Protecting Your Child From Sex Abuse
Although there is never a time and a place for sexual abuse we think that there is always a time and place for open discussion about sexual violence prevention with your children. Discussions of sex in Hollywood movies tend to happen once, and are stereotypically (and often humorously) delivered by an uncomfortable parent in the child’s bedroom (think American Pie at bottom of post). But what the research tells us is that these are not one-time discussions to have when your children are adolescents but rather these discussions should start early – and take place often – in the very contexts where parents and children find themselves every day.
Sexual violence prevention is not just teaching your children to stay away from strangers. Rather, these discussions should be broad; to include discussion of sexual abuse as well as discussion of healthy sexuality and consent. And these discussion should be delivered with some regularity in the environments where parents often find themselves. This may be in the car while bringing a child to soccer practice, in the neighborhood while out for a walk, or in the home while waiting for the school bus to arrive.
While these discussions can happen anywhere, they are typically better received when they are natural and organic and arise in response to a question or observation. For example, if a 5-year-old asks about a baby animal, it might be an opportunity for the parent to briefly broach the subject of human sexual relations. This won’t be the only discussion about sex, but it might be a good opportunity to have the first of many. Since the child’s natural curiosity is already piqued, he or she will be more likely to listen closely to the parent’s response.
Alternatively, a visit to the doctor for a yearly checkup may be an appropriate time to talk about touch and who is, and who is not, allowed to touch you and under what circumstances. Likewise, a relative’s attempt to tickle an unwilling child may later prompt a discussion about consent. These conversations don’t need to be long and are best delivered in matter of fact ways, in the same tone that the parent talks about a variety of important matters, whether the need to exercise caution when crossing the street or the importance of completing homework. And it goes without saying that these conversations should be made appropriate to a child’s developmental level.
The discussion of consent that a parent has with a young child, one in which you introduce the idea that a child has a right to say no to touch they do not like, will be very different from the conversation about consent with a child who is heading off to college.
In the last several months we have been bombarded in the news about cases of sexual abuse; with the Larry Nassar case and the #metoo movement. These can be hard topics to talk about with your children, even harder than sexuality in general. But these events also underscore the importance of having these discussions. Although rates of sexual abuse have been falling over the past couple of decades, the Nassar case and #metoo movement remind us that we are nowhere near the end of this problem.
Children need to know what kind of touch is appropriate, who can touch them, and what to do if they feel uncomfortable in a situation. Teenagers need to know that they do not have to engage in sexual behaviors that they do not want to and also need to know what to do if they find themselves in a situation that does not feel safe.
Open and regular conversations with parents about sexuality and abuse can help kids to be more comfortable with this topic area, and more likely to open up to their parents if they feel uncomfortable in a situation. The Nassar case serves as a reminder to parents and professionals that we must take children seriously when they report abuse.
Helping children to identify and later report abuse is only half of the equation. We must carry through on our end too as abuse flourishes in environments where victims are either not believed and, or, are unlikely to make a report.
For more information, see: Jeglic, E.J., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Protecting-Your-Child-Sexual-Abuse/dp/1510728686
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Elizabeth Jeglic Ph.D.
Professor of psychology at John Jay College
Sexual violence prevention researcher and a professor of psychology at John Jay College. She is the co-author of two books — Sexual Violence: Evidence Based Policy and Prevention, and Protecting your Child from Sexual Abuse. She has also published more than 90 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. Jeglic is also is co-director of the Sex Offender Research Lab at John Jay College. In 2015, she was awarded the Fay Honey Knopp Award from the New State Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers for her contributions to the prevention of sexual violence. She lives with her husband and three children in New Jersey.