Whether you have experienced sexual assault yourself or you suspect that someone you love has been a victim of sexual assault, talking about it is not easy. If there are children involved in the assault or the conversation about its consequences, this can be even more difficult. However, talking to your loved ones can help them to come to terms with anything that has happened to them previously and also help to prevent sexual abuse in the future.
How to Talk to Children About Sexual Assault
In recent years, there has been an increase in public historical abuse claims, and a greater awareness of child sexual abuse. For their own safety, it is important to make children aware of sexual assault so that they recognise it and know what they should do if it does happen.
Talk About Bodies Early
It is important for children to learn about body autonomy and inappropriate touching as early as possible. You can start talking to your child about their body when they are as young as 2 years old. For example, during bathtime, tell your child about their private parts and make sure they know that safe seeing or touching only involves keeping them clean and healthy.
Teach Them to Set Boundaries
Learning to respect their own body and the bodies of others around them involves your child learning about how to set healthy boundaries. You should model ways of saying “no” to any unwanted touch and respect your child’s wishes if they do not want to hug or kiss family members. Show them how to behave respectfully so they know how to treat others, too.
Warn Them About Bribes
“Stranger danger” seems outdated now we know that a high percentage of abusers are actually close to their victims. However, you should still teach your child to recognise an inappropriate gift or other such manipulative tricks that abusers often use to lure their victims and keep them quiet, including making them feel as if they will get into trouble if they tell.
Keep the Conversation Open
When you talk to children about such serious things, it is important not to enforce fear or shame. Speak in a calm tone and encourage questions from your child. You should let them know that they can always come and talk to you and that you will not punish them if they tell you anything. Always make time for them if they want to speak about something like this.
Don’t Make It Cute
When talking to children, adults are often tempted to use “cutesy” language rather than being straightforward. This is actually a bad idea, because it is important to give children the correct language to identify behaviours so that they can speak up if they see these things happening or experience them. Stick to the facts and use accurate terms for things instead.
How to Talk to Teenagers About Sexual Assault
If you have a child entering their teenage years, you should still speak to them about the prevalence of sexual assault and ensure that they know the difference between right and wrong behaviours. This is more important than ever with the digital developments of today.
Raise Awareness of Consent
It is important to make sure that your child knows what counts as consent and what does not, regardless of their gender. They need to learn to recognise pressure and manipulation and how to say no when they are not comfortable. You also need to teach them to respect others and not to engage in those non-consensual or manipulative behaviours themselves.
Teach Them About Technology
These days children are learning how to use smart technology and computers before they can walk, but new technologies also have a significant impact on the teens of today. Don’t invade their privacy by monitoring or restricting their usage, but make sure that they know what to do if abuse or harassment is enhanced through social media or digital messaging.
Use Relatable Examples
Teenagers are more likely to engage with and respond to your discussions if you give them an example that they understand. Tell them a story about something that happened to you or a friend of yours when you were their age, or use examples from the media such as news stories about celebrities or high-profile cases, or even a character from a film or TV show.
Protect Them From Pornography
Exposure to violent and degrading pornography happens earlier and earlier due to the ease of digital access. This has led to a growing culture of pressure to send explicit photographs or “nudes”, even among younger teens. Make sure that they aware of issues like “revenge porn” and the local laws regarding the possession and distribution of child pornography.
Support, Not Shame
Again, you should endeavour to make your child feel supported and not embarrassed or upset. Do not punish them, encourage empathy through discussions about behaviours and how to respond to them. The more understanding you are, the more understanding they will be. They need to know that you trust them to do what’s right and can give them advice.
How to Talk About Suspected Sexual Assault
Looking into sexual abuse claims is a serious process that should not be undertaken lightly. If you suspect that a loved one has experienced sexual assault, especially if they are a child or teenager, then it is your responsibility to talk to them about this and help them to report it.
Be Calm and Caring
If someone asks to speak to you about something that is troubling them, or if you want to encourage them to talk to you, make yourself available. Find a quiet, private place to have the conversation and speak with them directly in a calm and casual tone. Speaking up can be particularly scary for younger victims, so just be patient and give them time to explain.
Once they are opening up to you, allow them to talk freely without commenting on what they say or making judgements about what happened. They need you to believe them about this and reassure them that it was not their fault, and that they are doing the right thing by telling you. Do not blame the victim and try not to get angry on their behalf in case it upsets them.
When you know what has happened, you can research your options with the victim. It can be less overwhelming for them if you help them to understand who else they can talk to, what they can do, and that they will be believed. Ensure that they know the various definitions of sexual assault in case they are unsure that what they experienced counts as sexual assault.
You should encourage the victim to get medical attention, regardless of the level of physical injury. You should also take the responsible position of reporting the sexual assault to the relevant authority so that legal action can be taken against the perpetrator and the victims are protected from further harm. The NSPCC can advise on reporting child sexual abuse.
Sexual assault and abuse has far-reaching consequences, and is not the kind of issue that can be resolved with a single conversation. You have a responsibility to respect the victim’s wishes about which actions to take and to help them to proceed with those steps if they need moral support or any other kind of support. Ensure that they receive appropriate treatment.