A Guide for Parents
Tips for discussing abuse and violence with your children.
When something happens to a young person in our community the children and youth in our lives may have questions about what happened or concerns about their own safety or the safety of others. As adults, we may wish to discuss aspects of an event to address particular issues, correct misinformation they may be exposed to, and help our children feel safe and protected.
The recent investigation and subsequent charges at St. Michael’s College School has started many discussions among children, youth and their families. Below are some messages to help you have these important discussions.
Words are important
Words like ‘hazing’ and ‘bullying’ can confuse the discussion. What happened was a crime.
Adults are responsible for children's safety
Children should never be given the message that they are responsible for protecting themselves, nor should staff, educators, parents/caregivers expect children to protect themselves. It is the responsibility of adults to protect children. There are laws that compel adults to report harm or suspicions of harm to the authorities.
The persons charged were also youth. While there are consequences to such serious behaviours, the criminal justice system also recognizes the youth are still developing, and learning and will take that into consideration. In Canada the Youth Criminal Justice Act governs the application of law from ages 12 to 18. A judge will make a decision about any consequences that are appropriate.
Teach your children how and where to get help
Let your children know that they can come to you with any kind of problem. Sometimes kids are embarrassed about a situation, and don’t want to come to you. They may also worry about upsetting you. Tell them that although you hope they would come to you, it’s okay to go to another adult they trust for help. Help them identify other safe adults they can ask for help if they need it. Teach them to call 911 and explain that the police are always available to help.
Tell your children that if they are ever in a situation where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and want to be picked up right away, they can always call you, no matter what. Focus on the fact that they made the right choice in calling you. You may want to have a code word or phrase through which your child can signal that they want to be picked up right away, without having to expressly say so.
We want to encourage children and youth to act when they witness something that is harmful or uncomfortable, however, sometimes it is too scary or too difficult to intervene. The most important message is to tell an adult that you trust afterwards about what happened.
Getting help for a friend
Explain to your children that if they ever have a friend who tells them something concerning but asks them not to tell anybody, it is important to tell an adult they trust about their friend. Even though children may worry about loyalty and that “they won’t be my friend anymore,” emphasize that these kinds of problems are too big for kids to handle on their own. Even adults need help from other adults when they have a problem. Their friend may be angry at first, but in time may be thankful. Safety is always the most important factor.
Children often find themselves in risky situations because they were somewhere they should not have been, or doing something they were not supposed to be doing – they often think that if they have done something wrong or broken a rule, that they cannot go to a parent. Children break rules and make mistakes; we all do. Make sure children know that they can come to you no matter what – their safety is the most important thing.
Remind children that no one should ask them to keep a secret from a parent or caregiver. Secrets about touching should never be kept, even if someone you know really well tells you to keep it a secret – touching is never secret.
Sending, forwarding or requesting a sexual/intimate image or video may be a criminal offence, including child pornography charges. Remind kids that if they receive an explicit or even unkind message about someone, do not forward it.
Be open and honest with your child
Parents sometimes wonder how much is too much when it comes to teaching children about safety. While we don’t want to frighten children, it is important to give truthful, age appropriate answers in response to questions they may ask.
Keep talking and listening to your child
One discussion is usually not enough. Children learn best through repetition and reinforcement. Keep the lines of communication open and be sure to listen. Talk to your children every day about what’s going on in their lives (e.g., school, friends). Try to listen to their stories without offering judgment, commentary or solutions, until asked. This will strengthen your relationship.
Talk to youth about their use of social media. Explain that once a picture/video/text is sent, they lose control of where it goes and what is done with it. Even if something is shared via an app that guarantees it will disappear, it can be saved to someone’s phone or computer. Never share a picture or video of anyone else, even a friend, unless you have been given permission to do so.
Older children may require more details
You know your child best. Take your cues from your child and give them as much information as you think they can comprehend. Make sure they understand before you go further. Stopping to ask, “Does that make sense to you?” or “Is that what you wanted to know?” may help to ensure the information you are providing is appropriate for their age and stage of development.
Balance the conversation
You want your children to know that what happened was not a secret, and they can talk about it as much as they need to. However, talking about the incident too much can magnify the problem and impact on youth. Talk about other subjects that are interesting and appealing to your kids.
When to worry
Youth who have been impacted by an incident may show some emotional or behavioural changes. Usually these are temporary and may require a little extra patience and understanding. Try to keep routines and schedules as consistent as possible, but be flexible when needed. If your child’s symptoms persist, or they are talking about self-harm, seek professional help.
If you need help, ask!
Remember parents do not have to have all the answers. Reach out to another parent, your family doctor or your child’s teacher. If you need more help there are also professional resources you can contact.