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8 Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Abuse

Not only is April National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, but it is also National Child Abuse Prevention Month. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18, according to the CDC. Statistically, your child is more likely to be molested than to be hit by a car. So just as you would teach them to look both ways before crossing the street or avoid touching a hot stove, you must also be talking to your kids about sexual abuse.

If you suspect your child has already suffered some form of sexual abuse, a portion of these tips will help you reconnect with your child and respond in the proper manner. The American Psychological Association reports that sexually abused children who can confide in a trusted adult who believes them experience less trauma.

Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Abuse

Your early intervention can have a significant impact and lower the risk of victimization.

1. Teach Toddlers the Names of Body Parts

Toddlers can learn the names of their body parts even before they can talk. Ideally, you will first weave body part language into natural everyday child care during diapering or potty time, while dressing or undressing, and at bath time. University of Colorado Psychology Professor Sandy K. Wurtele says teaching the correct anatomical names is important because “it helps children develop a healthy, more positive body image, instead of using nicknames that their genitals are something shameful or bad.” Children will then have the correct language to understand their developing bodies and will understand that they can have discussions about their body parts in a medical, matter-of-fact way.

Father and son drawing on the floor

Most families do have slang words they use like “wee-wee” and “hoo-hoo” as well because it’s less awkward to use around the house or in public, but research shows preschoolers learned the correct names better from their parents than from their teachers, so you may not want to rely on schooling to do the teaching for you.

Sexual predators who hear children use correct anatomical language may understand that the child has parents who are willing to discuss these subjects and may have already been taught that certain kinds of touching are not alright.

When children are old enough to communicate, using picture books can be a helpful way to discuss the topic. Try titles like: It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends by Robie Harris or Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Gail Saltz.

2. Discuss Healthy Boundaries When Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Abuse

By the time children head off to daycare or preschool, they should understand the concept of privacy and what healthy relationships are like.

“It’s okay to say no.”

It’s important to explain to a child that it’s okay to say “no” to touching that makes them uncomfortable, whether from another child or adult. “Everyone should keep their hands to themselves” is an easy way to put it. Remind your child that he or she should also not touch other people in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

“We don’t keep secrets from each other.”

Talk about secrets, as molesters frequently use secret-keeping in grooming a child for abuse. Let children know they can talk to you about anything, especially if they’ve been asked to keep a secret. Emphasize that anyone who asks your child to keep secrets from mom and dad is not a trustworthy friend.

“Your private parts are special and for no one else.”

Private parts are so special, they are not for anyone else to see or touch. The one exception is when necessary to keep them clean, safe, or healthy, such as when you’re in the bathroom teaching how to wipe or when at the doctor’s office with a parent present.

“We can talk about anything.”

Reassure them they won’t get in trouble for asking questions or talking about their experiences.

Recommended reading: I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private by Kimberly and Zack King and Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept by Jayneen Sanders to aid in discussions with kids ages 3-12.

3.  Teach Early Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse

Children may not be able to detect early signs of sexual abuse, but they can learn to recognize the unsafe situations that may lead to abuse. Discuss various times where your child may have felt unsafe in the past.

Early warning signs of feeling unsafe may include:

  • heart racing
  • sweaty palms
  • wobbly knees
  • dry mouth
  • a sick feeling in the tummy
  • gasping for air
  • wanting to run away
  • wanting to cry
Parents talking with daughter

4.  Develop a Safety Network

Have a child over three years of age point to each digit on one hand and say the names of people in their “safety network.” These are trusted adults they can talk to if another child or adult makes them feel unsafe. One idea is to turn this exercise into a hand tracing piece of artwork, hanging it on the fridge as a continuous reminder.

The safety network should include both male and female supporters. At least one person should be someone outside of the household. Grandparents, neighbors, police officers, pediatricians, guidance counselors, school social workers, teachers, or coaches might be included in the list.

Sometimes children want to include toys, siblings, friends, or even Santa Claus on their list. You can have them add these loved ones to the palm of the hand, but let them know it’s important to practice talking to the people on the fingers who can really help. Emphasize if they don’t get the right response from the first person on the list to speak with the second person.

5. Continue Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Abuse

Pursuing a lawsuit may heighten concerns you have about privacy, safety, and the ability to successfully pursue justice. There are a number of laws and court precedents governing confidentiality in California sexual assault cases.

The teenage years are admittedly a difficult time to approach the topic of sexual relationships, as most adolescents desire greater privacy. The very last thing they’ll want to share with you is their intimacy with other peers. Yet, it’s key to maintain an open dialogue with your child during these formative years. Simply asking your child about what happened at school each day is a natural way to keep the conversation flowing.

Daughter and mother having a serious conversation

There is no doubt your child will be curious about sex and will look to friends and the internet for answers. But you can invite your teen to come to you with any questions or concerns, as you are always there for support, no matter how awkward it may seem at first.

Discuss topics like harassment and sexual advances at parties. Offer some common ground rules for your teen’s protection, such as avoiding drugs and alcohol, attending events with groups of friends who look out for one another, keeping their phone charged and on in case they need to call for help, not accepting rides from strangers, and how to make a loud public scene if someone is making them feel unsafe.

You might also invite your child to watch 13 Reasons Why and mention you’d like to talk about some of the real-world issues (including sexual assault) brought up in the show. Books like Sex: A Book for Teens by Nikol Hasler and S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties by Heather Corinna can point your child in the right direction to think about some of the heavier subject matter beyond the hormones.

