If it seems like news about sexual misconduct and #MeToo has unfolded nearly daily for months now, that likely holds true for many kids as well.
And last month, there was the testimony from dozens of teens and young women against former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who admitted molesting gymnasts and other young women under the guise of medical treatment.
The ongoing spotlight on sexual harassment and sexual assault has many parents searching for age-appropriate ways to talk to children about what they are hearing or experiencing. And also, how to discuss appropriate behavior and abuse prevention.
“I think it’s important to start early, so we normalize conversations,” said Dr. Deb Gore, a Spokane family physician with Kaiser Permanente at Riverfront Medical Center. “You teach them the proper names for body parts, so early on, there’s a comfort level.”
“As early as age 3 or 4, you talk about body parts. What’s OK to touch and what’s not. From an early age, teach children that no one can touch them unless they have permission.”
Be clear that kids can always talk to you if someone does something that makes them uncomfortable, Gore added.
David Crump, Spokane Public Schools district psychologist, tells parents it’s always a good idea to let little kids do more of the talking, while adults focus on listening calmly and thinking about why the child is asking questions.
“If they’ve seen trauma or experienced it, the little ones need to tell the story over and over again,” Crump said. “It requires us to be good listeners and also be open to answer the questions.
“See if they have follow-up questions. Let them feel comfortable really talking.”
Last month, USA Gymnastics confirmed that its entire board of directors would resign as requested by the U.S. Olympic Committee, following revelations from the Nassar case, as news has come out that the doctor’s sexual abuses went on for years despite reported cases.
Tracy Duncan, University High School gymnastics coach, said adults in the gymnastics world are talking about the case. But Duncan also hopes the coverage keeps a focus on keeping kids safe.
This past summer, she completed training available to all USA Gymnastics members called Safe Sport. The program included warning signs of pedophiles who groom victims, Duncan said.
“It was disturbing how these pedophiles groom victims, because for most people, you don’t think that way,” she said. “To see how very conscious they are doing it is disturbing.
“I talked to the girls about it at U-high. I said, ‘You’ve got to watch for this type of stuff and you have to talk to someone if that happens to you,’ and that it isn’t innocent.”
One caution she recalls from the training is if a coach or another adult “accidentally” walks into a locker without clothes on after showering, and youth are present.
“The intent is to desensitize kids to seeing someone without their clothes on,” Duncan said. “They’re being intentional. I gave that example from the course, that if something like that happens, it’s not acceptable.”
Gore said the news about Nassar is especially hard to discuss with kids because as a physician, he held a position of trust. In her practice, a parent or another adult is present when she exams children and even young adolescents, Gore said.
For younger ones, she explains what’s going on in the child’s way of understanding.
“I say, ‘I’m just going to look; your mom and dad are here, and they’re saying it’s OK.”
For school-age children, Gore encourages parents to bring up discussions about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, perhaps asking kids first what they think if overhearing news on the radio, or you both view a TV character badly treating someone physically.
“Also stress that they won’t ever get in trouble if they come and talk to you,” Gore said. “Kids, I think, know what’s right and not right, but how do you get kids to trust their intuition?
“Tell them that if this doesn’t feel good to you, it probably isn’t OK. If someone comes up to you in playground and they’re mean to you, that’s not OK. If they touch you in a way that doesn’t feel right, and you’re uncomfortable, then that’s not OK.”
As questions come up, adults should use a gentle, reassuring voice and developmentally appropriate language in talking to children facing trauma or uncomfortable situations, added Crump.
“Listen without judgment,” he said. “I’m talking from 5-year-olds all the way up to 18-year-olds.”
He’s seen older students get furious over bad news emerging in the world, while younger students might act out more because of bad situations. Sometimes a parent might over-think what kids want to know. Think about it at a kids’ level, rather than an adult one, he said.
Another important part of conversations is to somehow convey to a child that it’s never their fault if there’s abuse, harassment or inappropriate touch, Gore said.
“Teach kids what are secrets, and is it ever OK to keep a secret? As young as age 5, tell them if an adult says, ‘We’re going to have a little secret,’ that’s not OK. Talk about who are people important in your life that it’s OK for you to talk to.
“Say to your children, ‘If anyone touches you, I won’t be mad; it’s not your fault. I need to know so I can get you help.’”
The late elementary and middle school years are the time for conversations about human growth and development, Gore said. Talk about puberty before it happens. For girls, that’s typically by age 9; boys, it’s ages 10 or 11.
Gore asks parents point blank during appointments for their children whether they’ve talked to them about puberty and upcoming changes to their bodies. She’s heard parents say they’ve avoided the topic, while assuming children will learn in school.
“There are parents on top of it, and some who get that deer-in-the-headlights look. I get their permission, and then I talk right to the kids, so at least they’re hearing it from one source other than school. I give the parents resources.”
Early conversations can empower kids.
“As they get older, talk to them about sexuality,” she said. “You can talk about what is appropriate touch, and if you’re not comfortable with, that it’s OK to set healthy boundaries.”
Gore said any discussion about sexual intercourse should cover the topic of consent, that both parties say yes. “If either party says no, then no means no,” she said. She also mentions that if alcohol or drugs are ever present, that’s an automatic “no,” which Gore tells her own children.
This time also means new emotions and feelings are emerging, including attractions. Adolescent brains are trying to understand what doesn’t make sense, like the Michigan doctor’s sexual abuses.
Crump also suggests that parents look for opportunities to talk about these topics, although adolescents often seek more independence. Parents must balance that with keeping them safe.
“That’s letting them know you can have these conversations,” he said. “A mistake is when parents go about it saying, ‘You’re fine aren’t you?’ It’s because they’re not comfortable discussing it.”
If someone has experienced trauma, they need a safe connection with a trusted adult, he said.
“If you wait for children to come to you, they don’t take the first step,” he said. “Look for opportunities to start a discussion, listen to their feelings and thoughts.
“Kids will only take you as far as they feel safe. If you become agitated, that might be as far as they go. Let them know you care.”
It’s no surprise that teens often don’t want to talk about sex with their parents. The conversations usually are among friends, but parents can still look for opportunities to talk.
Adults – parents, teachers, doctors – also can watch for warning signs of abuse.
“We as doctors talk to patients about their physical bodies, but also hopefully we’re recognizing that it’s their minds and emotional well-being also that help them be healthy,” Gore said.
Don’t avoid uncomfortable topics. She suggests starting with simple questions, such as asking teens about what they’ve heard around the national dialogue on sexual harassment and abuses, and what they and friends are saying about it.
“We know statistically, it does happen,” she said. “By high school, you can talk very directly. Hey, that is really horrifying news, what do you think? Generate an open-ended conversation. Get their opinions.”
Talks also can go toward asking what the youth would do if that ever happened to them, or if he or they hear a friend talking about abuse.
“As kids get older, it’s re-installing each time for these kids they can say no. If you have to walk away, you can. Talk to them about peer pressure. Emphasis if there’s ever sexual assault, male or female, the victim is never at fault.
“I think there is sometimes shame that prevents people from talking. With the #MeToo, we’re sort of breaking through this wall of shame.”