Age-appropriate communication with children about child sexual abuse is among one of the key protective measures that adults can undertake.
The implications of not giving age-appropriate information and transferring skills to children can be very damaging.
Silence on this issue can perpetuate further abuse, and leave children suffering over long periods of time for something that can be stopped with timely intervention.
Having worked in Pakistan with both child and adult survivors of sexual abuse, I observed that individuals who were provided basic body protection information as children or timely support by adults after an incident reported fewer clinical complications than those who disclosed abuse for the first time during therapy.
An oft-asked question is about when, what and how to broach this subject with children so that they are not left feeling scared and overwhelmed.
What is the right age to start the conversation?
Having conducted awareness sessions with children of all ages, I found that the more comfortable, open and engaging an adult was, the more comfortable a child became in speaking and openly asking questions.
Children as young as three years old can learn basic age-appropriate information and skills. The right information about body safety and the opportunity to practice skills for dealing with potentially abusive situations are two important aspects of an effective awareness programme for children.
Children aged 3 to 5 years need to learn the basics, i.e. the difference between a good, bad and secret touch; the role of feelings in determining this difference; what to do and most importantly which adult to tell.
Confidently saying ‘no’, shouting out for help, talking to a trusted adult are some of the skills practiced with children.
Stories through books, puppets and cartoons can further reinforce this information.
For children aged 5 to 7 years, basic information about bodily rights, private parts, difference between safe and unsafe situations, assertive communication skills and practice of skills through role-plays should be additionally covered.
An important thing taught to children is to identify more than one person who they can talk to, just in case an adult is unavailable or is unable to believe them. This helps build a support network for children.
Since anyone can be an abuser, with most being someone that the child knows, the emphasis of information should be on the abuse itself, regardless of who the person is.
For children older than 7 years, some myths should be clarified. For example, children should know that abusers are rarely strangers or that boys can also be sexually abused, or that abusers do not always physically threaten children but lure through affection and gifts.
What kind of information should be shared?
Various forms of abuse including vulnerability through cyberspace should be shared with children. Teenagers, for example, should be provided additional information about consent and respect in relationships.
Children with special needs should not be left out of these discussions, since evidence indicates them being more vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Being vigilant and aware of the adults around the child and their nature of interaction with them can be a helpful and protective measure, especially for those with mental disabilities.
Most importantly, no matter what the age, children need to be clearly and repeatedly told that the fault for the abuse does not lie with them, even if they have accepted gifts, enjoyed the abuser’s company, or could not say ‘no’, etc.
Building children’s overall self-esteem, providing them opportunities to express their opinions and think critically can be considered as important foundations for the work on body protection for both girls and boys.
The importance of two-way communication
Providing information through open, two-way communication that allows children to share their views and feelings about the issue is extremely critical. This allows adults to find out what children already know and what needs to be clarified.
When adults give this information in the form of a lecture, or in a manner where children sense that the onus of responsibility for preventing abuse lies on them, there are more chances that they will not disclose such incidents.
Adults may not always be around and children may not always be able to speak to adults due to feelings of shame, fear, helplessness, and their relationship with the abuser.
Always try and take out time to talk to children about their day-to-day activities, their feelings, their challenges and achievements.
This can further create an overall atmosphere of trust and confidence enabling them to talk about difficult issues.
How to identify signs of sexual abuse in children
There is no single indicator of sexual abuse, since abuse can be of many different forms and may affect children differently.
However, any sudden change in a child’s behaviour, academic performance, sleep, appetite or emotions, for which no other reason can be found, should alert an adult to the possibility of sexual abuse.
In addition, age-inappropriate sexual information, sexual acting-out with peers, toys, adults, and inexplicable bruises or marks on the body should also be investigated.
Adults often feel anger, guilt and helplessness at a child’s disclosure of abuse. Blaming the child, scolding her for not revealing the issue earlier or asking her to not discuss or forget about it are unhelpful and detrimental responses.
Sensitive and effective ways to respond to a child’s disclosure of the abuse include listening openly, appreciating and not blaming the child, and normalising the feelings evoked by abuse.
Necessary steps for ensuring the child’s safety should also be taken. For example, helping him develop a safety plan in case he comes across the same situation, confronting or reporting the abuser, and blocking access of the abuser.
This becomes complicated when the abuser is related to the child. However, calling out on the abuse and taking safety measures are essential.
If critical thinking, values, self-confidence and life skills are essential for children’s personality, then bodily safety and protection should be seen as part and parcel of that development.
While the need for effective laws, sensitive reporting and response mechanisms in Pakistan cannot be denied, it would be negligent not to do our bit by empowering children through basic safety and protective measures.
The writer is a clinical psychologist and has worked for 19 years with children and adults in Pakistan especially on trauma and violence.
If your child has been a victim of sexual abuse, you can contact the following organisations for assistance: Sahil, Konpal, Aahung and pediatricians and child & adolescent psychiatrists at The Aga Khan University.