How do you talk to your children about sexual abuse?
Allegations of sexual abuse in football have raised concerns about children”s safety. But how and what should parents say about sexual abuse without frightening their children?
“Parents shouldn”t leave it up to teachers,” says Jon Brown, head of the NSPCC”s sexual abuse policy.
The risks are real and parents should have “simple conversations” with their children from the age of five right through to adulthood, he says, adding that “children who have the words to speak are less likely to be abused”.
“Bath-time, walking home from school or in the car are all opportunities to have that first talk.
“Avoid scary words but say that their body belongs to them, and that they can say no if someone tries to touch them.”
Dr Nina Burrowes, a psychologist who specialises in child sexual abuse, says parents often cling to the “myth of stranger danger” and teach their children to be wary of people they don”t know.
But “what if the perpetrator is someone they do know?” she says.
The most common form of abuse comes from within the family and as the wave of ex-football players who have recently spoken about alleged abuse have claimed, it can come from someone who is well-known and trusted in the community.
She says parents should talk about sexual abuse in the same way they teach their children about bad behaviour.
The message “keep your pants private” may be something that sounds familiar to parents of primary school-age children. The NSPCC”s Talk Pants campaign uses the message:
“It doesn”t mention sex or abuse, it”s fairly fun,” the NSPCC”s Jon Brown says. “This makes a scary message easier to speak about.”
It is not compulsory for schools to teach lessons about sexual abuse and while many teachers say they are “aware of the importance” of arming children, many do not feel they have the right training.
The NSPCC recommends parents access the campaign online or use bed-time stories to tackle the issue.
Gemini, a primary school-age child in the book Whisper, is one character designed to help with this. Gemini finds a monster in the garden but “feels like the monster had to be hidden or people might be angry”.
Like Pants, it doesn”t mention abuse or sex, but by concealing a secret it touches on the feelings a child victim might have.
“I desperately wanted a resource parents can use without frightening children,” says Michelle Denny-Browne of One in Four, the abuse survivors” charity that published the book.
“Sometimes children just feel funny and this book speaks in their language,” she says.
Sex abuse in figures
How to talk to older children
The language of pants and monsters may not be relevant to children as they become more sexually aware and get freedoms online but experts say the conversations should not stop.
“Parents should keep talking about sex abuse right through to university-age,” Jon Brown says. “Issues like sexual consent and harassment are only recently being recognised as a problem by universities.”
Tom Squire, from the campaign Stop it Now!, says parents should talk about the dangers posed by smartphone and internet use.
“Another school pupil could be a potential abuser, especially if a child has been persuaded to share naked pictures or is sexting.”
Talk to teenage children about it by referencing a celebrity who has recently shared naked photos, he suggests.
Or, use an embarrassing story from your childhood as a cautionary tale.
“We”ve all done reckless things as children,” he says. “But explain that online behaviour can be shared and saved permanently.”
But he adds it is important not to “shame” a child”s behaviour if they do something wrong online.
“If they feel they”re likely to be punished or ashamed, they”re less likely to come and talk about it.”
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