A teacher tells the success she has had with teachable moments. Talking to children about sexual abuse doesn’t have to be intimidating.
As a teacher, l have always been sensitive to this topic. Part of the calling that has been placed in my heart is to be a protective, motherly figure to all the students God has placed in my care. Being the teacher, it has put me in a position of a certain amount of authority and my hope is that my students/children would heed my warnings and know that, if it were to be happening to them, they were not alone.
The best approach that l found to use with children, is to talk in a matter of fact or “by the way” manner, with a tone of importance, but not angry or scary. Look for an opportunity to hook it up with a safety topic that has already been mentioned. ln the home, it can be something as simple as hearing an Amber Alert about a missing child. The parent then says, “That reminds me, you remember that you never, ever get in the car with anyone you don’t know, right?” and then leading right into it, “You also know that no one should ever touch you where your swim suit touches, right? Have l mentioned that lately?”
This non-scary approach will encourage any affected children to be able to tell his/her parent about any unusual or confusing behavior an adult has displayed. lt also helps the affected child feel that he/she is not “in trouble”. This is critical. The abused child, more than likely has been told, “You know you will get in trouble if your Mom or Dad find out what you’ve been doing with me,” and as parents/teachers we want any affected child to know it is “OKAY” to tell.
Oftentimes, the abuser will also play into the feelings of shame that the child may harbor, knowing that what is happening is not quite right, but also not knowing how to get out of the situation without feeling so guilty, as well as fearing getting into trouble.
We must remember that the abused child is just that: a child. Children feel compelled to follow an adults instructions. Especially the type of child the abuser has gone to great pains to pick out of the crowd. Being obedient and avoiding consequences is a big part of this type of child’s world and the abuser capitalizes on that.
That said, find a “teachable” moment and take advantage of the chance to hold your “by the way, have l told you?” conversation. Matter-of-factly say: ” You know any place where your swim suit touches is a place that ONLY YOU have the right to touch. lf you think somebody is touching you in those places, tell Mommy or Daddy or your teacher–somebody in charge—right away, okay?” That’s all it takes. You’ve planted the seed and the information.
Another important teachable moment is when children are playing and something happens that your child doesn’t like. It’s natural for a child to want to report the perceived offense to someone in charge. What we need to realize is that’s the time to teach that sometimes it’s okay to say, “No, l don’t like that.” or “Stop it. l don’t like that.” We are not born with this knowledge inherently and it’s our job as the adults to MODEL how this type of situation should best be played out. lt’s not something children pick up by osmosis. This can be empowering for a very timid and introverted type of child, again, the type of child the offender has gone to great pains to pick out, to know that he/she has some control over what is happening to them. ALWAYS follow it up by teaching that if the person doesn’t stop the offensive behavior, after he/she has told the person to “STOP”, then they must tell someone in charge, especially if the behavior makes them feel “yucky in the stomach”. Children are pretty good about knowing how their stomachs feel, but don’t always make the connection between the “icky” feeling and what is happening to them. This is another place where we must teach it to them in an important, but non-alarming fashion. (A “stranger” can be someone the child knows, but also makes them feel “yucky’ in their stomach!)
Questions are more than likely to arise out of a situation like this and l cannot stress enough the importance of keeping your answers simple. A common question that crops up at this point is: “Mommy, why shouldn’t anyone touch me there?”
Remember, simplicity is key. “Because those are your private areas and they’re only for you or sometimes the Doctor to touch,” is a fully satisfying answer for most 5-10 year olds.
One final note is to be braced. Out of your carefully planned information sound bite, of sorts, may come a statement, dreadful as it might be to imagine, that says, “Daddy, Uncle Henry has touched me there.” No one wants to prepare for that, but for the sake of our child/ren, we MUST anticipate what we will say next and how we will act next. We want the offended child to be glad he/she told and feel no alarm, or guilt, so as to be able to give all the pertinent details. An outburst of rage, anger or alarm will affect the child’s ability to tell more. Stamp down your feelings for the time being, and let your child feel safe amidst a very confusing and upsetting situation.
Hopefully, if we start this when they are preschoolers, after a bath for instance, remarking: “These are your private areas. Only you or a Doctor can touch there,” we will raise a generation of children who know the physical boundaries and make their voices heard if those boundaries are crossed.
**All opinions in this piece are of the writer, Jane Lenzer, and do not necessarily in any way reflect the opinions of A Voice For The Innocent, the Board Members, or any affiliates.