8 Tips for Talking with Your Kids About Sexual Abuse

By Erin O’Donnell
Editor, Awake Blog

Given the reality of sexual abuse in our community, including in the Catholic Church, parents play an important role in teaching their kids how to keep their bodies safe. As the mom of two sons, ages 13 and 9, I know from experience that these can be tough conversations; my husband and I are committed to being open and direct but have certainly struggled at times to find the right words.

For guidance, I spoke to two Milwaukee-area Catholics with particular insight into talking with kids about personal safety and child sexual abuse. Suzanne Nickolai is the Safe Environment Program Manager for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Nickolai, whose educational background focused on early through middle childhood, has six daughters who range in age from 12 years to 15 months old with her husband, Deacon Anton Nickolai. Chad Griesel is pastoral associate for the Family of Four Parishes on the East Side of Milwaukee. He and his wife Theresa have a son who is 12, and a daughter who is 9. Griesel also taught high school theology for more than a decade, which involved teaching teenagers about love, marriage, and sexuality.

Here are 8 tips that they shared for discussing the topic of sexual abuse and personal safety with your children.

1. Start Early.

“I would say start when they can talk, but it probably starts organically before that,” Nickolai says. She and her husband lay the foundation for later conversations by modeling appropriate boundaries early, talking to their kids about giving family members privacy and respecting themselves and each other. “That’s where they start to build that foundation for how they interact with the rest of the world,” she says. Nickolai also allows her daughters to have a say in their physical contact with others. “We never tell our kids, ‘Oh, go give that person a hug.’ We want to make sure that they understand that if they feel uncomfortable in an interaction, they have the ability to say no,” Nickolai explains.

When his children were about three, Griesel and his wife used bath time and clothes changes to have short conversations about the body parts that are private and off limits to people other than parents and doctors. (It can help to explain that these are the areas typically covered by a bathing suit, he and Nickolai suggest.) Griesel adds that their family doctor was a great resource, reminding him and his wife to have these conversations with their children. The doctor also modeled consent with the kids; if she needed to touch the children for an exam, she would ask their permission first.

2. Advance the Conversation as They Age.

If your kids are older but you haven’t broached these topics with them yet, just be brave and get started. As children enter elementary school, conversations may last longer, and offer more detail. Griesel says he sometimes begins these discussions by asking his kids, “What do you know about [the topic at hand]?” or “Have your friends ever mentioned this?” That gives him a window into what they know or don’t know, and what they might be thinking or wondering about. It also prevents him from offering more information than they can handle at the moment.

3. Use Correct Terms.

It’s useful to refer to body parts matter-of-factly by their correct names, such as penis and vagina, instead of using euphemisms or nicknames. This might feel uncomfortable at first, but usually becomes easier over time. Griesel believes this language is an important step in teaching kids responsible care of their bodies, an insight he gained in years of teaching high schoolers about human sexuality. “It dawned on me that it’s unrealistic to expect kids to act maturely and responsibly about sexuality if we can’t talk to them in a mature and responsible way,” he says.  

4. Commit to Listening.

Nickolai reminds her children regularly that she and her husband will always listen when they come to them with concerns. Her hope is that they will confide in her if they ever have an interaction with another person that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe or if they have a question. But Nickolai admits that some days she has to remind herself to be an attentive listener, particularly when child comes to her in the midst of a hectic day with an issue that seems irritatingly small. “I have to remember, this is one of the building blocks,” she says. “If I don’t listen now to this minor thing, they might not come to me with something major because I’ve ignored them how many other times with things that aren’t important in my mind, but are important to them.”

5. Ask Important Questions.

Nickolai makes an effort to talk regularly with her daughters one-on-one about personal safety, given that they’re all at different developmental stages. She’s found that it helps if the child is engaged in an activity they enjoy, such as coloring, building with Legos, taking a walk, or having lunch at a favorite restaurant with a parent. Depending on the child’s age, the questions might include:

  • Has anyone ever made you uncomfortable?
  • Has anyone ever touched or tried to touch you in your private areas?
  • Has anyone ever asked you to keep a secret from Mommy or Daddy?
  • Are there any adults that make your heart feel worried or scared?
  • Has anyone ever asked you for something that you thought was weird?
  • How are your friends?
  • Are there any kids in your class who talk about dating or sex?
  • Has anyone ever asked you to take a picture of yourself to send to them?
  • Has anyone ever showed you a picture that made you uncomfortable?

Nickolai says that as her children get older, and are involved with a wider range of people, she’s feeling the need to have these conversations more frequently. But she always ends the conversations in the same way: “I say, ‘You are an awesome kid. I want you to know that I love you and that I will always try to protect you. I am always willing to listen if you want to talk to me, and if you aren’t comfortable talking to me, I want you to know that you can talk to Daddy or one of your trusted adults. There is nothing that you could ever do to make me not love you, and it would hurt my heart if you were to get in trouble or need my help but were too scared of getting in trouble to come talk to me or Daddy.’”

6. Discuss Internet Safety.

Nickolai has talked with her older children about the maintaining boundaries and safe technology usage. They’ve discussed not providing personal information to someone you don’t know, the permanency of images and information online, and what types of activities would be considered unsafe. She recently completed a webinar for child protection professionals, which revealed a truly disturbing trend: the fastest growing source of self-produced child pornography is photos sent by 8- and 9-year-old children. (Nickolai says it made her realize that she needs to address certain topics of internet safety with her children at even younger ages.) Child safety experts also warn that the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional safety risks for children who are spending long periods unsupervised online while parents work.

7. Seek Out Resources.

If you need additional information about talking with your kids about sexual abuse, Nickolai suggests organizations such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, RAINN, and Darkness to Light. As a starting point, you can also ask the person who handles religious formation at your parish to share the section of the safe environment curriculum geared to your child’s grade level. All Catholic schools and parish religious education programs in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee are required to cover safe environment topics at least once a year in each grade from kindergarten through twelfth grade, Nickolai says. 

8. Acknowledge that This is Difficult.

For Griesel, the biggest surprise in talking about personal safety and sexual abuse with his children is how tough these conversations can be. “I taught a love, marriage, and sexuality class for teenagers for over 10 years. I was really confident going into this but realized how different it is to talk with younger kids on issues of sexuality and health and safety. That’s been the hardest thing: just adjusting and saying, ‘Okay. I have a lot to learn.’” He says that it’s important to push through the discomfort, and let go of the idea that you can do this perfectly. It may help to admit to your kids that you feel a little uncomfortable, but then keep going. “It might be a little embarrassing to talk about,” Griesel says, “but it’s an important part of keeping them healthy and keeping them safe.”

Erin O’Donnell is a freelance journalist and member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish. She lives on Milwaukee’s East Side with her husband and two sons.

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