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Breaking the silence: How to talk to young kids about sexual assault and consent

How to have an ongoing and age-appropriate conversation with younger children about their bodies and consent.
Image: Mother and daughter chatting
Children are taught to be polite and say “yes, please” and “thank you”; but they need to know they can and should say “no” when they don’t want to be affectionate.gradyreese / Getty Images

Talking about #MeToo and the events of this week with anyone can be emotionally grueling and deeply triggering (particularly if you have been a victim of sexual assault). But it can feel absolutely overwhelming, if not impossible, to do so with your young children.

But these conversations with our kids are crucial. In the case of Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, discussing the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with his daughters enabled them to open up to him about past “incidents” they’d kept secret. In an op-ed for the New York Times, ‘Top Chef’ host and author Padma Lakshmi, who was molested by a family member as a child and raped by her boyfriend when she was 16, stressed the importance of teaching her 8-year-old daughter that her body is hers, and that if anyone makes you uncomfortable “you get out there and tell somebody.”

How and when should we have such difficult talks with our kids and how can they help make a difference?

Talking answers kids’ questions and breaks the cycle of silence

“It is so important to talk to kids about the #MeToo movement,” says Rachel Brandoff, Ph.D., an art therapist in the Community & Trauma Counseling Program at the Jefferson College of Health Professions. “There are confusing positions and conflicting sides, and all of this is a breeding ground for emotional chaos and misunderstanding. Kids are likely to want to know what does ‘#MeToo’ refer to? What are these people attesting to? [Why] is it that their sharing of their experiences is called into question? [They] will want to know that if and when they share their experiences that they will be believed, that trusted adults will care and that they will not be blamed, shamed or treated badly for opening up about what may have happened to them.”

How you talk in your home about the #MeToo movement and current news events surrounding sexual misconduct allegations can lead a survivor in your own home to feel more safe about speaking up and getting help.

Jeni Ambrose, PhDc, a therapist specializing in treating sexual trauma and the founder of Global Change Project, a 501c3 organization addressing sexual violence issues that created notes that “upwards of 87 percent of survivors of sexual violence stay silent about their victimization. How you talk in your home about the #MeToo movement and current news events surrounding sexual misconduct allegations can lead a survivor in your own home to feel more safe about speaking up and getting help.”

Start the discussion as soon as your kids can talk

Lakshmi’s repeated discussions with her daughter about her body and its boundaries is an effective tactic that all parents should consider.

“As soon as your child is talking, it's okay to, during conversation, say something like, ‘your body is yours alone, and no one should touch your body,’ says Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health counselor. “Also let them know that if anyone tries to touch them to tell you. Daily, I am checking in with all of my kids about their day, and during conversations I ask them about being touched. It's also important to ask, ‘Is anyone asking you to touch them?’ Sometimes, sexual abuse starts with the abuser asking the child to do things to them, so preparing your child for this is important.”

Use anatomically correct words to describe ‘private parts’

“The first thing that is important is providing them with the names of their body parts,” adds Viciere. “Saying the words ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ is okay. We often feel awkward about using the actual language and make up names instead, but it's important for your child to be able to identify it in case anyone tries to do anything. Teaching them in advance will enable them to use the correct language to talk about what has happened, if something should happen.”

Teach them to say no — especially girls

Children are taught to be polite and say “yes, please” and “thank you”; but they need to know they can and should say “no” when they don’t want to be affectionate.

This is especially so with girls, points out Azizi Marshall, a licensed clinical professional counselor, drama therapist and founder/CEO of Center for Creative Arts Therapy, Artful Wellness & Psychology Arts.

“Many times our little girls are taught to say yes, to take care of and to nurture others, especially men. However, they are not [always] taught healthy boundaries, or when and/or how to say ‘no’,” Marshall says. “Stop forcing them to give hugs and kisses, and empower them to own their body through the choices they make with their body. They have every right to say ‘no’, and the sooner they are empowered to make those decisions, the sooner they will identify how to stop the cycle.”