The CDC also provides a helpful guide for talking about sex with your teenagers. According to their research, teens say their parents have the greatest influence over their decisions regarding sex—more so than friends, siblings, or the media. Furthermore, they found teens who talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay sexual activity and use protection when they do have sex.

6. Know the Signs of Sexual Abuse

One in three children who are sexually abused do not tell anyone about it at the time, so you may need to rely upon observed signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse to protect your family from harm.

Child sexual abuse can take many different forms. Sex offenders may hug, tickle, kiss, rub, or touch children inappropriately. It could occur clothed or unclothed, or with an object. Offenders may encourage the child to touch them, or remove clothing and touch themselves in front of the child. Perpetrators may share pornography or take suggestive photographs of the child to share with others. The abuse may be presented as a “game” or “secret.”

Watch for changes in mood and behavior in your young child such as:

  • suddenly avoiding certain people, including family members or friends, or places
  • aggression toward siblings or pets
  • treating the body as shameful, dirty, or disgusting
  • talking incessantly about a new “older” friend all of a sudden
  • mimicking adult-like behavior with dolls or stuffed animals

Teenagers may:

  • attempt suicide
  • start using drugs or alcohol
  • cease personal hygiene upkeep
  • suffer a fear of intimacy or closeness
  • compulsively eat or diet

While physical symptoms are rare, you may find your child suffering from:

  • anal or vaginal soreness
  • unexplained bleeding
  • unusual discharge
  • a sexually transmitted infection
  • chronic stomach pains

Keep in mind any one warning sign may not indicate anything abnormal, but when multiple symptoms exist, your child’s situation may require a closer look. Children react to sexual abuse in different ways, depending on age, maturity level, personality, and awareness. Some kids are deeply traumatized by the experience, become fearful, and withdraw, while others may act out sexually and even abuse others, not realizing that the contact was inappropriate. Teenage sex abuse often manifests as attention-seeking behaviors or escapism through drugs and alcohol.

7. Believe Your Child

Following shock, denial is the most natural feeling to arise after your child discloses sexual abuse. However, a study by Australia’s Child Protection Council found 98% of child statements in reported child sexual abuse cases to be true. Your reaction to the disclosure of sexual abuse is crucial to your child’s ongoing wellbeing.

Following denial, the grief cycle progresses to anger, depression or aggression, bargaining (problem-solving), and, with appropriate care, acceptance (healing). Though you’re dealing with your own emotions and gut reactions, do your best to remain calm. Recognize what a true act of courage it was for your child to come forward, despite whatever threats or emotional games the perpetrator likely used. What your child needs from you is compassionate reassurance.

Daughter giving her mother a tight hug

Reassure your child by letting them know:

  • “I believe you.”
  • “You did the right thing by telling me.”
  • “What happened was not your fault.”
  • “I love you, no matter what.”
  • “I will keep you safe and take care of you.”
  • “I will do everything I can to stop the abuse from happening again.”

Avoid leading questions and putting words in your child’s mouth, and be patient. Disclosure of sexual abuse is a gradual process, not an isolated event. Approximately 72% of children will initially deny sexual abuse, according to Captain Barbara Craig, a medical consultant for child abuse and neglect at the National Naval Medical Center. Only seven percent of children will move from denial to full disclosure. Most kids minimize, dissociate, or distance themselves from what happened.

Take the next step by reporting suspicion of child abuse to the local Child Protection Agency or to the local police. The agency receiving the report will conduct an evaluation and take action to protect the child. You should also speak with your pediatrician about evaluating the child’s condition and gathering evidence. Evaluation from a mental health professional is recommended to find out how sexual abuse has affected a child and to determine whether ongoing treatment is necessary to prevent future adversity. You and your significant other may also need counseling to cope with feelings of guilt, powerlessness, anxiety, and depression.

8.  Speak With a Child Sex Abuse Attorney

The aftermath of child sexual abuse may take you through the full gamut of emotions—but you don’t have to go through it alone. An experienced legal representative can act as your advocate, providing counsel and empowering control over the course of the proceedings. A sex abuse attorney can help you figure out the next steps.

At Lewis & Llewellyn, we:

Work with groups like CALICO to help children process their experiences, and forward families to local counselors and support groups.

Collaborate with local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office to conduct in-depth investigations into what happened, identifying all liable parties.

Aid parents in filing civil lawsuits, when appropriate, to provide compensation for medical expenses and lost income, as well as emotional pain and suffering.

Reaching out to an attorney specializing in child sexual abuse will cost you nothing. At Lewis & Llewellyn, we work on a contingency basis, meaning you pay nothing upfront and only a small legal fee out of a negotiated settlement or jury award won on your behalf.

Whether you’re advocating for your child or are an adult seeking closure for abuse suffered years ago, Lewis & Llewellyn has the experience, grit, and compassion to help you obtain justice and maximum compensation. Contact our team online for support and guidance to see you through this emotional time, or call (415) 800-0590 to schedule an appointment with an advocate today.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this blog is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this blog or on this website should be construed as legal advice from Lewis & Llewellyn LLP. Neither your receipt of information from this website, nor your use of this website to contact Lewis & Llewellyn LLP creates an attorney-client relationship between you and the firm or any of its lawyers. No reader of this website should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this website without seeking the appropriate legal advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s jurisdiction.