It’s difficult to pick up a paper, turn on the news or open up a web browser these days without seeing the latest pedophile/sexual predator whose been caught having destroyed the innocence of another child or multiple children. As my colleagues and I talked about what we had found or tried in discussing this issue with others, we came across many opinions. Some of which we dismissed, but a few we found had both merit and impact. With this in mind, we set about to cooperatively put together a guide of sorts to help each other, our peers and parents concerned on how to present this topic to the various people and children in our lives.
Together, we decided the best way to accomplish this goal was by combining the best ideas in one place. It is our hope you will take this information to heart and apply it to your daily lives with the intent of protecting all our children, alleviating some of the fears of talking about this delicate topic and put sexual predators on notice that we are on to their methods and are arming each other and our children with the most powerful of weapons…knowledge.
Chris Anderson, the Executive Director of MaleSurvivor.org, gave the following guidance to parents on speaking with their children.
“Parents need to realize that educating their children about sexuality and maintaining and protecting proper boundaries has to be a regular part of their interactions with children.
Having “the sex talk” once when a kid is about to enter adolescence isn’t sufficient, and in all likelihood leads to more children being at risk because parents don’t want to educate their own children about sex, making it all the more easier for perpetrators to manipulate and misinform their targets.
WE need to encourage parents, caregivers, teachers, and all those involved with youth to think about planting the seeds of awareness, compassion, and protection over and over and over again. Conversations about what constitutes healthy, non-manipulative relationships as well as appropriate physical and social boundaries need to be a regular part of the experience of children.
There is NO reason whatsoever that ANY parent can justify not giving their children age appropriate, correct biological terms for body parts. Penis, vagina, and anus are not dirty words.
Any adult who seems to be overly desirous of taking a child one on one should be carefully screened by parents. Who are they? Why do they want to spend so much time with a child? What are they really looking for?
Parents who empower their children to say No when they don’t feel comfortable around someone or doing something are doing the right thing. Children should not be “forced” to give hugs and kisses to relatives, they should be encouraged to say whether or not they want to.
Serial perpetrators will often screen out children who have been taught these skills because they are looking for the “soft” targets who are more easily manipulated.
The vulnerability that makes kids so easy to manipulate is borne of their need for attention and affirmative parental bonding. It’s all too easy for many parents to try and find ways to encourage their kids to leave them alone and entertain or distract themselves. Too often, this actually leads children to seek what they are not getting from their parents from others who know all too well how to manipulate a child into doing what they want.
Perhaps the last point is that grooming thrives where secrecy, shame, and ignorance are in full effect. Any parent that encourages their children to always disclose when they feel uncomfortable about someone or something, AND who makes it clear that the child will never be in trouble for doing so is already doing a great deal to protect their children. ”
This is obviously valuable advice. So we thought, what about the folks who find it challenging talking to either their children or even peers about childhood sexual abuse? How can we help them overcome or work through it? The folks at Samaritans.org had an amazing piece on just this issue.
How to Start a Difficult Conversation
Often people want to talk, but wait until someone asks how they are. Try asking open questions, like ‘What about happened about…’, ‘Tell me about…’, ‘How do you feel about…’
Repeat back what they say to show you understand, and ask more questions.
Focus on your friend’s feelings instead of trying to solve the problem – it can be of more help and shows you care. Respect what they tell you. Sometimes it’s easy to want to try and fix a person’s problems, or give them advice. Let them make their own decisions.
1) How do I start a conversation with someone I’m concerned about?
You might feel that you don’t know how to help someone, because you don’t know what to tell them or how to solve their problems. You don’t need to be an expert. In fact, sometimes people who think they have the answers to a problem are less helpful. Don’t forget that every person is different, so that what worked for one will not always work for another.
2) Find a good time and place
Think about where and when to have the conversation before you start.
Choose somewhere where the other person feels comfortable and has time to talk.
3) Ask gentle questions, and listen with care
You might feel that you don’t know how to help someone, because you don’t know what to tell them. But you shouldn’t tell them anything. Telling doesn’t help. The best way to help is to ask questions. That way you leave the other person in control. By asking questions, the person you are talking with finds his or her own answers.
4) The more open the question the better
Questions that help someone talk through their problems instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are the most useful. Questions like:
When – ‘When did you realize?’
Where – ‘Where did that happen?’
What – ‘What else happened?’
How – ‘How did that feel?’
Why – be careful with this one as it can make someone defensive. ‘What made you choose that’ or ‘What were you thinking about at the time’ are more effective.
At Samaritans, we call this style of conversation active listening.
5) Find out how they feel
Don’t forget to ask how this person is feeling. Sometimes people will talk you through all the facts of what happened, why it happened and what actions they are thinking of taking, but never say how they actually feel. Revealing your innermost emotions – anger, sadness, fear, hope, jealously, despair and so on – can be a huge relief. It sometimes also give clues about what the person is really most worried about.
6) Check they know where to get help
If someone has been feeling low for some time it is probably a good idea that they get some support, whether it is through talking to someone like a counsellor or getting some practical help.
Useful questions you might ask them include:
‘Have you talked to anyone else about this?’
