Talking with Your Kids About Sexual Abuse: Questions the Sandusky Trial Prompted Me to Ask

From the Sandusky trial to new revelations about the Catholic Church to the stories about Horace Mann in the 1970s, it seems like sexual abuse is always in the news. These topics are particularly tricky to discuss with kids—how do we keep them safe without making them scared? I turn to two experts for advice.

Recently, when my almost-six-year-old daughter and I arrived at her dentist’s office she went right to the obligatory waiting room aquarium and I began to watch CNN’s coverage of the Jerry Sandusky trial. A few minutes later she sat down next to me and tested her ability to sound out words by reading his name off the bottom of the screen. Just when it occurred to me that she might read the next line —“sex abuse trial”— and ask me what it meant, the receptionist let out a little gasp and quickly turned to Nickelodeon. 

I am relatively comfortable talking about sex with my daughter (I am after all a trained sexuality educator). We’ve recently discussed fertilized versus unfertilized eggs (in answer to a question about why the eggs we were eating were never going to be chickens), sonograms and fetal development (in answer to a question about what you make bones out of), and kissing (in response to something she was watching on, well, Nickelodeon).  But sexual abuse is a tricky one and it gave me pause. I want her to be safe and informed but not scared of adults or sex and like many parents I was worried that I might say the wrong thing.

In light of the Sandusky trial, ongoing revelations about Catholic Churches around the country, and the recent New York Times Magazine story on Horace Mann, I thought it might be a good idea to check in with some experts about how to discuss sexual abuse with children of all ages.

First I spoke to Steve Brown, PsyD. who is the director of the Traumatic Stress Institute of Klingberg Family Centers and a former board member of Stop it Now. I also spoke to Deborah Roffman a sexuality educator whose third book, Talk to Me First, Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ Go to Person About Sex, is set to hit bookstores this summer. 

Though we often talk about using current events as “teachable moments” to spur discussions about important topics, neither expert felt like it was a good idea to sit your kids down and discuss sexual abuse just because so much is going on in the press right now. This could cause more anxiety than it quells and raise more questions than it answers. Instead they felt it was important to have ongoing discussions about sexuality as well as power and abuse. 

Need a New Approach

I recently watched a rerun of Law & Order SVU which depicted a sexual abuse prevention program for first or maybe second graders. Counselor/actors with puppets told kids that if someone tried to touch them in a way they didn’t like they should say no, run away, and tell a trusted adult. “Now remember, boys and girls,” the puppet said in a patronizing voice, “if someone tries to touch you, you…”  The kids yelled back: “no, go, tell.”  I have never seen a presentation like this in real life but found it disturbing —as if the large-mouthed felt friends were telling kids that it is their responsibility to stop whatever might happen next. Both experts agreed that our current approach to abuse prevention does exactly that and that we need new methods for addressing this issue.  

Steve Brown said that he is not a fan of telling kids to say no or to get away because it does put the pressure and responsibility on the child rather than on the adults around them. He thinks it is much more important to emphasize the “tell” part. He suggests stressing this message in all of your conversations with young people and coaching children about the importance of talking to you. For example, you could say:  “If anything happens having to do with your private parts — you tell mommy or daddy or someone else you trust.”  

Deborah Roffman also worries about these kinds of sex abuse education programs and especially about the focus they put on “private parts” (a term she strongly dislikes). She believes it is almost impossible for young children to differentiate the messages we give them. They are not yet capable of truly distinguishing: “it’s bad for someone to touch me there” from “there is bad” from “touching there is bad” from “feeling pleasure when I touch there is bad.” Not only do the messages we give now put the responsibility for preventing abuse on children but they also cast sexuality in a negative light from an early age. She prefers an approach that focuses much less on the sexual aspects of abuse (like genitals and touching) and much more on power dynamics involved and how adults can and do take advantage of children in a variety of ways. 

She added:

“The more we focus on educating children about sexual abuse the less we focus on adults and they are the ones who need to protect children.”

Lay the Groundwork

Brown agrees that we don’t want the first messages young people hear about sexuality to be about “the most awful stuff” which is why he says that parents really need to lay the groundwork first. If you’ve already had conversations about body parts (with proper names) and how babies are born and other basics, he says: “you’re in a lot better place to have discussions about the darker side of sex.”

Brown also feels that you don’t want to spend too much time talking about sexual abuse because it can create a lot of anxiety in children but by having these other conversations first, you can refer back to them and say things like: “Remember when we talked about how no one other than mommy and daddy or your doctor should touch your vulva, well, some adults have a touching problem and they try to hurt kids by touching their private parts.”  Again he emphasizes that the most important message in these conversations is for kids to tell an adult as soon as they can: “If you tell me, I will do everything possible that I can to make sure you are safe and no one would hurt you by their touching problems.” 

Roffman also thinks parents need to set context for their children and agrees that a basic concept to teach children is: “Your body belongs to you and people don’t have permission to touch it and they especially don’t have permission to touch your genitals which we usually keep more private.” 

That said, she feels that the more important background discussions to have aren’t about sex or genitals or bodies but about power:  

“Sexual abuse is not about sex and if you frame it that way you set up problems.  This is about adults misusing their power.”

In order to help young people understand this she suggests explaining that: “Most adults would do anything to help children but there are some people who you can’t trust. It’s a very small number but they do exist and here’s what you do about it…”   She cautions:

“Don’t label it sexual abuse. It’s abuse. It’s one of a number of ways adults abuse their power over children.”