‘No’ means ‘No’ at home, too

Respecting the power of no means enforcing it in your own home. too.

“At your house, make it a rule that ‘no means no’,” says Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “When you're roughhousing with your child and they stay ‘stop,’ stop immediately, even if it's clear they're having fun. If they say they still want to roughhouse and didn't really mean it about stopping, you have a wonderful opening to talk about mixed signals, [and say] ‘Well, it seemed like you were having fun, but you said to stop. So I needed to stop and check in about whether you really wanted to stop.’”

Kids have to know they can talk to you without being judged

You should also communicate early that if anyone touches or treats them in a way they find uncomfortable, based on the boundaries you’ve established with them, that they can come to you to talk about it, and that they will be heard without judgment, even if the person mistreating them is a family member.

“It is important to say, ‘even if this is a family member, we want you to tell,’ says Ambrose. “I cannot stress how important it is to say ‘we will not be mad at you’. Perpetrators tell children all sorts of manipulative things to keep [them] silent about abuse — they need to have clear, powerful messages letting them know their safety and wellbeing is your priority.”

Expose them to real, healthy relationships (‘This Is Us’ can help)

Even if your child is too young to be in a relationship, they need to know what a healthy one looks like. Nearly one in 10 women has been raped by an intimate partner in her lifetime.

“Explore and educate children on what it means to be in a healthy relationship, warning signs of an unhealthy relationships, and how to help yourself and/or a friend involved in a toxic relationship,” says Marshall. “Through these conversations, children learn about mutual respect, good communication, honesty, support, trust and being your own person within a relationship and equality.”

Being a single parent doesn’t disqualify you from doing this.

“If you're a single parent or have ben through a bad marriage, etc., it is still possible to support your child in learning about healthy relationships,” adds Marshall. “Single parents and those who have experienced divorce can use their own personal relationships to demonstrate what was healthy and what was not healthy. For example, I work with a single mother who experienced domestic violence in her previous relationship in which the children witnessed the emotional and physical abuse of their mother. We have worked together with her and her children on exploring some of the unhealthy behaviors their father displayed vs. the healthy behaviors, and how each made them and their mother feel. We also use TV shows that accurately depict healthy relationships - not just the ‘perfect’" relationships, but the ‘real’ relationships. ‘This Is Us’ and ‘Parenthood’ have wonderful examples of couples going through challenges together and how they navigate them in a healthy way through mutual respect and support.”

Dads: Step up and be vulnerable

Quentin Vennie, a public speaker, author, father of two young sons and an active member of non-profits such as Bent On Learning, Campaign for Black Male Achievement and Lineage Project has come to realize, through coping with his own history of sexual abuse and the oppressive silence he endured, that dads need to be open and honest with their children. This is something that can be challenging for dads when their kids “see them as superman” as Vennie notes his children do.

Vennie chose to disclose pieces of his story of sexual trauma to his children (aged nine and 12) and found that his sons have become more sensitive and respectful of others since.

“I think it opened their eyes to understanding other people on a human level,” Vennie says. “A lot of times we get caught up in how we feel and we neglect to look at people for people, and instead see them as objects. When I introduced my own vulnerability to my children, I felt the chances of them being victimizers was greatly reduced. They see the world with a compassion that isn’t just self-serving.”

It’s okay if you can’t have this conversation, but make sure a trusted adult does

If these conversations are too upsetting to you for whatever reason, hand it over to another trusted adult in your life.

“You don't want give your children the impression they need to help you with your problems as this can be overwhelming for a child,” says Dr. Laura F. Dabney, MD, a psychiatrist. “Don't be ashamed to admit your limitations. Perhaps you can talk about general safety with your children but can't get specific about avoiding sexual assault. That's okay. Elicit the help from a trusted family member to teach this part. It will be much easier for a child to listen if they aren't picking up clues that mom [or dad] is terribly upset.”

How to Talk to Your Kids About ...

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