‘Would you like to get some help?’
‘Would you like me to come with you?’
Or, for someone who is reluctant to get help:
‘Do you have someone you trust you can go to?’
‘If it helps, you can talk to me any time.’
You can also suggest to your friend that the following sources of help may be useful:
The Good Men Project
7) Respect what they tell you, don’t pressure them
8) If they don’t want help, don’t push them. Sometimes it’s easy to want to try and fix a person’s problems, or give them advice.
It’s usually better for people to make their own decisions. Help them think of all the options, but leave the choice to them. Being there for them in other ways, like through socializing or helping with practical things, can also be a great source of support.
9) If you say the wrong thing, don’t panic
There is no perfect way to handle a difficult conversation, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it didn’t go as well as you had hoped. If you feel able to, put things right: “Last week I said … and I realize now that was insensitive so I’m sorry. What I meant to say was …”
10) Show you understand
Ask follow-up questions and repeat back the key things your friend has told you, using phrases like ‘So you’re saying…’, ‘So you think…’.
11) Look after yourself, and talk to someone too
Hearing someone else’s worries or problems can affect you too. Take time for yourself to do the things you enjoy, and if you need to talk, find somebody you trust to confide in. If you promised not to tell anyone else, you can call us, and we’ll keep it private. Don’t take on so much of other peoples’ problems that you yourself start feeling depressed.
In addition to Chris’ message to parents, we chose an article published by David Pittman of Together-We-Heal.org – It’s a straightforward, 7-step process for parents to speak to their children about sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, you will see some similar advice, and it’s clear this is no accident. Both men are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and having been through such a traumatic time in their lives, it makes sense they would have similar advice on how they wished they had been counseled as kids.
How To Talk With Your Children About Sexual Abuse
I was once given some advice from a person much older and wiser than myself: “If a child is old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to get the truth.” There is, however, a way to present truth in a way that neither scares the child nor impedes their ability to openly communicate with the adult about “delicate” subject matter.
The following is a combined list of different suggestions on ways to talk to your children about sexual abuse. The sources for this information are Together We Heal, The Joyful Heart Foundation, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, FamilyWatchDog.com, The Center for Behavioral Intervention in Beaverton, Oregon, and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s: Convicted Sex Offender Web Site, as well as my own personal recommendations based on personal experience.
1) Start Young
Talk openly and often with your children about sexual development, behavior and abuse. Keep in mind that if you discuss sexual development with your children appropriately from a very young age, they will not be embarrassed by the subject matter and will be less vulnerable to the grooming tactics of many child molesters.
Children who do not have their curiosity satisfied do not stop asking, they simply start looking elsewhere for their answers. After all, who do you want educating your children about sex and sexuality…you or their friends and Madison Avenue?!?
Starting young is not damaging. Parents believe that somehow it is inappropriate for them to be discussing such things with young children. If a child has a curiosity about something, it does not damage them to know the truth. Truth is never wrong! Truth is never damaging! While they are young is a healthy time for children to know the answers. It is the best time. One of the biggest mistakes parents make is waiting until the teenage years to address issues of sexuality.
Rather than trying to wait until a time when you are beginning to lose control of your children, confront the issues now. Make sure you spend the first 12 years of your child’s life laying out a stable framework for your children to build their ideals and morals from. Don’t wait until they are 13 and riddled with urges to start addressing the issue of healthy sexual relationships.
The key to this is what my friend and colleague, Rachel Grant, calls “normalizing” the conversation. What we mean by that is, for example, a “normal” talk with your child would be, “how was practice today, or do you need any help with your homework?” So just as normally as you bring up those topics, so also ask them, “Has anyone made you feel uncomfortable at school today?” “Has anyone approached you or touched you in a way that made you feel upset?” The more normal you make the conversation, the more likely they are to open up to you and talk about it.
Instill these concepts when they are young. Confronting the tough issues and encoding the morals you would like your children to have as a foundation begins at birth, and that includes sexuality.
2) Use Proper Terminology
Use proper names or semi-proper names for body parts (penis and vagina), and phrases like: private parts are “private and special”. Research shows that children who know the proper words for their body parts are less likely to be sexually abused than children who are not. Teaching a child that body parts are so embarrassing and shameful to talk about that they need silly nicknames makes it much more likely that a child will not tell you if someone touches them inappropriately. When a child knows the proper names, it puts a predator on notice that there is an atmosphere of openness and dialogue in a home and that if they harm your child, it is more likely to be discovered and disclosed.
Take the time to rehearse with your spouse/partner or any adult that will give you a truthful critique and be patient. This is not the time to rush through or skim over the parts that make you feel uncomfortable. Just imagine that if you have a difficult time talking with the adult, what will it be like when you talk with your child? Gather resources from organizations such as Together We Heal, Stop It Now, RAINN, Stop Abuse Campaign, Survivors Chat, MaleSurvivor.org, etc., and make notes or an outline.
Do whatever makes it easiest for you to remember the topics and keep yourself on point. Throughout the talk, your child will be asking questions that will take you in various directions so it is essential that once you answer the question you get back on track. Also consider that you may not be able to address all questions at once. Be honest with your child if they ask you a question that you do not have the answer. Tell them the truth. Let them know that you need to find the answer and let them know later.
