now, I teach them that it’s okay to tell secrets to Mommy and Daddy.  Specifically, if we are talking about private parts, I might ask Nati, “What should you do if someone touches your private parts?” He says, “Tell Mommy and Daddy.” Then I’ll ask, “What should you do if they tell you it’s a secret and that you shouldn’t tell Mommy and Daddy?” He says, “Tell Mommy and Daddy anyway.”  This one took some practice, because his first response was not to do something that he was told he shouldn’t do.  Every time we talk about this, I explain that it’s always okay to tell Mommy and Daddy secrets, even if someone tells you not to.

7. Reassure: If there’s one thing that I tell Nati over and over, it’s that he will never be in trouble for talking to me about this.  If someone touches him and tells him not to tell me, he won’t be in trouble for telling me.  If someone touches him and tells him that he’ll be in trouble if he tells me, he won’t be in trouble for telling me.  If he promises he won’t tell on someone, but then tells me, he still won’t be in trouble for telling me.

8. Repeat: This is a lot of information to cover, especially for little kids.  We usually only talk about one or two things at a time, and only for a minute or so, but I bring it up often.  As he gets older and has a better long-term memory, I’ll probably gradually decrease the frequency.  For now, I try to bring it up often enough that he won’t forget what we talked about in between.

As I said before, I am not an expert. If you have a different or better suggestion for any of these steps, please leave a comment.  I would love to hear how you approach this topic with your children.

22 Thoughts on “How to Talk to Little Kids about Sexual Abuse

  1. Keith Morris on April 4, 2014 at 9:46 am said:

    Esther,
    Thank you so much for your piece on how to protect our kids from SA. As a survivor of childhood SA for 42 years now this is the talk I wish I had with my parents. I have been speaking out for the past 14 years to help prevent abuse, bring hope to survivors, and change laws to help end this epidemic. Your words are right on point.
    Keith Morris

  2. Esther Good. You amaze me. There are things I have kept mostly to myself, and this ripped them all wide open. There is a shame, and stigma attatched to SA that many unwittingly pass on. To this day I haven’t spoken to my parents about what happened to me, but with this knowledge it may become easier. You learn as a child that certain people are to be trusred, and when they tell you something is a secret you trust them. The older I get the more aware of how false this notion truly is.

    The other day you liked a poem I posted on facebook about trees, and as a survivor of sexual assault I am sure now that you grasped the analogy. Thank you for your wisdom in these matter. For even if it merely comes from personal experience it draws attention to a serious problem.

    • Thank you, Doug. Your poem was powerful, and your other posts are moving as well. You definitely have a gift, and I hope it’s a gift that’s helping you heal.

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  4. I think you are wise. I got some tips from one of my friends who was a sexual assault prevention counselor and also from the Catholic curriculum, Circle of Grace, which our church does yearly. One of the ways to help children understand secrets is to ask them if mommy and daddy will be pleased and happy when the secret is told or if they will be sad. So, keeping a birthday surprise secret means mommy and daddy will be pleased, etc.

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  6. Cassie on April 25, 2014 at 7:57 pm said:

    This is a great list. I would add not to be obsessive. My mom would do the 20 questions every night. In the exact same order. My siblings and I memorized the correct order of our answers “yes, no, no, not today…” but by doing so she inadvertently let us know how much she detested the action and hated the “hypothetical” person. Because the offender was someone we both loved, even though he begged me to tell, I couldn’t bring myself to bring our whole world (or what I thought at 7 was our whole world) to come crashing down.
    Even though I didn’t tell my parents, their efforts to educate me did succeed in prevention. I knew it was wrong. I said no. It didn’t happen again.
    Eventually the offender came clean with my parents. My world didn’t fall apart.

  7. Cheryl on April 27, 2014 at 9:40 pm said:

    Thanks for sharing, Esther! This is all very much in line with what Timothy and I have learned from the Child Abuse Prevention (CAP) training we’ve taken and the conversations we are trying to have with our own kids. We appreciate you taking the time to articulate your thoughts and experiences with this topic – it’s so important!!

