It’s not easy for anyone who has been abused to talk about it, especially children. They might be scared that the abuser will find out and that the abuse will get even worse. Or they might think that there’s no-one they can tell or that they won’t be believed. They may even assume that what’s happening to them is normal. If they don’t tell you about it, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not happening.
Talking to your child about abuse probably isn’t your go-to conversation topic when you’re spending time with them. However, simply talking about the topic is a good way to teach your child how to stay safe. There’s no need to use strange new words or present scary scenarios, just have ongoing chats with your child.
Here are some tips on how to educate children about abuse and, if you have any concerns about their wellbeing, how to talk to them about potential problems.
Start talking early
You know your child better than anyone, including when they’re ready to start understanding what abuse is and how much detail to go into. You can usually start explaining some simple concepts from the age of four. Instilling the notion that no-one is allowed to do anything to us that we don’t want them to, is a good place to start.
Ask open-ended questions
If you’re concerned about a change in behaviour, the key is to ask open ended questions, like ‘Is there anything bothering you?’, ‘How are you feeling?’ or ‘I’ve noticed (change of behaviour), and I wondered if there’s anyone making your feel unhappy?’.
Despite your best efforts, your child may still not feel able to reveal abuse. Research by the NSPCC into young adults who had suffered childhood abuse found the majority did tell someone about the abuse in some way before they reached 18, but this was usually a long time after the abuse began. If they were sexually abused, it took an average of seven years after the first incident to reveal what had happened.
However, many said that it would have helped if someone had noticed the signs and asked them if anything was happening.
Little and often
Just as with any parenting message, it works best to present a steady drip-drip of information and advice, and make lots of opportunities to chat openly over a period of time - not just a one-off talk that may leave your child confused or embarrassed and with more questions. Try to avoid a big lecture and keep having mini-conversations every so often to ensure they are happy, safe and well-informed.
Pick your moments
Good times to chat are on car journeys, at bath time, getting your child dressed or on a trip to the shops. For slightly older children, a fictional storyline on a soap opera or TV drama can be a good starting point to talk about healthy relationships, boundaries, consent and staying safe without personalising the conversation.
Verbal responses and signs that may reveal abuse
When talking to any child about abuse or suspected abuse, you can look out for verbal signs in their responses or behaviour. Some are more obvious, such as using sexual language you wouldn’t expect them to know, but some are harder to spot.
If a child speaks about being left home alone or with strangers on a regular basis or has a poor bond or relationship with a parent, then this could be a sign. Similarly, if a child becomes secretive and reluctant to share information, it could mean that there may be a problem that they are trying to hide.
Another potential signal is that they don’t want to go home, won’t invite friends home or don’t want you or a professional to drop them off. They could be fearful that someone will see something they think is wrong, but are too embarrassed or afraid to admit it. Similarly, if they suddenly lose contact with friends or don’t want you to see their ‘new’ friends, these could also be signals.
What to do if a child discloses abuse
If you’re in a situation where your own or another child discloses abuse to you, there are a number of steps you can take.
Listen carefully to the child:
Avoid expressing your own views, but show you have heard and understood them. Try not to react with shock or disbelief as this could cause a child to ‘shut down’ or stop talking.
Let them know they’ve done the right thing:
Reassurance is what a child who has been keeping abuse secret craves, so make sure they understand that they have done the right thing and will be helped.
Tell them it’s not their fault:
Abuse is never the child’s fault and they need to know they have done nothing wrong.
Say you believe them:
A child could keep abuse secret for fear they won’t be believed. They’ve told you because they want help, and trust that you’re the person who will believe them and help them.
Explain what you’ll do next:
If age appropriate, explain that you’ll need to report the abuse to someone who will be able to help. It might be hard, especially if a child is worried about what will happen next, but it’s important to be open and honest about the steps you’re going to take.
Report your concerns:
Don’t delay reporting the abuse. If you’re worried about a child’s safety, report it to your local council, the NSPCC or the police. You can remain anonymous when you report your concerns about a child if you’d prefer.
We all have a role to play in keeping children safe. If you think it, report it. Let’s #tackleabusetogether
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the topics in this article, you can find more information and advice at the Department for Education.