Talking to Kids About Sexual Abuse

How to teach children to recognize inappropriate behavoir, and speak up if it happens 

Harry Kimball

Senior Writer
Child Mind Institute

A detailed exposé in the New York Times Magazine of sexual abuse at prestigious New York City private school Horace Mann from the 1970s through the 90s has caused a lot of buzz, and backlash, particularly among alumni and current students. Amos Kamil's lengthy article collects the allegations of former students, focusing on the actions of three former teachers, all of whom are now dead, and two of whom were eventually asked to leave the school because of accusations of impropriety. This fact was seized upon by the famously tight-lipped Horace Mann administration when reminding its community of the robust protections it now has in place to prevent abuse and to ensure the safety of anyone who comes forward with allegations.

Of course, the issue of sexual abuse of children by authority figures is not limited to Horace Mann, and dealing with it effectively transcends any one institution. Child Mind Institute president Dr. Harold Koplewicz notes that high profile abuse cases involving good names and august environments—Horace Mann, Joe Paterno's locker room at Penn State, the offices of revered pediatrician Melvin Levine, the cloisters of the Catholic Churchonly serve to illustrate that the threat is, well, everywhere. "We delude ourselves in to thinking that certain situations are without danger," says Dr. Koplewicz.

"At the same time," Dr. Koplewicz continues, "we don't want our kids to be fearful of the world." And this means giving them a thorough education in what is and what is not appropriate behavior to expect from other adults, as well as teaching them that speaking up about possible abuse is always the right thing to do. When parents talk to kids, Dr. Koplewicz says, they should stress that "if this happens, you don't have anything to feel bad about."

How else can you help children understand the severity of the situationand the proper way to respondall without terrifying them? It's not difficult, says Dr. Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist here at the Child Mind Institute who specializes in families and trauma. "It's actually quite difficult to make a kid paranoid about all the adults in his or her life," she says. "I am less worried about scaring a child than about the child being unprepared if they must face an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation."

So what is the best preparation? "When I talk to younger kids about sex and their bodies, I think the most important thing to do is be concrete," Dr. Howard continues. "You can say, 'the only grownups that touch your body are mom and dad and the doctor, particularly private parts.' This changes, of course, as kids get older, but being developmentally appropriate in your conversations does not mean you can't be concrete as well."

"This directness will serve kids well as they grow, too. Silence in the face of sexual abuse often stems from embarrassment and guilt, which in turn come from parents modeling these reactions to sex and sexual topics. So parents should instead model directness, and not worry about being intrusive. If you are worried about an adolescent boy, just ask him, 'Is someone touching your penis?' If he is being abused, he'll tell you. If he isn't, he'll yell at you, but that's what adolescents do."

Whether we are talking about schools, doctors, or churches, the sexual abuses we discuss are most often in the fairly distant past. It is terrible but true that because of shame and embarrassment and misplaced guilt, it often takes years for these trespasses to come to light. And the past was different. As Kamil, who is also a Horace Mann alum, writes of a former student who was abused, "this was 1978, a different era in terms of public awareness about sexual predators. Today children are taught from a young age that unwelcome touches are not O.K., not their fault and should be reported immediately. But at 13, Andrew hadn't heard any of those lectures. He didn't tell his other teachers or his parents. He felt too ashamed to talk about what happened."

But is it better now? Are the procedures and culture we cultivate to protect children enough so that we won't hear the same sad tales in 20 or 30 years? "The safeguards we've put in place in institutional and educational environments have done a lot to make people more aware of how adults interact with children, and to simplify reporting," says Dr. Alan Ravitz, a forensic psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. "But I think it would be naive to think they have reduced the number of predators. So vigilance on the part of parents, and above all the education of children on how to respond to awkward or potentially harmful situations, are still of paramount importance. The main strategy should be encouraging kids to talk to their parents, no matter what."

Still, shame can still hold sway. And the lessons kids need to learn aren't the easiest ones. One commenter on the Times website who says he or she is a current Horace Mann student had this to say:

I was shocked when I read this article. Horace Mann is providing me and so many others with a fantastic education that we are lucky to have. I don't understand why this article was written now...Why slander a school that now has an administration completely different from when the abuse occurred?

Many other commenters weighed in with withering critiques of the use of the word "slander," among other things. But others saw the opportunity to teach. "I know you are not a victim, and you are a young person," reads one reply. "But I hope you can see by telling those who share their stories that they are wrong for doing so that you are contributing to an environment that protects abusers, and keeps people from coming forward." Denial just perpetuates the damage. "By not wanting to think about it," says Dr. Howard, "you are not making it go awayyou are colluding with the abuse." This holds true for both the victims and the community that they belong to, and depend on for support.

Published: June 10, 2012

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