When we refer to THE talk, we often mean the awkward conversation of how babies are made that moms or dads have with their pre-teens. This is not that talk, but it's probably even more nerve-racking. This is about talking to your kids about sexual abuse, its many forms, and its repercussions, a talk that should unfold gradually over many years. The parent in us may think it is a highly inappropriate topic for young kids. True, it isn’t pretty, and it is a serious topic that will cause stress and anxiety for both the parent and child. But we live in a dangerous world where sexual predators do exist in many forms.
I am not just talking about pedophiles who troll children’s websites, but people in our households like yayas who might think it is funny to tickle your son’s penis when bathing him, or an older playmate who may inappropriately touch your child during play. I have heard firsthand accounts of abuse at the hands of a longtime family driver, a trusted sports coach, and even a casual encounter with a waiter in a restaurant.
Starting a discussion about sexual abuse isn’t easy, partly because we, parents, often feel that sex and the reproductive body parts are shameful, dirty words that can only be said in whispers, if at all. We need to stop that in our very own household. Here's how you can start.
Call body parts by their proper names. Clearly identify the body parts to your children by using the proper terms--vagina, breasts, penis. I admit just typing that made me cringe a little inside, but we have to get over it. If we want our children to be able to tell us if someone has touched them inappropriately in those sensitive areas, we need to give them the right words.
Let them know what parts are private. Unless it’s their bath time or they’re dressing up, your child should be told that people shouldn’t intentionally touch or look at them in these places. This is a little tricky in the Philippines because we often rely on house help or relatives to help with child care. Show your child and the caregiver how your child should be washed. If you do it often enough, your child may be able to determine if and when something feels off.
Encourage them to talk to you if something feels wrong. Sexual predators will convince kids that it’s best to keep things a “secret.” That is manipulation. Let your child know it’s always okay to share with you anything he may find uncomfortable, painful or weird. Assure him that he won’t get into trouble. They may also be hesitant to squeal for fear of getting the other person into trouble. Don’t say things like the bad person will be sent to jail because that may just frighten him. Just say that these people are troubled and need help, and you will make sure they get it.
Make them understand the word “no.” To a toddler, this may sound like a license to have his or her way all the time. Explain that if it has to do with his body, it is a special, very serious kind of no. The caveat is you will have to respect that law, too. If your child refuses to hug and kiss a certain relative, then respect that boundary that your child has set. You can teach him how to make “mano” instead.
As your child gets older, perhaps seven or eight, he will be exposed to more adult shows and images that will put sexual violence in a harsher perspective. They may hear or read the word “rape,” and so it is better you tell them exactly what that means, lest they decide to look it up themselves or ask a less sensitive source.
For a child of 11 or older, who engages with kids of the opposite sex in play or in school, the idea of consent should be strongly reiterated. I encourage you to expand the definition of consent. Any physical act must have a full, verbalized “yes” from both parties for it to be acceptable. Without a “yes,” it’s still officially a "no," and therefore, a hands-off situation.
For the teens, this is a very good time to reiterate the dangers of drugs and alcohol, too, because the occasions of rape are indeed highly correlated with alcohol use. Consent must be given freely and knowledgeably, not when someone is scared, or drunk, or high.
For the girls, reiterate that it is never the victim’s fault. In all instances, whether she was drunk, or sleepy, or even in a deeply committed relationship (like marriage) with the offender, she never relinquishes her right to say no. It is never too late to say “stop.”
Have a separate talk with your sons. Parents have a tendency to really come on strong with this talk when the child is a daughter. She is perceived as the one with everything to lose. I urge you to also spend as much time talking to your sons, whose gender is often seen as perpetrators of sexual violence. Hold them to the standard you would expect from all boys whom you would let near your daughter. But talk to your boys about coming to you if they feel something is inappropriate. We know that they can easily become victims, too.
Set an example. As a parent, you must model the behavior you hold your children to. Don’t laugh at jokes on molestation or rape. There are plenty of movies, music videos, songs that make it sound as if sexual harassment were common occurrences, like it is something to be expected in certain situations (for example, a girl is “asking for it” through suggestive behavior or clothing). This is the time to draw the line in the strongest terms as possible. Make it clear that any jokes about this topic are always offensive and will never be tolerated.
Sexual abuse is always a very personal topic. But it is a harsh reality in all corners of the earth even the ones where there is no Internet. It cannot be swept under the rug or wrapped in vague euphemisms. Be frank, open and non-judgmental because you will need to keep those communication lines open with your child at all times. If you think it’s hard for a parent to discuss these things with a child, how much harder is it for a child to initiate this talk with his folks?
Chary Mercado is an education consultant for teens who spends an inordinate amount of time driving for, negotiating with, and fussing over her two children, aged 16 and 12.