Parent and educator guide to using the Penn State tragedy and Sandusky trial to talk about sexual abuse to kids and teens; rucial safety tips to prevent abuse and signs of sexual abuse
Once again, the Penn State child sexual abuse case is in the news and has adults on full alert. “How could this have happened to those boys?” “Why didn’t anyone spot those signs sooner?”
I’ve dealt with too many heart-broken parents who couldn’t believe that sexual abuse would happen to their children-but it did.
Never assume that “sexual abuse can’t happen to my child or in my family.” Child sex abuse is far from rare and happens to families in every demographic and zip code.
Facts also show that the most dangerous place for our children is in our own homes where the vast majority of sexual abuse occurs.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that sixty-seven percent of all sexual assault victims are children.
One in four girls and one in six boys will experiences some sort of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen.
Ninety percent of children are victimized by someone the family knows and trusts. Forty percent of offenders who victimized children under age six were juveniles. [Data varies]
Not to talk about sexual abuse with children is a mistake. Kids need to know “just in case scenarios,” they need to understand what sexual abuse is and how to protect themselves, and the Penn State tragedy can be your conversation opener. Though you may fear it will be frightening, studies find most kids embrace information. The secret is bringing up the topic of sexual abuse to kids in a relaxed way just as you discuss earthquakes, pool safety and using cross walks.
Your ultimate parenting goal is to stress two crucial points to your child:
1. “Tell a trusted adult immediately whenever you feel confused, uncomfortable or unsafe.”
2. “I will believe and protect you no matter who the person is or what the person told you would happen if you “broke” a promise. I love you no matter what.”
TIP: Reports show that kids do not tell about abuse unless they are asked in a way that makes them feel safe enough to tell. You are laying the groundwork to not only prevent abuse but also get the crucial help a child might need.
How to Use Penn State Trial As “Talk Opener” With Kids
You might cut out a news article to refer to during the talk. If you feel you’ll be too embarrassed, write out points you want to address. Chances are your child has already heard about the trial from friends so first clarify what he or she knows.
“Did you hear about the trial and the sad news that happened to the boys?” “What have you heard?” “What are your friends saying?”
Then give only the story parts that the child needs to know at this time.
Don’t avoid questions, but also don’t make the mistake of telling too much too soon.
Listen, chat, and then give a simple direct answer to what was asked.
Here are conversation points, but add them only as needed.
“Yes, a man touched a boy’s body without his permission.” “Yes, there was more than one boy.” “Yes it was very sad.” “Once the mother found out she was able to protect her son.” “You’re right, sometimes adults do bad things to kids. But one boy was strong and told someone. That’s what kids need to do. Find an adult to help them.”
Teaching Kids & Teens Ways to Prevent Abuse
These next points are not designed for one discussion about sexual abuse, but additions to numerous shorter chats-which children are far more receptive to-depending upon their age and necessity.
TIP: Best skills are taught before a trauma so the teaching can “kick in” at the moment of need. Children need lots of rehearsal and practice before they can use any new skill in context.
Define “Private Parts”
The trick is to help your child or teen understand what is appropriate, normal and healthy kind of touches and that touching must be respectful and consensual. Here are pieces of that crucial discussion per age. Use terms your child understands.
The bathing suit analogy helps: “Parts of your body that your bathing suit covers are private and may not be touched without your permission. The exception is if a parent or doctor needs to ensure your health.”
TIP: Use correct anatomical terms such as “penis, vagina and breasts.” An adult may miss a sign of abuse if a child uses another term for genitals (“He touched my peanut.”) Teens say that if parents use “real” terms, they’re more comfortable discussing sexuality.
Teach “OK” and “Not OK” Touching
For teens emphasize that sexual touching must be “respectful” and “consensual.” You can also discuss terms such as “sexual harassment,” “violation” and rape.
For younger kids describe “Good, Bad, Helping, and Sexual Abuse Touching” depends on age.
- Good Touches make you feel happy, comfortable, safe and loved like hugs, cuddles, handshakes, and high fives and are from people you care about or love.
- Bad Touches hurt you like when you fall down or get kicked, punched, or tripped
- Helpful Touches a doctor, nurse or parent may do if you are injured or to ensure health.
- Sexual Abuse Touches are forced touches when someone makes you do something you don’t want to do or tricked touches when someone fools you or calls touching a “game” when it isn’t so they can touch your private body parts or get you to touch theirs.
TIP: Know that sexual abuse touches can feel good and sometimes confuse a child, but terms help them grasp differences.
TIP: Levin and Kline emphasize teaching kids “Trickery Touches.” Children also need to be taught that someone trying to abuse them may use force, but more often they will use trickery. “I’ll let you have one of my kittens (or pet my cat), if you will sit on my lap and watch this video.”
Give Permission to Say “NO” Then Practice
Studies show that kids under the age nine rarely say “No” to a sexual offender because they were taught “to obey adults.” So give permission for your child to yell “NO!” to whoever the adult.
Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline, authors of Trauma-Proofing Your Kids, point out:
“In order for children to develop the capacity to stop someone from improper, hurtful, uncomfortable or confusing touch, they must have practice and experience with the right of refusal in other areas of their life. In this way it becomes a natural part of their self-confidence and is imprinted in their developing brain.”
