Sexual abuse like molest or rape can befall both boys and girls. Since most perpetrators are known to the victims, children might be reluctant to “tell on” someone they are familiar with, especially if it is a person they respect or have affections for. This is why it is important to keep teaching them that their bodies are private and they have the power to speak up when they feel uncomfortable with any form of physical contact, even if it is just holding hands or receiving hugs, or from someone they know.
Statistics on sexual abuse show that shock and surprise keep victims quiet. To avoid this, role-play possible scenarios, for example, “Let’s say you are on the bus and someone sits next to you and touches your thigh, what do you do?” You can also equip them with sentences that they can fall back on, for example, “Don’t do that, I am not comfortable with it”, “I don’t want to do this, you need to stop now” and establish a standard protocol of what they can do if something happens. This can be as simple as Speak Out, Walk Away and Talk to A Safe Adult. If you have not already done so, teach your tween how to identify a safe adult, for example, someone in authority or a mother with kids.
Sexual abuse can also come in guise, hidden as “fun” or “games”. The perpetrator might ask the victim to keep what happened as a secret, because it is part of the game or even use threats, blame or shame on the victim. To pre-empt this, talk to your child about these common tactics and teach them to raise the red flag if someone asks them to keep a secret from you. On your part, be on the look-out for anyone who is giving special attention to your child, especially if the person tries to get your child alone with him or her.
It is important that you help your child build trust, both in your unconditional love and in your ability to handle whatever is shared with you. The latter could mean not panicking or becoming upset with them. Your child needs the assurance that you will not fault him or her, nor dismiss what is shared, but that you will continue to provide emotional support, give good advice and help resolve the situation.
Watch both your verbal and non-verbal cues when you hear about sexual abuse cases because our children could pick up any negative attitudes we might have towards the victims, and that could make them feel unsafe should they need to share with us in future.
Continue to make yourself a safe place for your children to come to even as they grow into the teenage and emerging years. Even older teens can go into a state of shock when sexual abuse happens. They may passively go along with what’s going on because they do not know what to do or even disassociate and “blank out” the memory as a coping mechanism.
If you suspect your teen to be going through or has gone through something because he or she is suddenly withdrawn, depressed, or fearful of certain places or people, reach out to find out how your child is doing and whether something happened. Let your teen share at their own pace. It may take more than one conversation to get the full story.
At this age, our teens may have started romantic relationships, so it is a good time to talk about boundaries within relationships and respectful and consensual physical touch.
Help your teen see that sexual abuse is any unwanted sexual touch, especially if he or she feels coerced. Coercion can range from “If you do not do this, I will...” statements to “But everyone is doing this”, “I really like it if you do this. Can you do it for me?” and “I thought you said you love me...” It can also involve grooming methods like buying things and paying for your teen over a period of time so that eventually, your teen feels like he or she “owes” the person and has to repay them.
Empower your children to develop and believe in the power of their own voice. Emphasise that they can say “Stop” or “No” at any time and that it is okay to realise they have gone too far or made a mistake and insist on a stop. Help them avoid the trap of thinking they are in the wrong for being in a situation and thus, have no right to stop. “You can always stop” can be a very powerful belief.
Any sexual activity that happens when one party is unable to give consent—for example, being incapacitated, asleep or drunk—is also sexual abuse. Taking photographs or videos of someone in a state of undress like upskirt photos is also sexual abuse; possessing and/or distributing sexual images is considered a crime in Singapore.
You can approach these conversations holistically, for instance, as you explain upskirt photos and why they are wrong, teach your daughters to be observant when wearing skirts, and your sons to avert their eyes if they notice exposure, and for them to step in to help someone if their modesty is threatened. Part of our children’s growth into adulthood may also include experiencing sexual desires. Acknowledge that and avoid letting them feel guilty or ashamed over it.
Sexual abuse is a huge topic and one we hope our children will never experience. To safeguard them, regularly have sex education talks while being a calm and loving presence. As your kids gain understanding on how sex is good within safe perimeters, it can help them identify sexual abuse and understand how wrong it is.
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