Roffman says that once you have had these conversations with your kids and conversations about how to recognize bullying (whether by an adult or an older child) you can call on these concepts if and when you discuss sexual abuse: “Remember we’ve been having this conversation that adults can take advantage of kids because you’re smaller and because they’re bigger and taller and know more?  Well, in this case the person took advantage of a child by touching them in a way that they should only be touching adults.”

Answering Direct Questions

Both acknowledged that with everything in the news kids may have questions. They agreed that you should take a simple, direct approach to these questions whether they are about a story on television or something that’s happening in your own circle of friends or community. 

When I asked what parents could say about Sandusky to kids who had heard of the trial, Brown said to be descriptive without being explicit. Labeling it sexual abuse doesn’t mean much to kids so instead you could say, for example, “He had a very bad touching problem. He hurt kids by touching their private parts. It’s wrong, it’s never okay, he will probably go to jail and he needs lots of help.”  He warned, though, about our tendency to use words like “pervert” or “monster” to describe Sandusky or anyone accused of abuse because this can contribute to a young person’s idea that it could never be someone they know and could never happen to them.

Given the sometimes graphic details that have emerged from the Sandusky trial, I asked both experts how to answer questions about specific behaviors. Again, they both said to answer honestly but cautioned about giving too much detail. Roffman says that you should start with the most general answer which will often satisfy children.  For example, if a child asked what rape is you could start by saying: “Rape is a legal term that’s used when one person forces another person to do something they don’t want to do.” If the child is not satisfied with that and wants more information, he or she will ask. The you can gradually tell them more. The key is to start with broad information and follow the child’s lead. 

Brown has similar advice for discussing specific behaviors like oral sex which has come up in the Sandusky coverage many times.  He says to give very basic answers such as: “That’s when someone puts their mouth on another person’s vulva or penis.” Then you can add some context: “I know it may sound yucky but it is something that grown-ups do together when they love each other, but grown-ups should never do this with kids and kids shouldn’t do it with each other.”   

Roffman reminds us, though, that kids are often looking for reassurance more than information: 

“If they ask a question about sexual abuse what they are really saying is, ‘This sounds scary to me. Am I safe? Are you safe?’”

Developing Instincts

In educating kids about the issue over the long term, both experts essentially talked about helping young people develop instincts about individuals and situations. Roffman says her focus is on general guidelines for recognizing when adults don’t have young people’s best interest at heart rather than specifically on sexual abuse situations.  Her guidelines for kids include any time an adult:

  • Talks to you in a way you don’t like
  • Touches you in a way you don’t like
  • Tells you to keep a secret, especially from your parents
  • Makes you feel confused (“This is an adult, I’m supposed to listen to adults, but this doesn’t feel right”)
  • Gives you something so that you will do something for or give something to him/her in return

She suggests reminding kids that these situations aren’t always wrong but if they ever have any questions they should come talk to you—especially if the person says not to tell anyone or threatens to hurt them or their family. The goal is to establish early on that your child come to you. She cautions, though, that the message to kids isn’t necessarily “I will always believe you” (because sometimes you might not) or “I won’t be mad” (because sometimes you will be) but instead the best message is: “I will always listen to you and I will always hear what you say.” And, of course, that you will always help in whatever way you can. She points out that as kids get older and spend more time away from their parents it’s also important to set up other adults who will be with them in various situations who they should go to with concerns. 

Brown similarly thinks it’s important to help young people develop instincts about adults and to point out that the people who hurt kids this way are often people they know like coaches, neighbors, teachers, scout leaders, babysitters, or even relatives.  Parents should explain that these people sometimes try to get close to kids and build trust by “giving gifts, money, or special things” and that it can be hard for kids to know when it moves from friendly to inappropriate. This is why it’s so important that kids know they can come to you for help figuring this out:  “If someone ever tries to touch you in a sexual way and if you ever feel uncomfortable or like someone is a little creepy you should tell me or someone you trust immediately.” 

Teachable Moments for Parents

Though the Sandusky trial and other news stories might not be the moment to sit down and discuss sexual abuse in detail with your kids, these stories should certainly serve as a reminder to adults of the importance of ongoing conversations and laying the groundwork we need in order to have these discussions over time. More importantly, though, these stories should serve as a teachable moment to parents — reminding us that it is our job to keep our kids safe.

If the allegations against Jerry Sandusky are true, he preyed on young people who did not have strong adult presences in their lives. Almost all of the boys who have testified grew up without fathers and many were in and out of the foster system. The adults who were in their lives clearly failed to pick up on the many red flags that should have been set off by Sandusky’s behavior. The inordinate amount of attention he paid to the boys, the gifts and money he gave them, and the multiple sleepovers at his house should have tipped adults off that all was not right with these relationships.

Just like young people, adults need to develop instincts as well. Roffman says that you don’t have to assume that everyone is out to hurt your kid but all parents should “educate themselves about the dynamics of [abuse] situations.” Pay attention to signs like adults who spend all their time with children and don’t have same-age relationships or adults who lavish a lot of attention and gifts on your child. As Brown puts it:

“If it seem too good to be true, it is usually bad.” 

The Impact of an Acquittal

An underlying theme in the recent news stories seems to be about how adults essentially got away with years of abusing children. The Horace Mann situation went on for years with just whispers in the background. The Church paid out millions and reassigned priests rather than really holding anyone accountability. In the Sandusky case, while there is finally a trial, the number of people who knew about or at least suspected the abuse for years and said nothing is staggering.

I will end this article by saying that while the recent stories about ongoing abuse that no one tried to stop are beyond disturbing at least we are now talking about it. Maybe (hopefully) this means that the next time an adult sees, hears, or suspects anything—he/she will step in to protect the children instead of turning a decades-long blind eye.