St. Michael's sexual assault: How to discuss sexual violence with your kids

<i>The Canadian Press</i>
The Canadian Press

The alleged gang sexual assault at a Toronto all-boys Catholic school has dominated headlines for days, but the sensitive nature of the story may make it difficult for some parents to discuss it with their children.

The topic may be one that is difficult to avoid as unfortunately, sexual offences against children in Canada aren’t uncommon. Statistics Canada says that in 2012, there were about 14,000 child and youth victims of sexual offences in the country — at a rate of 205 victims for every 100,000 children and youth.

It also says that the victims of police-reported sexual offences are disproportionately children and youth, with 55 per cent being under 17 years old.

With those startling numbers, experts say talking about sexual violence with your kids and ensuring they’re able to talk about it is important.

“Parents need to be honest with kids about the fact that sexual violence does happen in our society. It’s an unfortunate thing,” Danielle Aubry, CEO of Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse, tells Yahoo Canada.

“We know that children, adolescences and young adults are the most vulnerable to sexual violence by leaps and bounds.”

Talk with your teen

U.S. organization Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network says that using the media to make the discussion around sexual violence relevant to your teen is a good idea.

“Ask your teen’s opinion on something happening on social media, in the news, in a new movie, or on a popular TV show,” RAINN says. “Asking their opinion shows them that you value their point of view and opens up the door for more conversation.”

It also suggests that parents talk open and directly with their teens about sexual assault, adding that some may have some sexual assault misconceptions due to things they have have picked up from the media or friends.

RAINN also says using your own experience to help tell a safety story may help with the dialogue.

ALSO SEE: ‘We have to do better’: St. Michael’s private school principal acknowledges problems amid police probe

“Sharing your own experiences can make these conversations relevant and feel more real to teens,” it adds. “If you don’t have an experience you feel comfortable sharing, you can tell a story about someone you know.”

Start the discussion early

Therapist, writer and podcaster Natasha Daniels says that parents could help prevent sexual abuse early in their child’s life by using body part names while they’re young and teaching them that some parts of their body aren’t for others to see.

“Feeling comfortable using these words and knowing what they mean can help a child talk clearly if something inappropriate has happened,” Daniels explained on the Child Mind Institute’s website.

“Tell your child matter-of-factly that no one should touch their private parts and that no one should ask them to touch somebody else’s private parts.”

Daniels also suggests telling your child that keeping secrets about their body isn’t OK and that they won’t be in trouble if you tell them about a “secret” about their body.

And for kids, Aubry says that often struggle with understanding how someone could hurt another in such of a way.

“It’s a really confusing thing for kids to think about how your peers or even your friends, people you know, people who you go to school [with] are capable of hurting each other like that,” she says.

“I would really encourage parents to allow their kids to express their feelings about it too to make sure that they’re allowed to express their feelings because it’s also a very scary thing.”

DefIne sexual assault

Alberta sex-ed website Teaching Sexual Health says that sexual assault can be sex without consent and says talking about consent is important when your child is still young.

“Help your child understand that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to make decisions about their body,” the site says.

“Encourage your child to pay attention to other people’s cues about personal boundaries by watching other’s body language.”

It also suggests to practice what to say and do your child if they don’t feel comfortable and to encourage them to say something if they feel something isn’t right.

And Aubry says that messages in the media may make consent seem trivial on the surface.

“There are so many messages in our movies … that consent is something that you can kind of just bulldoze over and convince someone to change their mind, when in fact they’re not really changing their mind but they’re being pressured to do it,” she says.

“You can say, ‘So when someone doesn’t give consent, if you continue to engage in those kinds of activities when someone is not consenting, then that’s when it turns into a criminal offence.’”

If your kid has been assaulted

Teaching Sexual Health also says that the way you respond to your child if they have been assaulted is important. It suggests to listen, believe and to show compassion to your child.

ALSO SEE: St. Michael’s scandal raises questions about student safety at school

“Stay calm and give them your full attention,” the site says. “Let them know that talking about the assault takes courage and strength.”

It also adds to ensure that they know that the assault isn’t their fault.

“Let them know that talking about the assault takes courage and strength,” the site adds.

However, Aubry says that it’s often difficult for kids who have been sexually abused to speak out because the abuse usually happens by people they know.

“When it comes to sexual violence — sexual abuse, sexual assault — even if you do talk to your kids, it is not a guarantee that they would ever tell you if something happened to them, and that is the most heartbreaking thing,” she says.

“Kids know that, especially if it’s someone in the family, that if they disclose it’s going to blow the family apart.”

While that’s the case, Aubry adds that it’s still important for parents to speak with their children so they know it’s not their fault and that they are not responsible.

“They may not be able to tell anyone right away, but if they carry some of those messages, that’s going to be helpful.”

Sometimes, Aubry adds, kids may test the waters to see if it’s OK to talk about what has happened to them.

“If you’re thinking that something is going on and you approach them and they don’t tell you, then don’t give up and don’t think that there’s necessarily nothing wrong,” she says.

“Sometimes just they’re not ready to tell. They want to tell, but they can’t for a lot of different reasons.”

While #MeToo and stories about sexual violence in the news may have made society face some uncomfortable truths, Aubry says that it provide an opportunity to change the narrative and discussion around sexual violence.

“We have a responsibility as adults, as parents, as a society to keep this conversation going because it’s a reality for children and adolescents,” she says. “So if we don’t talk about it, then where’s the openness and where’s the encouragement for kids to talk about it?”

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