4) No Secrets and No Private time with Adults/Children
Teach your child not to keep secrets and that no one should ask your child to keep a secret from you. Teach your child that there are happy surprises which we are going to tell people about soon (like birthday presents or the ending to a story your brother is reading), but that we don’t have secrets that we’re not allowed to tell and we don’t keep secrets that make us feel sad or worried.
Avoid one child‐one adult situations. 90% of all child sexual abuse occurs in situations where there is only one adult and one child present. When a child is going to have one on one time with an adult, attempt to schedule that time in observable places (like parks and restaurants). Ask your child about how things went when they were alone with an adult, child or relative. Listen for specific details and watch your child’s mood.
5) Create a “Safety Team” or “Safety Network”
Help your child create a list of their trusted adults. Give your child a copy of their list. Make sure their support “network” peoples’ phone numbers are by the telephone with and in a place that your child has easy access to. Once you and your child have made a list, let all the people on your child’s list know that they are part of this emergency network. Let them know your child has your permission to contact them and ask them if they are comfortable with this responsibility.
Let your child know that you will not be upset if they go to anyone on this list when they are scared or confused. It is very common for children to feel that they cannot speak to their parents in spite of a parent’s attempt to ease this fear. The majority of children who report sexual abuse do not report it to their parents. Sexual predators often tell their victims that what is happening is the victims’ fault; that they will get in trouble, that they will be taken away or that their parents will stop loving them and will hate them. Molesters who are related to the child also scare them into silence by telling them that no one else will take care of them if they go to jail. It is very important to talk with your children and reassure them of your unconditional love and remind them of all the people who care about them. When you take away an offender’s ability to keep his victim silent, you take away his/her power.
6) Explain How Your Child is Helping
Avoid scary details. Use language that is honest and age appropriate. Explain that no one should touch a child on the parts of their body that are covered by their bathing suit. Also let your child know that there are exceptions to this situation such as mommy or daddy helping a young child bathe, diaper changes or a doctor examining a child with their parent present.
When discussing sexual abuse with younger children, refer to sexual predators as adults with “touching problems.” These people can make “secret touching” look accidental (such as tickling or wrestling) and they should still tell you even if they think (or were told) it was an accident. This is a way for a young child to understand that an adult has an inappropriate behavior without giving your child nightmares or age-inappropriate details about what the “touching” might entail.
Tell your children that people who have touching problems need special help so they don’t continue to have problems or get into trouble. Don’t describe it as a sickness and don’t say that “bad” people do this, as most of the time the “bad” person is someone who seems good or is known to the child. Do not use words like pedophile, predator or pervert; but rather, refer to “touching problems” instead as this gives the child the ability to judge and tell you about the behavior without the understandable confusion that arises when the perpetrator is someone they love or care about.
Finally – And this step might be the most important…
7) Create a form letter that explains how you have discussed with your child/children about the issue of childhood sexual abuse and list the people in their safety network. Give a copy to each adult in your child’s life and on the list.
By notifying all of the adults in your child’s life (family, friends, teachers, coaches, and parents of your child’s friends), you have in effect warned most potential predators in your child’s life that they will be caught should they target your child for abuse or inappropriate behavior. Sex offenders generally target children where the risk of getting caught is sufficiently low. By doing this, you are telling any would-be offender that your child is prepared and as parents you are involved. If you find it challenging to create your own form letter, we have provided two templates on the together-we-heal.org website. Please feel free to print them out to use.
My hope is that you will take these tips and begin the dialogue with your child/children. Remember this also…talk WITH your child, not AT your child. Together we can work to give your children the BEST possibility of NOT being a statistic. (1 in 6 boys and 1 in 3 girls are molested and/or sexually abused/raped by the age of 18).
If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact us.
One more important piece of guidance. As Joanna Schroeder of The Good Men Project pointed out to us, instead of encouraging the person to call the police to report suspicions, it’s better to contact Child and Family Services, The Department of Children And Family Services (or whatever title that department goes by in your community). Police often won’t even make a report of suspicions, and really they don’t have the training or experience to necessarily know what to do with that kind of a report. And when they do, it is likely that they would suggest your friend contact CFS as it is. If an actual claim of abuse is made, please go immediately to your local authorities to report the crime.
There is an important reason for reporting as soon as possible. From the time the crime is committed, a clock is ticking. That clock is called the Statute of Limitations. In most states, if a crime is not reported by the ages of 18 to 23, the predator will walk away scot-free. Predators know this and it’s why we urge all victims to come forward as soon as possible.
We hope you will find this material to be an invaluable tool to keeping yourself, your friends and family and your children educated and armed with the power to combat pedophiles and sexual predators.
Chris Anderson – MaleSurvivor.org
Stephen Hoddell – Samaritans.org
Catherine Johnstone – Samaritans.org
David Pittman – Together-We-Heal.org
Joanna Schoerder – The Good Men Project
Dr. Stephanie Stace – Samaritans.org
Copyright © 2014 Together We Heal, Inc.