PARENTING Communicate with your child as often as possible. An interactive approach not only helps create awareness, but also removes inhibitions about discussing sensitive subjects such as Child Sexual Abuse, says HEMA VIJAY

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a chilling and widespread reality in our society with several incidents being reported by the media. All of us wish to keep our kids safe from abusers. But intentions alone hardly suffice. Besides eliminating/reducing one-on-one situations between a child and its potential abusers, a crucial way of safeguarding children from CSA is by communicating with them. No child can afford to miss out on this communication, because uninformed kids are easy and favoured targets for child sexual abusers.

Start early

Communication could begin early even when children are just two or three years old, when we teach them to identify the parts of the body. “Help kids understand that some parts of the body are private and that nobody has a right to touch them there, and that it is not right for them to touch anybody’s private parts either,” says Vidya Reddy, founder, Tulir - Centre for Prevention and Healing of child sexual abuse. And don’t label private parts as ‘shame shame’, ‘flower’, ‘snake’, etc.

Use teaching opportunities

For instance, when a child wonders about a breast-feeding mother and asks, “What is Rekha aunty doing under the dupatta?” give a simple answer, “Aunty is giving milk to her baby, and nobody can look at or touch a person’s private parts,” recommends Dr. D. Jeyameena, child psychiatrist and founder of ‘Empowered Kids’. Also, teach your child the ‘touch rules’ outlined on websites such as Tulir (www.tulir.org)

Semantics are important here; you can’t tell a child ‘Don’t allow someone to touch your private parts’. The child can’t ensure that he is obeyed. “The ‘allow’ word puts the responsibility of the abuse on the child, and the child may end up thinking ‘Amma told me not to allow it, but he did it to me. Amma will be angry with me for allowing it. So I can’t tell her and take help from her,” cautions Vidya. What parents should say is, “It is not right for someone to touch your private parts.”

Identifying safe adults

“Try the ‘If’ questions... Ask your child: ‘If you get lost in a mall or a wedding, who would you call or seek help from? If someone says, ‘I’ll take you to your mother,’ would you go with him? If someone wanted to touch your private body parts, what would you do?’ This helps the child concretise issues and identify safe adults she can approach in moments of crisis,” suggests Vidya.

Understanding emotions

Kids today are more comfortable with emoticons and generic terms such as ‘yucky’ or ‘great’ rather than ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘confused’, ‘uncomfortable about touch’, etc. Parents have to help children identify and label feelings. Points out Vidya, “For instance, there might be an uncle who is playful and gives nice gifts, but might be abusing the child. The child may not be able to pinpoint the abuse and feels confused, not knowing what to say to the parent.”

Secret or not?

Parents should teach kids to distinguish between unsafe ‘speak secrets’ and safe ‘keep secrets’. For instance, if someone tells the child that ‘they could do something that shouldn’t be told to anyone’, that is an unsafe ‘speak secret’. Make it clear to kids that such secrets are not allowed. On the other hand, a surprise gift that the child plans to give its parent/grandparent is a safe ‘keep’ secret and is acceptable.

It is okay to say ‘No’

Parents should teach kids assertiveness skills — that it is okay for kids to say ‘No’ to anyone, even close relatives. Parents should also learn to discuss and engage with children. Then, it gets easier to make them understand why they should obey commands such as ‘tidy up the table’, and why they could refuse to touch or be touched by someone. This implies a lot of re-learning for Indian parents, who have been brought up to ‘obey and not talk back’ and are expected to bring up their kids the same way. Says Vidya: “When a visiting relative or friend showers your child with hugs/kisses and your child finds it uncomfortable, take the initiative and dare to say aloud, ‘My son doesn’t like such physical contact. Don’t do that.’ This gives the child confidence that he can report a physical abuse to you and that you would be on his side.”

Engage with kids

A potentially costly mistake that many parents make is in failing to engage with, listen and talk to their kids, even though they might love them. Without such an interactive relationship, kids wouldn’t feel confident about approaching their parents to report abuse or seek help.

Finally, remember that safety from CSA calls for ongoing education, just like any other education in life.