Talking to young kids about sexual assault and consent

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Talking about #MeToo and the events of this week with anyone can be emotionally grueling and deeply triggering (particularly if you have been a victim of sexual assault). But it can feel absolutely overwhelming, if not impossible, to do so with your young children.

But these conversations with our kids are crucial. In the case of Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, discussing the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with his daughters enabled them to open up to him about past “incidents” they’d kept secret. In an op-ed for the New York Times, ‘Top Chef’ host and author Padma Lakshmi, who was molested by a family member as a child and raped by her boyfriend when she was 16, stressed the importance of teaching her 8-year-old daughter that her body is hers, and that if anyone makes you uncomfortable “you get out there and tell somebody.”

How and when should we have such difficult talks with our kids and how can they help make a difference?

Talking answers kids’ questions and breaks the cycle of silence

“It is so important to talk to kids about the #MeToo movement,” says Rachel Brandoff, Ph.D., an art therapist in the Community & Trauma Counseling Program at the Jefferson College of Health Professions. “There are confusing positions and conflicting sides, and all of this is a breeding ground for emotional chaos and misunderstanding. Kids are likely to want to know what does ‘#MeToo’ refer to? What are these people attesting to? [Why] is it that their sharing of their experiences is called into question? [They] will want to know that if and when they share their experiences that they will be believed, that trusted adults will care and that they will not be blamed, shamed or treated badly for opening up about what may have happened to them.”

How you talk in your home about the #MeToo movement and current news events surrounding sexual misconduct allegations can lead a survivor in your own home to feel more safe about speaking up and getting help.

Jeni Ambrose, PhDc, a therapist specializing in treating sexual trauma and the founder of Global Change Project, a 501c3 organization addressing sexual violence issues that created notes that “upwards of 87 percent of survivors of sexual violence stay silent about their victimization. How you talk in your home about the #MeToo movement and current news events surrounding sexual misconduct allegations can lead a survivor in your own home to feel more safe about speaking up and getting help.”

Start the discussion as soon as your kids can talk

Lakshmi’s repeated discussions with her daughter about her body and its boundaries is an effective tactic that all parents should consider.

“As soon as your child is talking, it’s okay to, during conversation, say something like, ‘your body is yours alone, and no one should touch your body,’ says Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health counselor. “Also let them know that if anyone tries to touch them to tell you. Daily, I am checking in with all of my kids about their day, and during conversations I ask them about being touched. It’s also important to ask, ‘Is anyone asking you to touch them?’ Sometimes, sexual abuse starts with the abuser asking the child to do things to them, so preparing your child for this is important.”

Use anatomically correct words to describe ‘private parts’

“The first thing that is important is providing them with the names of their body parts,” adds Viciere. “Saying the words ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ is okay. We often feel awkward about using the actual language and make up names instead, but it’s important for your child to be able to identify it in case anyone tries to do anything. Teaching them in advance will enable them to use the correct language to talk about what has happened, if something should happen.”

Teach them to say no — especially girls

Children are taught to be polite and say “yes, please” and “thank you”; but they need to know they can and should say “no” when they don’t want to be affectionate.

This is especially so with girls, points out Azizi Marshall, a licensed clinical professional counselor, drama therapist and founder/CEO of Center for Creative Arts Therapy, Artful Wellness & Psychology Arts.

“Many times our little girls are taught to say yes, to take care of and to nurture others, especially men. However, they are not [always] taught healthy boundaries, or when and/or how to say ‘no’,” Marshall says. “Stop forcing them to give hugs and kisses, and empower them to own their body through the choices they make with their body. They have every right to say ‘no’, and the sooner they are empowered to make those decisions, the sooner they will identify how to stop the cycle.”