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How Do We Talk to Our Children About Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Victims of childhood sexual abuse are silenced for many reasons. The first is that shame from the abuse silences its victims as do threats from the perpetrator. However, when abuse occurs, children and youth can also be silenced for developmental reasons. Cheryl Strayed, writer, feminist, and mother, recently explained her silence, “Because I was sexually abused at such a young age, I didn’t even know it was a crime. I didn’t have the language to say what was happening to me.”

I didn’t have the language to say what was happening to me.

Cheryl Strayed’s statement reveals something parents can do to counter the potential silence of our children. Cheryl didn’t have the language. It is therefore our jobs to give our children the language they need. 

We can give our children the language they need.

How do we talk to our children about childhood sexual abuse?

The Language We Can Give Our Children:

Jessica Trygstad wrote a valuable article offering an answer to the question, “What should parents say to kids about clergy sexual abuse?” Her answer applies to situations beyond clergy. It applies to teachers, coaches, uncles, neighbors, etc. Her advice is categorized according to developing age groups.

With permission from The Catholic Spirit, here is a segment from the article that applies to young children (3-7 years old) and what we should say and explain to them.

  • “Most adults you can trust, but there are some people who have not touched children in a good way. If there is anyone who has done that to you, tell me right away.”
  • Make them aware while simultaneously assuring them.
  • Use correct terminology when naming body parts, so if anything ever happens, children can explain exactly what’s going on.
  • Make the distinction between a surprise and a secret.
  • Make sure they know the difference between good touch and bad touch.
  • Teach them about private body parts, that they’re special, and no one should ever touch them, except a doctor or parent.
  • Don’t exaggerate the horror of sexual abuse, or kids won’t feel comfortable talking about it.
  • Affirm them for asking questions.

(Quoted with permission:  Trygstad, Jessica. The Catholic Spirit, December 17, 2013) Ms Trygstad offers more advice for other ages. It’s worth your time to read her whole article.

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