How to Talk With Kids About Sexual Abuse, and How to Help Prevent It

Show your kids they can trust you, talk about secrets and start early

A school aide and coach in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. is accused of sexually abusing at least 10 children, and police are asking parents to talk with their children about any contact they may have had with him.

How do you talk with your children about sexual abuse, and how can you help prevent it?

Do everything you can to build trust with your child, said Dr. Joshua Weiner, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with 16 years experience in the D.C. area.

"They need to know that you're a safe person to talk to and that their bodies are private," he said.

Weiner had these tips:

Tread lightly: If you need to ask your child if they had contact with someone accused of being a predator, be gentle.

"First thing I would do is be very non-direct at first: 'Did you know this teacher? Do you know anyone who does know him? What are your thoughts on him? What have you heard about him?" Weiner said. "Get a sense for what their understanding is about that person."

Tell, and show, your children that they can trust you: Tell them that no matter what they say, they're not going to get in trouble. "If something has ever happened, I want you to know you can talk to me," Weiner recommended saying.

Start early: Talk with your kids about tough topics from a young age. Tell them about their private body parts and that no one should touch them.

Talk about secrets: Tell your children that some secrets should not remain secrets.

"In many cases, these perpetrators are going to say to kids, 'This is a secret. We can't tell anybody. And if you do tell somebody, something bad is going to happen,'" Weiner said. "Tell them that sometime secrets should be broken."

Talk about the news: "Use the news as an opportunity to talk about important topics," Weiner said.

Observe their behavior: Be on the lookout for any changes in behavior. If children don't want to go to school on certain days, look into what happens at school on that day. If children seem to regress in age, it could be an indicator that something is wrong.

Have someone else talk with them: If your child is close with a relative or mentor you trust, that person also could help have this tough conversation.

Acknowledge that pleasure can be a factor: Recognize that children and teens may feel conflicted about an interaction that felt good at the time. "In the moment, it may not have felt wrong, but it may be wrong," Weiner said.

Additionally, social workers who spoke with The Washington Post earlier this year had these tips, among others:

Teach children to not be ashamed about their bodies or sex: Teach children the correct name for their body parts, and answer their questions about sex and bodily functions, Laura Reagan, a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland told the paper.

“Avoid sending the message that sex is something shameful or bad, but explain that sex is something adults do to express love," she said. "Be clear that adults do not have sexual interactions with children, and that if any adult ever touches a child’s sexual body parts the parent needs to know.”

Respect your child's body: Parents should not hit their kids, social worker Dalal Musa told the Post.

“The use of corporal punishment profoundly undermines children’s sense of dignity, safety, and privacy -- this practice is completely contrary to teaching children to respect their own and other’s bodies and self-esteem," Musa said. 

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