The recent media coverage of child sexual abuse, including the Royal Commission and the George Pell verdict has put the topic at the forefront of many conversations. However, we may not be talking to the people who need to hear it most
, according to CareSouth psychologist Christine Gregory.
While sexual abuse and grooming is a challenging topic for parents, carers and staff to discuss with the children and young people we support, it is one that we need to have to help keep them safe.
Christine believes the media saturation of the Pell case gives adults an opportunity to open the lines of communication with young people about grooming, sexual abuse and protective factors that will help keep them safe.
“So many things in the news are so devastating and as caregivers we try so hard to protect our kids from it,” said Christine. “But sometimes when we try to protect them from it, we’re avoiding it. If we’re brave enough to have that conversation with them, it’s a teachable moment where we can talk to young people, in an age-appropriate way, about how to protect themselves from grooming and sexual abuse.
“The fact that it is in the media at moment means we can say to young people, ‘I’m not sure if you saw it on the news but this is what’s happened’. And then you can start the conversation that way. That’s why these things that are in the spotlight become teachable moments because they give us a way in.”
Christine admits it can be difficult to educate young people about the dangers of grooming because it’s so insidious children and adults may be unaware it’s occurring, particularly when it’s online.
Christine points out that the difference between a positive relationship with an adult and a grooming relationship with an adult is the secrecy. Child sexual abusers are opportunistic and choose their victims based on whether they think they can get away with it. Often they do this by offering rewards that must be kept a secret.
“Grooming always starts out small,” said Christine. “It occurs when somebody is particularly nice to you, they pay extra attention to you, they say complimentary things to you but ask you to keep it a secret or do something in return that makes you feel uncomfortable. It can go on for years before any sexual abuse occurs and it’s often people that families know and trust, or someone online who we don’t know is an adult.”
“The key aspect that we need to let kids know about when we are teaching them what grooming behaviours look like, is that if an adult tells you that this needs to be kept a secret, that’s the alarm bell moment,” said Christine. “We need to make sure that our kids know that having a friendship with an adult should never be kept a secret, and having friendships online should never be a secret.”
While it may be a challenging conversation to have with children and young people, it is a way to empower them by giving them the tools and a voice to keep themselves safe. These tools include ensuring children use the correct terms when discussing private parts and understand that their body is theirs and it is not okay for others to look at, touch or feel.”
“It’s really important to be age-appropriate,” said Christine. “For younger children you can talk about not allowing anyone to touch your private parts, you can explain that grooming behaviour might be buying you lollies but asking you to do something to get the lollies like touching private parts.
“With teenagers I would be pointing out that if someone shows you naked pictures and you haven’t asked for it that’s not okay, that’s considered a sexual assault.”
Findings from the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Sexual Abuse found children who have suffered trauma are over-represented as victims. But there are protective factors that can help to keep our kids safe and one of the biggest protective factors is providing children with a network of safe people around them.
“We know that having a positive adult role model in your life is a major protective factor against grooming and sexual abuse,” said Christine.
“Helping children to identify who those adults in their life could be is really important. Ask a child ‘who are the safe people for you’? And if they make any disclosures always believe them and thank them for being brave and talking to you about it.
“If grooming or sexual abuse has occurred young people need to believe that there is someone in their life that they can share that information with. And that’s where the responses of that person are so important.
“We need to let the child know that it is never their fault. We need to always believe them and we need to not react in a big way, we need to just stay calm and listen and ask questions but not put words in their mouths.”
The Office of the Children’s Guardian has developed a protective behaviours program based on a series of books. The SAFE series book help children identify the parts of their body that are private, help them understand their feelings and encourage them to think about five people who they trust to help them if they feel scared, sad or upset.
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Young people can also call the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800