Talking with teenagers about child sexual abuse: getting started
But talking about sexual abuse with your child or the child you’re caring for helps to keep your child safe. That’s because talking helps your child understand what sexual abuse is. Also, open and honest conversations send the message that your teenage child can always talk to you and that you’ll listen no matter what.
If you’re not sure how to start, you can talk about sexual abuse as part of conversations about relationships, respect, consent and personal development. For example, you could talk about good things that happen in trusting relationships, like feeling loved and supported. But you might also talk about how relationships can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable, unsafe, disrespected or bullied – and this isn’t OK.
You could use a news report, TV show or talk at your child’s school to start a conversation. Or you could take advantage of everyday opportunities to talk with your child about sexual abuse – for example, over dinner, when you’re driving your child to an after-school activity, and so on.
You don’t have to talk about all aspects of sexual abuse at once. You can come back to conversations later.
All children have the right to move through adolescence safe from abuse. Talking about sexual abuse is part of creating safe environments that help young people grow and thrive.
Consent: helping teenagers refuse or ask
Teenagers have the right to say what happens to their bodies. Understanding and exercising this right can help keep teenagers safe from sexual abuse.
You might say to your child or the child you’re caring for, ‘Your body belongs to you. You have a right to decide who you share your body with. No-one can touch, ask to see, or take photos of your body, or do anything sexual with you unless you say they can. You can say no, no matter who has asked you’.
You can explain that most people do the right thing. But there might be situations where someone your child trusts tries to touch them in a sexual way without consent. This could be an adult friend, family member or another young person.
If someone does try to touch, see or take photos of your child’s body or do anything sexual without consent, the first step is saying ‘No!’
The next step is telling you or another trusted adult. This is essential even if your child has been told to keep it a secret or has been threatened, bribed, blackmailed or tricked into the situation.
Asking for consent
It’s also important to talk with your child about how to ask for consent. You might say, ‘If you want to kiss someone, you need to ask for their consent first. You could say something like, ‘Can I kiss you?’ or ‘I would really like to kiss you. Would that be OK?’
And let your child know that consent for deeper intimacy involves constantly checking that their partner wants the same as they do. It’s important that your child knows that if the other person is silent or hesitant or changes their mind, that’s not consent.
When teenagers know what healthy and respectful relationships look like, they might be able to avoid relationships that put them at risk of sexual abuse.
One way to help teenagers understand respect is by talking about examples that you come across on TV or streaming services, or at the movies.
It’s also important to talk about knowing when a relationship is becoming disrespectful or unsafe and what your child can do. For example, ‘It’s wrong for someone to force you to kiss them, try to get you to do something sexual, or try to be around you when you don’t want them to be. You don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to do, even if you’re going out with someone’.
Safe and unsafe places and situations
It’s a good idea to talk with your child or the child you’re caring for about what makes places and situations safe or less safe.
Here’s how you could describe a safe place: ‘A safe place has supervision by a responsible adult. In a safe place, there are people around whom you know and who could help you if you needed them’.
Here’s how you could describe an unsafe place: ‘An unsafe place is where you can’t see other people around who could help you’.
It’s also a good idea to talk with your child about what to do in unsafe situations. For example:
- ‘What would you do if I wasn’t at training to collect you and someone you’ve only just met offers you a lift home?’
- ‘What would you do if you felt uncomfortable at a sleepover?’
You might need to remind your child about physical warning signs that a situation isn’t safe. For example, your child’s heart might start beating faster and they might feel sweaty or shaky. Or your child might just get a ‘gut feeling’ that things aren’t safe. If your child’s body sends these signs, it’s important for your child to trust the signs and get away from the place or situation.
Knowing who to trust and tell
If there are several trusted people in your child’s life, your child will have someone to talk to about worries and concerns, including sexual abuse. You could work with your child to draw up a list of these people.
If someone on your child’s list doesn’t believe your child, your child needs to keep telling people until someone listens and helps.