Talking to Young People
*This page was created to provide an overview of this issue, and most of the information is geared for adults. However, you can learn more information about child sexual abuse and teen victims on our website.
Talking to a child, especially your teenager, about sensitive topics can be a real challenge. But keeping the lines of communication open is critically important. The possibility that your child could be a victim of sexual assault or relationship violence is a terrifying one, and you may feel at a loss as to how to protect your child and how to ensure that she or he takes these issues seriously.
- Have an age-appropriate discussion.
You don't need to have the same discussion with your nine-year-old as you would with your sixteen-year-old, but there are ways to begin discussing these topics in an age-appropriate way. When younger children have questions, listen carefully and give them the information they're asking for in a simple, direct way. Ask them what they have already heard since children get many messages about sexual violence and relationship violence in the media and their peers, and that information is often inaccurate. While you probably won't get into a lot of detail about sexual and domestic violence with a younger child, it's never too early to begin discussing some simple concepts with your child.
- Stranger Danger
Stranger danger is something you may want to discuss with your young child, however it's important to know that the vast majority of sexual assaults of children are perpetrated by someone the child knows, often someone he or she knows quite well. Make sure your child knows that her or his body is her or his own and no one should do anything to it that makes them feel uncomfortable, scared or bad. Tell your children they have a right to say no if any grownup tries to touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable or scared. Let your child know there is a big difference between bad secrets and good surprises. Any secret that makes a child feel sad or afraid is a secret he or she should not keep.
- Talk to your children about bullying.
Let them know that saying or doing things that make others feel bad is bullying and ask them if it's something they've experienced. If your child is being bullied, you can discuss it with teachers and other officials at the school to work out a constructive way to deal with it. If your child is bullying others, it's never too early to begin to teach her or him the importance of respecting other people and their feelings. Under New Hampshire law, schools now are required to have zero tolerance for bullying.
- The direct approach is usually best.
For example, if you are concerned about an older man your daughter is seeing or if you think you see signs of abuse in your teen's relationship, let her or him know about your concerns in a calm, direct voice. Your child may become emotional or refuse to discuss the matter with you, but don't overreact. At least it's out in the open and you can come back to it later.
The timing of these discussions is important. Beginning a discussion when your child comes in from school or is otherwise distracted or upset is not the best time. Choose a relaxed, quiet situation such as a car ride or make a lunch or dinner date so you have some uninterrupted time to talk.
- Start with a comfortable subject.
Once you've broken the ice, you can move toward more difficult subjects. For example, you might begin with a conversation about the latest styles of women's clothing and then move on to a discussion of whether someone in "sexy" clothes is "asking for" rape. Or you can discuss a case of domestic violence involving a celebrity or an abusive relationship in a movie you've both seen and talk about the ways an abusive person used the abuse to control another person. Remind your child that one of the signs of a strong relationship is mutual respect. Your teen may be under a great deal of peer pressure to dress a certain way, date a particular type of person, or submit to abusive behavior to please her or his partner. Let your teen know that there is no justification for abusive behavior, that the victim of abuse is NEVER to blame, and that the abusive person is solely responsible for his or her own actions.
Sometimes it's easier to get children’s attention and response by asking a question. Here are some ways to approach your child before asking a question:
- State how you feel.
For example, if your son uses vulgar language to describe a girl in school, you could say, "It really disappoints me to hear you talk about another person like that," then ask, "Do you understand why I feel that way?"
- Start by telling a story.
For example, "Today I read a story in a magazine about a teenage girl who was raped at a party, but didn't tell anyone for years. Why do you think she didn't tell anyone? Do you think that could happen in this town?" You could go on to say, "If that happened to you I would want you to tell me. Do you think you would?"
- Share an experience you had when you were their age.
For example, you might say, "When I was in 9th grade there was a boy in my class who told some friends an older man had raped him. But no one believed him." Then ask, "Why do you think no one believed him?"
- Use "teachable moments."
For example, when you're watching a movie together and there are situations in the film that involve sexual assault or relationship violence, ask your child what he or she thinks about the scene and offer your feelings as well. You can also discuss messages your children sees in TV shows, music videos, video games and the messages they may hear about sexuality and relationships in the music they listen to. Your children are being bombarded with messages about these topics by the media, including the Internet. They may welcome a chance to discuss it with you as they struggle to make sense of the often conflicting messages they are receiving.
If your child has been sexually assaulted:
Obtain assistance for your child, yourself and your family. Under New Hampshire Law, abuse of a child under the age of 18 must be reported to the New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth, and Families. Contact your local crisis center for information on options available to you and your child.
Stick to family routines as much as possible.
Take time to think before answering your child's questions. You can tell your child:
- I believe you.
- It was not your fault.
- I'm not angry with you, I am angry with the person who assaulted you.
- Telling was the right thing to do.
- I'm sorry this happened to you.
- I don't know the answer, but I will try to find it for you.
- This has happened to other children and families.
- We will get through this.
- Sexual assault is against the law.
- I will do my best to protect you.
Try not to feel overwhelmed!
These are complex issues and you may feel ill equipped to talk to your children about them, but starting is the most important step. It lets your child know he or she can bring you questions and concerns. There are many resources to help you work through these issues with your children. For more information on subjects related to sexual and dating violence that you may want to discuss with your child, see the materials and publications page of this website for a list of brochures and fact sheets you can order for free from the Coalition.
- According to the New Hampshire Violence Against Women Survey nearly one in four women in New Hampshire has been sexually assaulted. Forty one percent of the most recent sexual assaults reported in the survey occurred before the victim’s 18th birthday, and 83% occurred before the age of 25.
- According to the New Hampshire Violence Against Men Survey one in 20 New Hampshire men reported being sexually assaulted; over two thirds (68%) of those assaults occurred before the victim’s 18th birthday.
- Nearly half of all tweens (11-14 year olds) in relationships (47%) say they know friends who have been verbally abused (called stupid, worthless, ugly, etc.) by a boyfriend/girlfriend.
- One in five 13-14 year olds in relationships (20%) say they know friends and peers who have been struck in anger (kicked, hit, slapped, or punched) by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- More than a third of tweens in relationships (36%) know friends and peers their age who have been pressured by a boyfriend/girlfriend to do things they didn't want to do.
*source: www.Loveisrespect.org, Tween/Teen Dating Relationships Survey 2008.
- Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony E. Wolf, PhD.
- Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher
- Adolescence, The Survival Guide for Parents and Teenagers, by Fenwick and Smith, DK Publishing, 1996.
*Sources: Portions of information used on this page were adapted with the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence's "Guide for Parents."