    Two more thoughts to add to what you have here:

    - We talk about “tricky people” instead of “strangers” because most likely a person they should be wary of won’t be a complete stranger. Also, we want them to know which strangers are safe strangers that they could go to if they need help. Here is a blog post someone shared with me a few years ago that talks more about it: http://www.checklistmommy.com/2012/02/09/tricky-people-are-the-new-strangers/

    - In the CAP training, they suggest occasionally playing a “what if” game to talk through how the child might respond to different scenarios (which you also have some of in your points). This is mostly for kids once they’re school age and have a little more capacity for abstraction/imagination. A few examples: What would you do if you were playing in the park and you see someone’s dog run away and she/he asks you to help chase the dog? What would you do if you were walking home and someone offered to give you a ride the rest of the way to your house? … What if you were carrying home a special project that was really heavy, and it started pouring rain, and a neighbor you recognized drove by and offered to give you a ride the rest of the way home?

  8. This is an incredibly important post. Though i think i lost my breath reading it because it is a very stressful thing to go through with your children but you’re right. It is worth it. Thanks for sharing this on the blogger’s digest linky.

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  10. erinn on May 8, 2014 at 7:12 am said:

    thank you…i took notes…ive had talks before with my kids to prevent but u had great points…thank you…i taught behavior kids before having kids of my own and these poor kids, so many were SA’d….i could just cry, seeing all their anger and hurt….i pray the laws get more strict….my dad always said, as an example, if someone was ever convicted of rape, then his , sorry to be graphic, but his penis should be nailed to a barn, and then the barn set on fire, so to free himself obviously he would need to “cut it off” himself….i know it sounds extreme but cant say i oppose this form of punishment…with DNA proof the rapist is the bad guy…i dont believe sexual predators or rapists can be rehabilitated..research backs that point….so therefore i dont understand why our country is so carefree about the subject…why are these guys/gals allowed out of jail…why as a mother do i have to search the online sexual predator sites so i know who the sickos are in my neighborhood…i know i may sound harsh in this society where the bad guys seem to have more rights than the victims, but seriously lock them all up, provide food, bed, water, books and thats about it….no tv, cable, education, etc….make them clean the jail….and they are all there until they die…done….until the majority feel this problem is of the magnitude it really is, nothing will change…moms and women need to fight harder for our children!!! and men and dads need to rally behind us…mens voices are heard more…it is what it is…government is predominantly men….most men listen to other men more openly than a women…its not fair but its the truth…so come on people lets fight this fight…lets protect our kids better in this great country of ours!!

    • Thanks, erinn. I do hope that things are changing for the better, but there will always be dangers, and this will probably always be one of them. I absolutely believe that the victims need to be the first priority. But that said, I believe that everyone is entitled to basic human rights, and that includes sexual offenders. I think that the lack of mental health and rehabilitation services for sexual offenders is one of the most obvious holes in our efforts to protect our children.

  11. Oh Esther. I have dropped the ball on this. I have used proper names for the anatomy, I also talk about private parts being, indeed, private… but I have not done very much. My daughter is 6 1/2 and I struggle to find a good place to start.

    I like your tip of including these conversations in natural, casual circumstances (bath time and potty time).

    Thanks so much for sharing this critical information (and for linking this post up to the SHINE Blog Hop).

    Wishing you a lovely day.
    xoxo

    • I think you’re on the right track if you’re using anatomically correct terms. I didn’t start out doing that. It was hard for me to find ways of bringing it up at first, but now it’s a very casual part of our conversation. Thanks for hosting the SHINE Blog Hop. :-)

  12. Rene Young - Together we roam on May 12, 2014 at 8:00 am said:

    These are very helpful tips for me. I would not know where and how to begin discussing this. Sorry to hear about the guilt you were carrying for twenty years, but I find solace that you are now open about your sexual abuse and championing prevention. Thanks for sharing. xo

  13. zeneia coelho on July 15, 2015 at 11:04 pm said:

    I think those are some very good points to bring up to children and to educate them on. Thank you for your ideas and insight. This is a much needed subject that every one needs to educate themselves on so they better educate there children.

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