Preventing Child Sexual Abuse -Part 1: Talking to My Kids About Sexual Abuse
By Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate
I left my lofty corporate job to begin a career in Social Work. I took a position with the state in Child Protective Services and was learning on the job. What a way to start a career in Social Work. I am pretty certain that not having children of my own quelled the pain of some of the most horrific allegations of abuse and neglect I encountered. I was able to push through the most difficult days of investigating child abuse with the support of my husband and the grace of God. As the years went on, I honed my investigative skills and I specialized in child sexual abuse cases.
The cases were gut wrenching. I removed children who were at immediate risk if a safety plan was not viable. I placed children in foster care in the middle of the night. Kids were ripped from their homes and placed with strangers in the middle of the night! Can you imagine the fear that these children were experiencing? While we did our best to keep siblings together, it didn’t always work out that way. I bought children to the ER to assess the extent of their injuries caused by the hands of those who were supposed to be their protectors. I had to go to trials for termination of parental rights because when the alleged perpetrator was asked to choose the drugs or her baby, she gave up the baby. It was absolutely heart breaking.
Eventually, I started my own family and chose to start helping victims and their families therapeutically. As I studied and studied. I realized that we never had these open conversations about sexuality growing up, and that I learned everything during school recess. When sarcastically asked, “where do you think babies come from, Silvia?” I answered with the utmost confidence, “The angel Gabriel…” I was 10.
I didn’t have too many school friends for a while. We were different. We were the only Coptic family in my town. We didn’t do sleepovers. We didn’t do parties. My family was strict. We fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, so my fava bean in pita never really got the love it deserved at the lunch table. Now falafel is all the rage, just 30 years late.
I was pretty smart on top of it. So this late-blooming nerd was valedictorian of her 8th grade class with maybe one friend. And that was fine. Somehow my parents instilled in me to love being different. To own my individuality. To just love. It was no surprise to my mom that I would later pursue a healing profession. Not quite sure if it was from the residual trauma due to those schoolyard interactions or because it was what I was meant to do. I never looked back. But my family just never had “the conversation.” It was “3eb” [shameful] and they didn’t know how. So guess what? We have these conversations in my home.
Oh incidentally, my kids don’t do sleepovers. Thank you, Mom. Parents, it’s not our job to make sure that our children have fun and don’t miss out; our job is to make sure that our children are safe. We should not be naïve to the realities of what can occur at sleepovers, and I don’t feel that they are edifying to friendships. Although there are other good reasons not to have sleepovers, the worst is the obvious threat to sexual vulnerability from different members of different households. With technology today the threats are even more profuse. So sleepovers have always been a hard no for me.
Child sexual abuse is a problem that breeds in secrecy, so simply speaking openly and publicly about it will enhance efforts at prevention. It is critically important to educate our children. They need to know that their bodies belong to them and that they don’t have to go along with everything an adult tells them to do.
Experts say that today there is plenty of available language to use with children to help keep them safe from sexual abuse. Yet, it’s a topic that makes most parents uncomfortable, and therefore less inclined to broach it with their child. That avoidance can make a child more vulnerable to a sexual predator.
We have to have the conversation with our children early because child sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate with age, race, or socioeconomic background. Most of the time we can’t tell who will be a sex offender, so all we can do is to try to give our children the tools to be safer.
Children are more likely to be scared of the unknown. The key is to keep the conversation developmentally appropriate. Talking about these issues makes children more comfortable coming to a parent if they do have a problem.
Start as soon as your child is developmentally ready to listen. The average age of abuse is 8 to 9, so speak with your children before they reach that vulnerable age. Frame the discussion around safety rather than abuse, much as you would talk to them about crossing the street and not touching a hot stove. And take advantage of teachable moments, like if your child has overheard a related story in the news.
About 5 years ago, my son was 9 years old and walked into the kitchen while I was getting dinner ready. He said, “Can I ask you a question, Mommy?” I said sure, you can ask me anything. I had a feeling that this wasn’t going to be a Pokémon purchase type of question.
“What does the word “rape” mean?”
After gulping once or twice I gave him an answer. “You know how when we talk about respecting the words “no” and “stop”? Even if you are playing and laughing, but once you say “no more, stop”, your dad and I always say ok, and we immediately stop playing. We respect your boundaries and when you say stop, we stop. Rape is when someone doesn’t respect another person’s personal boundaries and private parts and didn’t listen when they said no or stop. It is forced and it is a crime.”
He paused and then asked, “with clothes or without?” Just when I thought I was off the hook and kind of proud of the swift answer I gave him, he was clearly ready for more truth. I said, “both.”
We had booked our first family cruise. That evening, I showed him the ship online and let him look at the pictures and watch a video about the Disney cruise we were taking. I left to make dinner and he watched the next video, which happened to be about, the 10 Worse Things That Can Happen On a Cruise. Rape was on that list. He came to me and I didn’t fail him. Had I dismissed his question, he would have eventually looked for an answer on his own. He has always asked me the tough questions because he feels safe and knows I will give him the right answer.
So here are a few ways parents can do the same:
Use basic language. The general rule is to tell your child that anything covered by a bathing suit is considered private. Use anatomically correct language. Using words such as ‘hooha’ for ‘vagina’ can delay disclosure. But if you’re really too uncomfortable to use the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ with your child, make sure that you both agree on what the term you do use means to avoid any confusion for them. The most important thing is that the conversation be had.
Educate Children about Sexual Issues. Too often, children get the majority of their sexual education from other children and from media sources such as television shows, songs, movies, and video games. Not only is this information often wrong, it may have very little to do with sexual values that parents want to convey. Explicit adult sexual activities are sometimes found during “family time” television shows, in commercials, and on cartoon/children’s channels, and can have an influence on children’s behaviors.
Controlling media exposure and providing appropriate alternatives is an important part of teaching children about sexual issues. Get to know the rating systems of games, movies, and television shows and make use of the parental controls available through many Internet, cable, and satellite providers. I use commomsensemedia.com for ratings and content of movies and shows. However, don’t assume that just by activating those controls you will be taking care of the situation. It’s very important for you to be aware of what your children are watching. When appropriate, you can use this time as a springboard to talk about sexual or relationship issues, and to help children develop the skills to make healthy decisions about their behavior and relationships.
Parents play a pivotal role in helping their children develop healthy attitudes and behaviors towards sexuality. Although talking with your children about sex may feel outside your comfort zone, there are many resources available to help you begin and continue the conversation about sexuality and prevention. Providing close supervision, and providing clear, positive messages about modesty, boundaries and privacy are crucial as children move through the stages of childhood. None of this easy to talk about when you are not sure how too. It can be very daunting on families that never had the conversations. But we are living in a time when we are the most connected in human history. Your kids can ask “Alexa” anything. Or worse, innocently Google a question and be exposed to pornography in an instant.
By stepping out of our comfort zones and talking openly with our children about relationships, intimacy, and sexuality, we foster their healthy growth and development. Have the conversation. This is where prevention begins.