How to Prepare for a Complex Conversation
Trust your gut
- If you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, you might be tempted just to ignore it. Talking about sex is never easy. Talking about sexual abuse is even harder, especially when you care about the people involved. But your gut feeling is a reaction to something real that you have seen or heard. Many people have shared with us that in hindsight they wished that they had followed up on an intuition or pursued a concern they had. By taking action now, you can create a safer and more secure environment for a child.
- You may be thinking to yourself, “Maybe the things I’ve noticed are normal.” “Maybe I’m just a prude and am blowing this out of proportion.” In order to know what’s normal and what’s not, you can learn about healthy sexual development of children at different ages. Although it may be scary, also take the time to learn about the warning signs in a child that could tell you that he or she was sexually abused. In addition, learn the warning signs in adults or teenagers that could indicate they may be abusing or at risk to sexually abuse a child.
Begin a log of what has been going on
- It often helps to write down what you have seen or heard, even if at first it “seems like nothing.” Often times when things are emotionally difficult or upsetting we can easily lose perspective on how frequently something occurred or what people actually said or did at the time. Each of your journal pages should include what you heard or saw, when it happened, where it happened, and who was involved. When you talk with someone about their concerning behaviors, it can help to refer back to what you wrote about in your journal. Use our sample journal entry.
Find an ally
- Before you begin a conversation about what you have seen or heard, it can be helpful to talk with someone else who knows the other person well. A family member or close friend may share your concern. You also might get a response like, “Mind your own business,” or “Don’t start trouble.” These reactions don’t mean that your concerns aren’t real. The other person may need time to get comfortable with the subject. You may need to ask more than one person to find someone who understands. It is helpful to know at least one person who cares about you, can talk with you about your concerns, and who can offer you support. Sometimes a counselor or healthcare professional can also be an ally.
Plan what you want to say
- Think about what messages you want to get across. Choose just a couple of the most important points for your first talk. Take small steps if that feels more doable. You might offer to be a support to the person and the family by letting them know that you’ve learned a lot about the issue and found a few helpful resources. Explore the situation without accusation or allegations. Think about the conversation as a chance to talk about behaviors – what you saw and what you heard. Talking about your possible conclusions is not always helpful as a first step. Say directly to the other person: “This is not an accusation.” If you are speaking with a co-parent, stress that you are concerned (as you know they are) for the safety of your child.
Practice saying the words out loud
- You need to be able to describe your concerns specifically. Remember, no one finds it easy to talk about behaviors towards children that may be sexual. If you have found an ally, you might ask that person to help you practice your conversation ahead of time. If you don’t have an ally yet, practice what you want to say out loud to yourself. If it feels strange at first, try writing it down. But if you’ve heard yourself saying the words, it will be a lot easier to say them to someone else.
Choose a time and place to talk
- Determine if it is safe for you to have this conversation. If you feel your physical safety is at risk, come up with an alternative plan. Think about where you want to have this conversation and whether or not you want another adult to be with you. Choose a place that is safe, comfortable, and relatively private. Then ask the other adult if he or she can meet with you. It could be as simple as, “Can you stop by for coffee and a talk tomorrow morning? What time would be good?” or “Let’s talk after the kids go to sleep.”
Begin the conversation
- If it feels genuine, start with the simple words, “I care about you.” People are more likely to listen and change if they feel loved and have hope that life can be better. Many people who struggle with thoughts or feelings they don’t understand feel alone. They don’t know who to talk to and can feel trapped. We have heard from adults and teenagers who have sexually abused, that hearing “I care about you” made a huge difference to them. It helped them feel less isolated. We have also heard from many people with sexual behavior problems that they wished someone had asked directly, “What is going on?”
Often it takes several talks to really reach someone
- If the talk becomes too difficult, or either of you become really angry or frightened, take a break. Consider what your next steps will be. You may need to involve other adults. You may simply say,“Let’s try again tomorrow.” “This talk is not our only chance to talk about this; it is just a beginning.” These are rarely one-time conversations. When ending your first conversation be clear that you still have concerns. You each may need time alone to think.
Important Note: If you become concerned for your immediate safety or that of a child, seek help from a domestic violence program, child protective services, and/or the police.