The vast majority of parents are programmed to protect their kids from danger and hurt at all costs. And one of the most terrifying dangers, for many, is sexual abuse.
But sitting down a toddler and trying to explain what sex, let alone sexual abuse, is probably isn’t going to do anything except confuse and scare them.
So, how do you talk about it in an age-appropriate way? And when do you start?
You can start teaching your kids about their bodies and safe behaviour before they’re at kindy or preschool, says Holly-ann Martin, founder and director of Safe4Kids, a company specialising in child abuse prevention education.
“I believe we need to teach protective education from three years of age,” she says.
The key, explains Justine Kiely-Scott, co-founder of Sex Education Australia, is using a “really clear, simple message for children that won’t be scary to them”.
Start with using correct words for all body parts
While you’re teaching your kids their heads, shoulders, knees and toes, add in their vagina, penis and bottom, says Elizabeth Seeley-Wait, clinical psychologist at The Children’s Psychology Clinic. Ms Kiely-Scott agrees.
“We know that children who are confident to use the proper names for their private parts and know the names for their private parts are much more likely to tell if something happens,” Ms Kiely-Scott says.
“It also shows a potential sexual predator that this child talks about bodies at home, knows the proper names and therefore has been talking to an adult about those things.
“If you use your own names for body parts, that’s OK, but interchange them with the proper word where you can, just to make sure there’s clarity.”
Ask your child for consent around their body
Dr Seeley-Wait says it’s important kids feel in control of what happens to their bodies, so it’s a good idea to get in the habit of asking toddlers before you touch their private parts so they know they can tell an adult “no”.
“We [parents and carers] can’t even touch those parts unless helping with cleaning,” Dr Seeley-Wait says.
She says to tell your child that only approved adults can help them with cleaning, such as their teacher at childcare. Or a doctor may need to see their private parts during a check up, with their parents in the room.Start early to teach kids consentDon’t wait till the ‘sex talk’ to start teaching consent skills.Read more
The idea is for kids to learn what is normal, helpful behaviour so they know when something that happens is wrong.
Kids also need to learn that they can’t touch other people’s private parts either, so they know what is and what isn’t acceptable when playing.
Don’t force hugs and kisses
Ms Kiely-Scott says as well as teaching kids to have autonomy of their private parts, we shouldn’t force them to act in ways they’re not comfortable by making them give someone a hug or kiss.
“Your body is your own” is the message Ms Kiely-Scott says kids need to learn.
Support for young people and families
- Headspace: Centres in each state and territory or check out eheadspace for online support.
- The Kids Helpline: 24-hour support on 1800 55 1800.
- Relationships Australia: Support for individuals, families and communities on 1300 364 277.
- Lifeline: 24-hour support for all Australians on 13 11 14.
But this doesn’t mean kids can be rude or ignore someone just because they don’t want to give them a hug. They can acknowledge the person in a polite way that doesn’t involve unwanted touch.
“If you don’t feel comfortable giving someone a hug or a kiss, that’s OK, you can still say hi politely or give them a high five,” Ms Kiely-Scott says.
“We’ve got to let them trust their gut instincts.”
Teach kids to understand and trust their feelings
Teaching kids to trust their instincts also involves helping them know what they are feeling.The hardest part of having kidsFrom feeling judged to public yelling matches, seven straight-shooting parents share the hardest part about parenting.Read more
One way to do this is to have a conversation about how they felt when they got a bit of a shock — like when a door slammed or a balloon popped.
Ask them how they felt when the noise made them jump and explain that if they get that feeling because someone has done or said something to them, they need to come and tell you, or a trusted adult, right away.
“Sometimes things don’t feel right and if they don’t feel right they probably aren’t,” Ms Kiely-Scott says.
Help your child identify five trusted adults
Ms Martin and Ms Kiely-Scott suggest every child have a list of five trusted adults they can turn to for help.
These adults can be parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents as well as teachers, sports coaches and club leaders — anyone the child has regular contact with who could help them if they need it.Teaching kids to loseYou can’t protect your kids from losing a game at some point in their lives. Here’s how to support them when they do.Read more
You can ask your child something like “who can you ask for help if you fall over and hurt yourself” to help them know who they could turn to.
The majority of abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and trusts, so having a range of adults — both related and not — can be very beneficial.
Dr Seeley-Wait says parents know their children best so the tone of this conversation is up to you.
“If your child is one who takes things very seriously, you will still convey it is important but you will be more light-hearted [in tone],” Dr Seeley-Wait says, so as to not scare the child.
“If your child is someone who does not tend to take things too seriously or looks like they don’t take in what you say normally, I would turn up the seriousness in the chat and have eye contact and let them know ‘this is important, like when I tell you to hold my hand when we cross the street’.
“[You] hopefully make it so the child knows you are serious but you also aren’t worried.”
Don’t shut down awkward conversations
Talking about bodies, feelings and inappropriate actions be a bit embarrassing, and if your own family never talked about this stuff when you were growing up, it can be hard to know how to start.
“We’ve got to step up as parents and have a conversation, even if it’s foreign to us and goes against what we grew up with,” Ms Kiely-Scott says.
With very young kids, try not to shut them down if they ask something a bit embarrassing in public — either answer them quietly, or tell them you’ll answer them later in the car or at home.
But make sure you do get back to them so they know they can come and talk to you about this stuff.
“If parents don’t get back to them it’s a really clear message to a child that it’s not OK to talk to them,” Ms Kiely-Scott says.Coping with traumatic newsRolling media coverage of an tragic media stories can be difficult for children to understand. But there are ways you can help them cope.Read more
Dr Seeley-Wait says you should also have little conversations every now and then to check in with your children, and give them an opportunity to tell you anything that is worrying them.
“And other kids might need you to scan their faces a bit to see if you can help them speak. This, again, is about gauging your child and how she or he can be most comfortable to open up.”Want to read more about families?There’s plenty more about the challenges and choices confronting families of all shapes and sizes in ABC Life’s dedicated Family section.Read more
Dr Seeley-Wait says if you notice changes in your child’s behaviour, whether it’s their sleeping habits, eating, toileting or anything, you should try to find out if something is bothering them.
“These changes may not mean they have been abused,” she says.
“These changes could reflect other issues or problems, so it is important for parents to check in by asking specific questions and seeing their child’s reactions.”
If you are worried and you can’t find a way to get your child to open up to you, you can find therapists and psychologists who specialise with children for help.