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Talking with kids about abuse

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE
  • Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2012 - 3:36 PM

The Minneapolis mother of four thought she had done all the right things with her kids: Open talk about tough issues, frank discussions of sexuality including calling body parts by their right names, frequent expressions of love and support.

"Then I'm driving with my 4-year-old, and she said, 'Mommy, will you be angry if I tell you something sexy?' My heart just froze," she said.

That was seven years ago. Since then, the family has endured a spate of foster care stays while authorities sorted out what was going on with her two boys and two girls, ages 4 to 13. The youngest had been abused by neighbor boys and all four kids were experimenting sexually with each other.

"I should have known how to prevent this. I should have had the words," said Cathy, whose last name is not being used to protect the identity of her children.

Wrenching issues of child sexual abuse rose again last month after Boy Scout officials were forced by the Oregon Supreme Court to make public a decades-long national list of volunteers accused of sexually abusing children -- the latest in a litany of teachers, coaches, clergy and neighbors.

So how do you talk with your kids to arm them against sexual predators, to channel innate sexual curiosity onto a path of healthy sexual development -- and avoid damaging fear and shame about sex, intimacy and touch?

"This is a tough topic for most parents," said Minneapolis therapist and educator Libby Bergman, who works with abused children and families. Bergman has written an education curriculum financed by the McKnight and the Jay and Rose Phillips foundations. She also has counseled Cathy, her husband and their children.

"Most of us did not get good training from our parents about sexuality, let alone preventing sexual abuse," said Bergman, who heads the Family Enhancement Center in Minneapolis. "We need the facts, and we need to be really open in talking and listening to our kids."

The abusers you know

As parents cope with their own often sexually repressive upbringing and today's overt sexual messages in advertising, TV and movies, Bergman said, teaching children to be "both safe and healthy in their own sexuality often takes an act of parental courage."

"We tend to fear abuse by strangers, but that's only 7 percent of sexual abuse," Bergman said.

"Most often, abusers are people we know and trust."

That can be a confounding problem, said Kent York, spokesman for the Twin Cities' Northern Star Council of Boy Scouts.

"Abusers often are polite, caring people who are really good with kids -- exactly the attributes you want to see in a Scout leader," he said. "That's one reason we have the rule of two: Scouts aren't left alone with just one leader."

With varying degrees of effectiveness, schools, Boy Scout troops and many churches and other groups work actively to protect children from abusers. Many check employees and volunteers for criminal backgrounds and teach kids about bad touch, personal boundaries and their right to say no. Some help parents talk with their kids.

Since 1990, the handbooks for Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts have included a parent's guide for protecting children from sexual abuse. It was updated in 2005 and now is a 23-page section that starts each book.

It includes suggestions for what to say, warning signs and how to respond when a child reports abuse. It instructs Scouts about the "Three R's" of protection: Recognize, Resist and Report -- a variation of "Run-Yell-Tell" taught elsewhere. It offers a 10-point Child's Bill of Rights, including to trust your instincts, to say no and to be rude if necessary.

In the Catholic Church, which has acknowledged lapses in protecting children from abusive priests, some parishes also offer training for parents.

More than just 'the talk'

Parents need to start talking with their children about being safe as soon as they can walk and talk, Bergman said.

"You need to be honest and open, recognize that kids at all ages are curious about their bodies and sex," she said.

Until children are 12 or 13, parental advice must be very specific because younger kids will not understand generalizations or abstract terms, Bergman said. "So you tell your young son that nobody else should touch his penis."

"This is not just 'the talk' about sex," she said. "This is a long-term, ongoing process."

Parents should stay engaged in the conversation as children grow up, Bergman said, because "while teenagers might roll their eyes, they really need to know that you care and you'll be there for any topic, including their growing sexual awareness."

But in the end, protecting kids from abuse is the responsibility of adults, Bergman said. "We can help teach what to do, how to respond. But adults are responsible for their safety."

Scouts offered 'a safe place'

Cathy was saddened by news of abusers among volunteers in Boy Scouts, which she dubbed "a healing place for my oldest boy."

That son -- who had initiated the sexual activity among the four children -- rejoined scouting after the family was reunited, and he has excelled there and at school.

Looking back at earlier discussions with her kids about sexuality, she said, "I would have talked more about feelings, more about boundaries and their right to privacy, trusting your instincts. Part of my counseling has been to forgive myself for not being perfect."

"We are healing, all of us," she said. "It has been very hard, but we have grown so much with therapy. We're all supporting each other in recovery. And continuing to talk."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253

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