Monday, March 4, 2024

Carousel Center: Here’s how Wilmington-area parents can talk to their kids about sexual abuse

Video: A PSA on child abuse provided by the Carousel Center.

Sexual abuse of children is at the center of the ongoing scandal at New Hanover County Schools, but how can parents talk to their kids about it?

WILMINGTON — In the wake of recent events involving former New Hanover County teacher Michael Earl Kelly and the school systems, the Carousel Center is offering information about child sexual abuse and how to address it.

Approximately 1 out of every 10 children face child sexual abuse, according to the Carousel Center, a Wilmington-based non-profit that provides a range of support services for children who are the victims of sexual abuse.

According to the Carousel Center, the topic is often left undiscussed despite its impact on the whole community — but awareness and education is the only way to prevent it or mitigate its impact. No one ever expects their child, or a child they care about, to tell them that they have been sexually abused, so it is difficult to know how to respond to such an unimaginable statement.  And as if it is not difficult enough to imagine, children who have been sexually abused are almost always abused by someone known and trusted to the child and family. The help combat this issue, the Carousel Center offers steps parents and teachers can take to help identify abuse and seek help for the child.

It is important to note that many children experience embarrassment or shame when sexually abused. Some may have been told not to tell, or even threatened in order to keep them quiet, according to the Carousel Center. Most children do not tell right away, some don’t even tell until they reach adulthood.  

Three steps for talking to children about abuse

According to Carousel Center VSP Executive Director, Amy Feath, there are three important steps to keep in mind when identifying abuse:

RECOGNIZE – Children often do not tell directly or explicitly.  They may not have the words or the understanding. They may say something like “he messed with me” or “she touched me” or “I don’t like him/her”. Listen and ask them to tell you more.  Some children don’t tell at first, but someone sees something or discovers something that is concerning. Don’t ignore it. Reach out for help if you’re not sure what to do and report it.

RESPOND – If a child discloses abuse to you, listen. Believe them (the investigators in our community will figure it out). Don’t ask too many questions, as children may get confused or feel unbelieved.  Use “tell me about” to find out enough to make sure they’re safe. Thank them for telling you and reassure them that you’re going to help them.  And then report it immediately.  

REPORT – In the state of NC, every single person is a Mandated Reporter of child maltreatment. If a child tells you about abuse, or you suspect a child has been abused, you are required by law to report it to Department of Social Services in the county where you live (reports may be made anonymously). This is how we, as a community, keep children safe.  During normal business hours, you may contact your local Department of Social Services. After hours, you may call 911 and ask for the on-call social worker. If a child (or you) are in immediate danger, you can always call 911. (You can find regional contact information at the end of this article.)

Start the conversation

Feath reiterated that child sexual abuse is a topic that is often kept secretive and not discussed. But silence can enable abusers, and the only way to combat this issue to bring it to life. This includes parents and teachers discussing the issue with their children.

According to Carousel Center Clinical Services Supervisor Julie Ozier, there are a few ways parents can begin this difficult conversation with their children.

“Talking to your children about sexual abuse and body safety is not a one-time conversation,” Ozier says. “It is part of on-going relationship and discussion and varies as the child grows and develops. Have the conversation in a neutral, positive way. Encourage them to ask questions and you will always do your best to answer them. This includes as children develop into adolescence and begin asking harder questions about sexuality.”

A big part of this conversation is helping children to understand their bodies in a respectful way and teach them to properly assert their personal boundaries. Ozier offers parents a few steps to teach this to children:

  1. Give your child accurate but age-appropriate information about their bodies.  Teach your child proper terms for their private parts. 
  2. Explain to your child that the parts of their body covered by a bathing suit are private (not shameful or embarrassing).  Private means that no one should look at them or touch them (except a baby/toddler needs help changing/bathing/applying medication or a doctor is checking them, with a parent present) and that no one should show them someone else’s private parts or want them to touch someone else’s private parts. 
  3. They should never keep secrets – especially about private parts.  Secrets are different than surprises. Secrets make people feel bad and are to never be told whereas surprises, are meant to be told eventually and makes people happy.
  4. Tell them  that if someone breaks or tries to break the private part rules, they should ALWAYS tell a trusted adult (have them name 5 people they should tell, ie parents, grandparents, teacher, etc), and that they will NOT BE IN TROUBLE and you will not be mad at them, even if someone tells you something different.
  5. Tell them that they should tell you, EVEN IF IT IS SOMEONE WE LOVE AND TRUST, that you will believe them. 
  6. Teach them to respect other’s bodies too.  If a child is not in the mood for a hug or touch, that is okay, respect their “no” as it applies to their own bodies. 
  7. Continue to have the conversation and remind them as the topic comes up or seems appropriate.

Not only will these lessons help parents to identify abusers and help children recover, they will also help children approach sexuality in a healthy way when they are adults.

Local resources

The Cape Fear region has numerous accredited resources for children and families that may be impacted by child sexual abuse or maltreatment, including The Carousel Center, Inc., which specializes in evaluating and treating children and families when there are concerns for abuse.  Each county has a multi-disciplinary team of professionals working together to keep children safe.  

If a child has experienced abuse, they should have a trauma-informed comprehensive assessment by a mental health professional.  There are very effective therapy models for children who have trauma-related symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, acting out, or difficulty sleeping. There are advocacy and support services for the abused child’s caregivers. Many of these services are covered by insurance and/or offered at no cost to the family.

“Most importantly – children are resilient,” says Feath. “The most important factor in helping a child recover from the impact of abuse is a relationship with a supportive, caring adult.”

Resources, contacts, and more information

New Hanover County Department of Social Services (910) 798-3420

Brunswick County Department of Social Services (910) 253-2077

Pender County Department of Social Services (910) 259-1240

The Carousel Center, Inc. (910) 254-9898 

Rape Crisis Center of Coastal Horizons Center, Inc. (910) 392-7460

Wilmington Domestic Violence Shelter and Services (910) 343-0703 

The Mama Bear Effect – free information, tips on talking with your child, downloadable coloring pages

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