- News coverage has been dominated by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford‘s sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
- Kids may hear about the allegations in the media and have questions for their parents.
- Experts say it’s best to start talking about sexual assault with young kids, and to keep the conversation going as they age, adjusting it to each new life stage.
In recent weeks, the news cycle has been dominated by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Given the non-stop coverage, there’s a good chance that kids of many ages of have been exposed to reports about sexual assault, Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, told INSIDER. And even though it’s not an easy topic to broach, Vinson explained that it’s important for parents and kids to talk about sexual assault.
“You can’t necessarily make it so that they’re not exposed, but as the parent, your job is to give them context for it and to help them understand what the potential lessons are,” she said.
Here are some tips from Vinson and other experts for talking to kids about sexual assault.
1. Make time to talk about it
“One of the big mistakes [parents make] is they just don’t talk about it,” Vinson said. “But if you don’t talk about it, you’re leaving it to somebody else to teach your kid, because they’re going to learn one way or another. So rather than seeing it as, ‘I’m introducing this scary concept to my child,’ understand the world is going to introduce it. When you think about it that way, then you may be more likely to have those talks.”
Clinical psychologist Julia Simens previously told INSIDER that parents wanting to talk to kids about sexual assault should also find time when “there aren’t any stressors going on” and you won’t be cut off too soon by other events or commitments.
Vinson added that parents who have their own history of trauma may be reluctant to talk to their kids about sexual assault. In that case, it can help to recruit another adult.
“Get somebody else you trust – somebody from your community, a neighbour who you know has a good relationship with your child – to have those conversations with them,” she said.
2. Start early, and keep talking about it
Vinson said that once kids are verbal, it’s never too early to start talking about this topic. The key, she explained, is keeping the conversation going as they age.
“It shouldn’t be a talk. It should be an ongoing discussion,” she said. “At every developmental stage, that talk should change based on what they’re experiencing. With a 4-year-old you’re going to talk to them about [their] private parts and how only your doctor can touch them. At 14, you’re going to talk to them about going to parties where there’s drinking. But it’s part of the same dialogue.”
3. Be clear
“Make sure that your young girls or your young boys know what are the parts of their body nobody should touch or who can touch those parts of the body, who to tell, and why they should always tell,” Vinson said. She also emphasised the importance of speaking in clear, concrete terms, so kids truly understand.
It can also be good to address statements sometimes used to dismiss claims of sexual assault – for example, the oft-circulated idea that adults shouldn’t be held responsible for actions committed in their teen years. It’s an opportunity to remind them that the choices they make as kids and teenagers really do matter, Vinson said.
4. Turn to pop culture with older kids
For older kids, pop culture may provide good openings for talks about sexual assault, Dr. Kathryn Stamoulis, a licensed mental health counselor who specialises in female adolescent sexuality,previously told INSIDER.
“If, for example, a parent hears the word slut on a show, I think that’s a good jumping off point,” she said. “Ask them, ‘What does that mean? Have you heard that said to someone else? How did that make them feel?’ and explain that it’s not alright to use.”
5. Talk to girls and boys
There’s a tendency to focus on teaching girls to protect themselves, Vinson said, but boys also need to learn about sexual assault and which behaviours aren’t appropriate.
“I would really like to see people emphasising the conversations with boys,” Vinson said. “Boys [should] understand that if they see something, they should do something about it, and that it’s their responsibility to.”
6. If your child tells you about a sexual assault or inappropriate conduct, believe them
Vinson explained that if a child tells you about a sexual assault, it’s critical to their mental wellbeing that you believe them.
“A lot of times they have gone through a lot internally to get to the point where they’re even able to tell you,” she said. “If you don’t believe it, or you don’t respond in a way that protects them, the message they get is that they should have kept their mouth shut, that it’s somehow their fault, and that it’s somehow ok. And that’s going to make it very hard for them to heal.”
It could even make it harder for your child to seek help in the future, she added.
“If you don’t listen to them and you’re the one who is supposed to take care of them, what is that supposed to teach them about trust and letting people get close to you?” Vinson said. “It teaches them things that aren’t going to serve them well in the future, so it’s really important that families respond in an affirming way and do everything they can to protect that child from further victimization.”
If you are a victim of sexual assault, you can visit RAINN or call its hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member.
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