- Younger: “If someone tries to touch you in places your bathing suit covers or makes you feel at all afraid or uncomfortable, say “NO!” “I will not be angry-whoever the adult is. You will not be in trouble.”
- Teens: “You should expect to be respected and if ever you say “No” to someone’s sexual advance, the person should respect your wishes. If not, get help. (Define rape and abuse).
TIP: 90 percent of sexual offenders are people the child or your family knows-including the parents’ friends, a baby-sitter, an older sibling or relative-so avoid describing abusers as “strangers” which can be confusing.
TIP: “The average age of most sexual offenders is fourteen, and these fourteen-year olds comprise the largest number of sex offenders in any age group.” Criminal Justice Source Statistics and Child Psychiatry Journal
TIP: Online predators usually are strangers, but slowly befriend (“groom”) the child, and then try to set up a face-to-face meeting. Review: “Never meet someone online offline.” And: “Who you meet online is rarely the same person offline.”
Use The “No Secrets” Rule
Sexual offenders often try to make kids promise to keep the abuse a secret.
Stress: “If any adult asks you to keep an uncomfortable secret, tell me.” You might say: “The boys at Penn State might have been told to keep what was happening a secret. It’s okay to not keep a secret even if you promised an adult. If the secret makes you feel bad inside, then it’s a wrong kind of secret and you should tell a trusting adult.”
TIP: Sexual predators often groom a child by promising gifts, treats and outings. Emphasize: “Adults should not give children gifts, ask for favors or promise special outings without telling the child’s parent. Tell me if that ever happens.” Also children need to be warned that they may be told-or threatened-not to tell.
TIP: No More Secrets by Caren Adams and Jennifer Fay teach children to refuse and report a request if it: “Feels funny; Seems like it would separate him/her from other children; Goes against family rules; Involves a secret; or Seems like an unearned “special favor.”
“Tell A Trusted Adult Immediately”
Stress to your child: “If anyone ever tries to touch your private areas, wants to look at your private parts, or tries to show you their own private parts tell me or a trusted adult.”
Also stress: “If ever you don’t feel safe with someone or your gut feeling tells you that something is not right, get help!”
Discuss how the Penn State victim reported the abuse: “I bet it took courage for him to report what was happening. People are calling him a hero because other children are safer.” “What would you do if you heard a kid talk about something that happened to them?” “It must have been hard for him to report his coach. Do you think most kids could tell an adult?”
TIP: Brainstorm with your child which adults he could turn to for help. “Which adult would you tell?” “What if that person didn’t help?” For older kids discuss the Penn State trial: “You’re right, the adults should have protected the boys, but they didn’t. Most adults do help. So what would you do if the first or second person you went to didn’t help you?”
TIP: Mention that there are child abuse help lines with staff specifically trained to help kids. “Let’s find the hotline for our area. If you or a friend ever need it you’ll know who to call.” 1-888-PREVENT or 1-800-656-HOPE
TIP: Stress that you are always available to talk about anything, and love him no matter what!
Signs of Child Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse can be a single incident or many acts over a long period of time. There usually are subtle signs along the way that can be overlooked. Look for a change in your child’s normal behavior that last or becomes more intense. Of course, there could be another explanation, but any of these signs should be addressed. If you have any suspicions or a feeling something is wrong, seek help of a mental health professional.
Physical Signs: Bloody, torn, or stained underclothes; pain, bleeding, burning, or itching in genital area; difficulty walking or sitting; frequent urinary or yeast infections; STD or pregnancy
Psychosomatic Signs: Stomachaches, headaches or marked mood swings; nightmares or trouble sleeping; sudden changes in appetite
Sexual Behavior Signs: Uses adult-like sexual knowledge, language or behavior; writes, draws or plays out sexual-type images; frequent use of masturbation
Emotional Signs: Resorts to aggressive behaviors: thumb-sucking, bed-wetting; sudden clinginess; depressed
Behavioral Signs: Shrinks away or seems threatened by physical contact; excessive bathing, poor hygiene; or talks about self as dirty or bad; trouble focusing; seems distracted or distant at odd times; overly protective and concerned for siblings, assumes a caretaker role; talks about a new, older friend; jumpy if the phone rings, a text or email comes in; suddenly has unaccountable money, gifts, toys or mail; runs to mailbox
TIP: If there was something your child said or did that made you concerned, ask. Do know that a child may not admit or deny the abuse usually due to fear, humiliation, guilt or shame, but studies show that if asked, kids generally will tell a trusted adult of their abuse.
Marilyn Van Derbur, author of Miss America By Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love, herself a victim, quotes research that found that those children who were abused-but told a parent before age eighteen-encountered the following negative parental reactions (and some experienced multiple responses):
- Anger with them (the child): 42%
- Blamed them: 49%
- Ignored the disclosure: 50%
- Became hysterical: 30%
Children rarely make up stories about sexual abuse. Rarely!
BELIEVE your child.
Get the help of a trained mental health professional who specializes in childhood sexual trauma.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting and bullying expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing and The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.