How To Talk To Your Kids About Sexual Abuse
I will never forget having to explain the Sandy Hook shooting to my oldest son. I had stayed home from the office that day because I was sick. From the time I woke up that morning, I watched in horror and disbelief as the details of the tragedy unfolded on national news stations. My son could tell that something was wrong. So, instead of acting like the world that we live in was not a broken place, I tried to explain the tragedy and loss in a way that he could understand. It was not an easy conversation, but many times the most important conversations are not the easiest ones.
Talking to children about difficult topics can be terrifying for parents, yet such conversations must take place. We cannot act like our world is not fallen and in need of redemption. There are evil people in the world that intend to do harm to others. If we are going to love our neighbors as ourselves (which must necessarily include the children that God has entrusted to us), then we must also warn them about evil in age-appropriate ways.
A plan to talk about sexual abuse
This is particularly true with the matter of sexual abuse. Talking about the topic of sexual abuse is complex because it affects various aspects of our humanity. For instance, while parents want to give their children a biblical vision of sexuality that affirms its goodness and design for the context of marriage, parents must also talk about sexuality in a way that acknowledges the disordered and wicked desires of some people who attempt to exploit it. In other words, because our world is broken, it is not enough to simply affirm what is good about God’s plan for sexuality without also acknowledging that some have taken God’s good gift and sought to use it in a sinful way that is contrary to his design.
There is a necessary balance to be struck when talking with children about things like sexuality and sexual abuse. Previous generations have often spoken of sexuality in ways that failed to rightly celebrate the goodness of God’s design, opting to speak mainly in terms of prohibitions and fear. The danger in our day is to focus so much on the celebration of the goodness of sexuality that we neglect to place it within the broader framework of a fallen world that is longing for redemption in Christ. Thus, we must speak to our children with a wisdom that strikes the balance between God’s design and humanity’s sinful attempts to exchange the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1). We must learn to speak in a way that says, “Yes,” to sex in the right context while also being able to say, “No,” where necessary.
When teaching children about their biology and sexuality, we must also admit and explain that not everyone in their life may agree with God’s design. Evil people, even people in their churches, their schools, and tragically, even their homes, may seek to violate and abuse their innocence. So, how can you help your children be prepared to live in a broken world where sexual abuse is a tragic reality? I would suggest following the H.E.L.P. plan (or something similar to it) to prepare them:
- Have the hard conversation now rather than later.
- Equip them with specific, age-appropriate details regarding sexuality and sexual abuse.
- Listen to them and let them know that you will believe and support them.
- Pray that God would protect them every day.
Putting our plan into action
Here is how my wife and I have put this plan into use with our children:
A few years ago, my wife and I began a conversation with my oldest son about God’s good design for sexuality. The conversation did not end two years ago, though. It is an ongoing conversation.
He knows that if he has questions about anything related to sex he can speak with us at any time. We made it clear from the beginning that there is no need to be ashamed about the conversation because sex is God’s idea.
We told him to let us know if he hears or sees anything that he has questions about or feels uncomfortable with and assured him that he would never get in trouble for talking to us about this subject. Why? Because we want him to talk to us, not his peers or other adults. This is a conversation that God intended for parents to have with their children (Prov. 1:7-8).
In fact, this is a conversation that my wife and I have been having in some form or another with all of our children from the time that they could bathe. In an age-appropriate manner, we explain to our children that certain parts of our bodies are not appropriate for others to see or touch. As the children get older, we go into greater depth. We don’t want our children to learn about anatomy from pop culture or pornography. We want to disciple them to know God as creator and designer of their bodies, for their good and his glory.
A conversation before camp
So, as our oldest son prepared for church camp last summer, we sat him down to revisit the topic of sexuality, particularly as it related to sexual abuse. While it was uncomfortable, it was necessary.
We explained to him that no one should be watching him in the restroom or the shower, regardless of what someone may tell him. We explained that it was never appropriate for an adult to touch him or insist on any type of affection from him (a hug, a kiss, sitting on a lap, etc.). We were specific, because we did not want to resort to vagueness in order to avoid the discomfort of the difficult subject.
We established a code word or phrase that he could use when we talked on the phone that would alert us to a problem. If he used the word or phrase, then we would immediately pick him up.
We told him that regardless of the threats that someone might use against him or his family, we would protect and believe him. We told him that while he should be respectful to adults, he did not have to comply with any request or demand that was outside the normal course of adult-child interaction.
Finally, to make sure that he understood, we talked through a few scenarios, asking him what he would do if he encountered them. Then, we prayed that God would protect him and the other children headed to camp.
Was the conversation easy? Not at all. Was it necessary? Absolutely, because loving and caring for the vulnerable requires uncomfortable but frank conversations that prepare them and expose the wicked and unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11).
Conversations are not the end-all-be-all measures to prevent the wickedness of sexual abuse. Evil people will continue to do evil things in this world until Christ returns to make everything sad become untrue. Until then, we weep over the brokenness and do our best to prepare and protect the vulnerable while being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).