By Angela Dube, LMFT
The news is saturated with stories about sexual abuse recently, Kavanaugh and Ford case, the Catholic Church scandal, and the #metoo movement to name a few. These public scandals are heightening everyone’s nerves and it is easy to start worrying about what risks our own children may be up against. Here are a few tips to manage such a sensitive topic with your child or teen.
First, teach your children about body safety and consent, and start early. This will help give children proper language to explain what has happened to them as well as an understanding of what is appropriate and inappropriate. Unfortunately the simple “birds and the bees” talk during early puberty is no longer sufficient. For young children it starts with giving them anatomically appropriate language for all body parts, talking about who is allowed to touch which body parts and how, and modeling consent. With every child of any age, do not force them to hug or kiss anyone. Listen and respect when a child says “no” during tickle time. Young children are curious! You may be surprised at how easy it is to have these conversations. As your children get older it is more about talking about how to handle uncomfortable situations of ALL kinds. Ask your kids questions about how they would handle certain situations and allow them the space to come up with their own ideas. Bring up topics that they have been exposed to in a sensitive manner, such as the Catholic church scandal or issues that have come up at school with peers. Give them a chance to talk so you can learn about their thoughts. Always tell your children that you are there to help if they need it.
Second, always believe your children when it comes to abuse. You are your child’s biggest supporter and advocate. How you respond will affect how they feel about the abuse and whether or not to tell. The myth of stranger danger is prevalent. However, most commonly the perpetrator is someone the family knows and trusts. This is intentional; perpetrators use their relationship to build trust and to keep the abuse secret. The consequence: confusion. It is so hard for anyone to believe that this trusted individual has harmed someone we love. It is very common to doubt our children in these situations. We wonder if maybe they misunderstood something that happened, or if it was an accident. My advice: don’t doubt them. Acknowledge that disclosing sexual abuse is a terribly difficult thing to do. Believe your child. Express empathy and sadness for your child. Validate that what the perpetrator did was wrong and they did nothing wrong, no matter what. Tell them that telling you was the right thing to do and that you are proud of them. Tell them that you will help them. Get help right away.
Third, get professional help for everyone. Learning about a child being sexually abused is equally, and sometimes more traumatizing for the parents. No one should have to go through this experience by themselves. Get in contact with a therapist who specializes in trauma and can help you understand your options, feelings, and how to heal. Seek out support groups. It can be incredibly healing to know that you are not alone. The good news? When trauma, even sexual abuse, is dealt with appropriately, most people heal and grow.
Other great resources:
RAINN: National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
YWCA 24 Hour Sexual Assault Support Line: 1-800-572-2782
YWCA also provides free services such as accompaniment to the hospital and through the reporting and judicial process, prevention programs, peer support groups, and crisis counseling.