For parents wondering how to speak to their children about sensitive topics such as sexual abuse, here are some tips from a mental health professional.
Here in Qatar, the topic of sexual abuse has recently been brought to light, prompting parents to question the best ways to approach their own children to provide guidance and support. Such conversations, though difficult, can help protect them from any mental, emotional, or physical harm in both the short and long-term.
As a mental health professional, here are some helpful ways to support your children.
- Remind your child(ren) that you will always be there to empathetically listen. Letting your child know they have your undivided attention when they need to speak to you gives them the affirmation they need to turn to you when they need to talk. Reminding them that you are a safe space where they can open up offers them a consistent source of relief and comfort.
- Teach them the names of body parts. Avoid using made-up names for body parts – children can understand the correct names. This helps avoid and decrease confusion when you talk to them about how to protect their bodies, or if they need to open up to you about something that has happened to them.
- Explain that there is no such thing as secrets. There are situations where an adult will say it’s a secret to make the child believe they are playing a game. In most incidents, this places a burden on the child if they are told they will get in trouble or threatened with repercussions if they disclose the secret. It helps to explain to your child early on that there are no such things as secrets, and that any “secret” is meant to be shared with mum and dad.
- Communicate boundaries. Adults are not always correct, and this is something children need to know. Let your child know that they do not have to hug an adult if they do not want to, or feel obligated to sit next to someone if they do not feel comfortable.
- Read to your children. One book that can help children from the age of 3, is “An Exceptional Children’s Guide to Touch” by Hunter Manasco, because it teaches social and physical boundaries to kids. It is an illustrated book that explains the importance of boundaries and what they look like in certain contexts. Another book is, “Some Secrets should not be kept,” by Jayneen Sanders. This book is the story of a boy who is brave enough to tell his mum about the abuse he experienced. It provides children the courage to speak up when something is not right. “Your body belongs to you” by Cornelia Spelman is a helpful book that addresses the value of positive relationships and expressing feelings, while directly addressing the topic of sexual abuse in a helpful and easy-to-understand manner. “The huge bag of worries” by Virginia Ironside offers children a source of comfort when it comes to worrying about many things. It helps children understand that worries begin to ease when they are talked about.
- Teach your children nonverbal and verbal responses. Verbal responses include: “No.” “Leave me alone.” “I will tell on you.” “I do not want to be touched or tickled.” “That is none of your business.” “I am not allowed to do that.” Nonverbal responses include: Shaking their head no, running away, moving someone’s hand from them when they do not feel comfortable, standing tall and not being afraid to look someone in the eye, keeping physical distance.
- Creating rules for the family to follow: Most importantly, it is good to remind your children that they have permission to say no to anyone that tries to break the family rules. These rules could include, having a say in who joins the family, speaking up when they feel uncomfortable in a situation or family plans, sleepovers are limited, or having specific adults that your child can turn to or rely on for support.
- Explain to your child that they will not get in trouble for opening up. When a child goes through a difficult experience or is told not to say anything, then it makes it difficult for them to open up. Having conversations with them that reaffirm that they will not get in trouble for speaking up, whether it has happened to them or someone they know, helps them come to you without feeling as scared.
- Create code words that your child understands. If your child does not feel safe or is becoming uncomfortable, have code words they can use around you to express this. This helps them open up about how they are feeling, without having to delay or worry that they are not able to speak up.
- Support your children to understand and trust their emotions. Explaining feelings to your children helps them better recognise when a feeling doesn’t sit well or something does not feel right. This also reminds your child that they can move or even run away from someone that does not make them feel comfortable, they can ask all the questions they want, and they can disobey. Trusting their emotions can guide them to act and react to protect themselves, and to also open up to you about feelings that made them feel a certain way and at a specific time.
These tools are a culmination of years of experience, and resources that are adequately provided online. Children have the ability to understand and learn. They appreciate it when they know they are being listened to, and when they recognise that there is a safe space for them to express how they feel or to open up about what they have gone through.