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Talking about sensitive topics with kids

- Wits University

Renate Gericke, a clinical psychologist offers guidelines on how to talk to children about sensitive topics without scaring them.

Child Protection Week

As South Africa marks Child Protection Week, Renate Gericke, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology at Wits says that parents need to start talking to their children as early as possible about potentially dangerous situations and prepare them for these.  

Parents often struggle to talk about sensitive topics with their children and use ambiguous words that confuse or frighten children.

“It is possible to have these conversations without eliciting alarm, by using child-appropriate language”, she says.

Gericke offers guidelines on how to have these conversations with children from the age of around three years. Importantly, these guidelines will enable children to counter what potential predators might say to them as a way to blur boundaries and win the child’s trust.

Guidelines for adults to talk about sensitive topics with children:

Sexual abuse

  • Name the genitals as ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ as soon as children start exploring these areas from around age two. If other names are used, it is harder for teachers, mental health professionals, and other guardians to be alerted to a potential boundary violation.
  • Explain, “no-one is allowed to touch your penis/vagina except for you [ the child him/herself] as it is private”.
  • Self-exploration, which is natural, is also only permitted in the safety of the home. While siblings often like to explore each other’s bodies through touch, to accentuate the privacy boundary as impenetrable, emphasise that “not even your sister, brother, Mommy, Daddy, or anybody else is allowed to touch your penis/vagina”.
  • Identify safe people for your child to talk to and give them permission to fight back. As children are socialised to respect adults as authority figures, they need to be given clear permission from the people they trust most to fight back. Tell children, “If someone tries to touch your penis/vagina, scream, shout, hit, kick, bite and run to me or Daddy, Gogo, teacher, police officer etc.”
  • Trust and ensuring the child knows you are on their side is important. Reassure your child: “I will believe you” and “as your Mommy/Daddy, it is my job to look after you.” As a parent, you can then investigate further. Perpetrators often tell children that they will not be believed, and exploit the feeling of shame survivors of sexual abuse feel. Tell the child that nothing will ever change how much you love them.

Child kidnapping and trafficking

  • No one unfamiliar to the family is allowed to collect the child or pick up the child. If an unfamiliar person should attempt to collect or pick up the child, instruct the child to kick, bite, hit, and shout “You are not my Mommy!” or “You are not my Daddy!” Just shouting “help!” is ineffective, as this can be dismissed as the child “having a tantrum”. 
  • Direct your child to find the nearest police officer or security guard, and point them out when in shopping malls or parks.

Bullying at school

  • Hitting and teasing are not allowed. Explain to the child that they are not allowed to hit or tease anyone and no one is allowed to hit or tease them.
  • Explain that teasing is when people say things to you that make you feel bad inside.
  • Direct your child to tell their teacher and you so that you can deal with the situation.

In order to avoid overwhelming your child with too much information, address each safety procedure separately. Your tone needs to clear and firm, and without anxiety. If you feel anxious, your child will too.

It is important to remember that clear and impenetrable boundaries help your child feel safe in the world.

Gericke stresses that, after the conversation,  it is important to ask the child how they feel about what you discussed (sad, worried, scared) and address any concerns.