How to teach your child about sexual abuse

Parenting is challenging, but never more so than when you’re trying to keep your little one safe. Our experts help you navigate your way through the minefield of sexual abuse. By Lynne Gidish

In South Africa, one in three children have experienced some form of sexual abuse, and 80% of the perpetrators are people the child knows,” explains clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou. “While these shocking statistics would make any parent want to lock up their little ones for their own protection, the best way to safeguard them is to arm them with knowledge. Many parents are reluctant to talk to their children about their sexuality, because they have no idea about what to say or they want to keep their child innocent for as long as possible. Talking to children about sexuality is actually an integral part of their whole self – physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual – and should start as early as the age of one.”

Marita Rademeyer, a clinical psychologist and chairman of Jelly Beanz, a non-profit organisation that offers hope to children affected by trauma and abuse agrees. “Remember, the responsibility of preventing abuse always belongs to an adult, so it’s important to talk to your young child even though you may find this difficult. Telling your child, ‘No one is allowed to touch your privates,’ doesn’t offer any form of protection. Children need to know how their bodies work and what sex is about, and they also have to understand what ‘wrong touching is about.

ALSO SEE: How to talk to your daughter about her body

“We fear contact sexual abuse the most (touching of genitals), yet non-contact abuse (being shown pornography or being exploited for child abuse images) may be just as devastating. Children are extremely vulnerable to this, so they need to know pornography is harmful to them and what to do when they come across this. Most importantly, they need to know what they can do if they are being sexually abused. It’s far better for children to hear about sex from their parents, so they can get the right information and can ask questions in a safe place. The best thing you can do to protect your child from abuse (or to stop it if it’s already happening) is by having open and honest conversations from a young age.”

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What your child understands about sex

Approachable parents are the best protective factors, which is linked to less chances of being sexually abused, says Joanna. “That’s why your number one priority should be to instil in your child that she can talk to you about anything – no matter what it is.”

Here’s what your child should be able to understand about sexuality:

From infancy to two years:

  • Your toddler should be able to name all the body parts, including using the right words for their genitals. Using made-up names is confusing and conveys the idea that those parts are shameful. Not knowing the proper words also makes it difficult for a child to get help.

Two to five years old:

  • Your child should understand the basics of reproduction: a woman and a man make a baby together, and the baby grows in the woman’s uterus.
  • By this stage, children should understand that their bodies are their own. Teach them about privacy around body issues and allow them to tell you if any type of touching makes them feel uncomfortable. Tell your child that private parts are called “private” because they’re not for everyone to see or touch and that because they are special they need to be kept private in order to keep themselves safe.

How to talk about sexual abuse

Joanna offers the following pointers about how to approach the topic of sexual abuse with your little one. Remember:

  • An anxious parent makes for an anxious child. Remain calm and stay matter-of-fact throughout your conversations.
  • Focus on the safety rules for strangers and people they know. Not all strangers are dangerous, and not all people they know are safe. So place your focus on the rules of safety rather than frightening your child and remind your child to check with you before engaging with strangers.
  • Always be aware what’s happening with your child by being an involved parent and becoming attuned to your child’s verbal and non-verbal cues.

When it comes to what to say she suggests you explain:

  • Mommy and Daddy can see him/her naked, but people outside of the home should only see him/her with clothes on.
  • Sometimes children need help, like when taking a bath or going to the doctor and that Mommy or Daddy will be with them all the time.
  • “Cleaning and checking” are quick, and that kind of touching is never kept a secret.
  • No one should touch their private parts and no one should ask them to touch somebody else’s private parts.
  • Body secrets are not OK and your child should always tell you if someone makes them feel uncomfortable.

Teach body rules

In their book Our Bodies, Helping Parents, Caregivers and Teachers Talk to Young Children About Sexuality, Marita, together with social worker Edith Kriel, cover “right” and “wrong” touching, and explain that part of taking care of your body is knowing about Body Rules. Here are their guidelines about what to say to your little one:

  • Some Body Rules are about keeping your body clean, others are about touching your body and other people’s bodies or about seeing naked people.
  • Most people keep Body Rules, but some people break them. This includes some adults, teenagers and other children.
  • There are all kinds of touches. There are handshakes and hugs, pats and back rubs, tickles, pinches and punches, kicks and smacks. Some kinds of touches make you feel happy and others make you feel sad or cross.
  • You are allowed to touch other people’s hands, face, feet or backs if they say it’s OK. This is called a right touch. You are not allowed to touch other people’s penises, vaginas or bums. This is called a wrong touch.
  • A boy is allowed to touch his own penis and his own bum; a girl is allowed to touch her own vagina and her own bum in their own rooms or the bathroom, but not in front of other people.
  • If you are a boy, no one should touch your penis or your bum. If you are a girl no one should touch your vagina, your bum or your breasts (when you’re old enough for your breasts to grow).
  • Sometimes, people break Body Rules and then make children feel ashamed. They say: “This is all your fault!” Children who have been tricked are not bad – the person who tricks them is.
  • People who break Body Rules want children to keep it secret. This can make children feel all mixed up.
  • Children are allowed to talk to people who care about them about Body Rules and touching. It may be difficult for children to speak about this, but when they talk, they are very brave.

Warning signs

Joanna advises that parents always trust their gut. If they notice something isn’t right, or if someone is making them or their child uncomfortable, they should talk abour it and watch for a cluster of these behaviours:

  • Regression to previous behaviours such as dummy or thumb sucking, bedwetting, soiling, or wanting nappies that they have outgrown.
  • Nightmares, or fear of being alone at night.
  • Excessive worry.
  • Sexual/suggestive behaviours or knowledge of words that are inappropriate for the child’s age.
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