Believe the children – and then help them. If Melissa Cilley could offer one answer to questions about abuse, that would be it. Cilley is director of the Victim Rights Response Team at the SAFeT Response Center, part of Lutheran Community Services in Spokane.
On Wednesday, she offered insight into common questions about keeping kids safe from abuse and teaching them the skills to say “no.” Below is an edited transcript of the chat. To read more, go to spokesmanreview.com/ourkids/chats.
Q: What’s the first thing that kids and their parents should know about staying safe from abuse, particularly sexual abuse?
Cilley: To listen to themselves. Often, when an individual has a concern about their child or when a child becomes frightened, relevant to abuse, they don’t listen to themselves and their own instincts. Those instincts are there for a reason, and we all need to learn to listen to them.
Q: Will it scare my child to talk about abuse? What exactly should I say? How can I talk about such unpleasant subjects when I don’t even want her to know about them!
Cilley: It may, and that’s not all bad. The important thing to stress is that your child can talk to you. When a parent or guardian speaks with a child about staying safe, it can be less threatening to begin by talking about the value of your child and that their body belongs to them. It can also be helpful to start by talking about self-respect (which can also lead into many other discussions, but that’s for another online chat …). Self-respect and helping a child to understand that they deserve to be safe and that they can never do anything that deserves any type of abuse is critical. It is not necessary in initial conversations about keeping safe to go into great detail. It is most important to instill a sense of value with the child so they know they deserve to be safe.
Q: If my child has been abused, what should I do? Is there anything I should or shouldn’t say?
Cilley: First, and most importantly, please, please believe your child. It is extremely uncommon (despite what you may see in the movies) for a child to report acts of abuse when there is no foundation for that report. Children, on average, have to report about eight times before someone believes them. Considering what we know, that one in four girls and one in five boys will experience child sexual abuse before their 18th birthday, there is absolutely no reason for us, as adults, to require a child to demonstrate such persistence. If a child reports to you, first tell them in clear words that you believe them. Also, tell them that no matter what happened, it was not their fault. Tell them that you will help and then do so. Do not tell a child that you will help and then stay silent. As far as suggestions of what should not be said, do not indicate in any way that the child’s behavior, dress, choice of words, choice of friends or anything else that child has done or could ever do would deserve such abuse.