06/18/2012 12:51 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Tips for Parents on Talking to Kids About Sexual Abuse

I would like to say that I was shocked when I read the New York Times Magazine piece this past weekend by Amos Kamil detailing allegations of decades-old sexual abuse and impropriety by teachers at Horace Mann, one of the top private prep schools in the city. But although there were certain appalling details in the article, I was not. This isn't because of any specific quality of Horace Mann -- any more than the Penn State scandal was a necessary by-product of Happy Valley. I wasn't shocked because as a parent and a professional who works with children, I know that no institution is safe from predators.

These dangers are everywhere -- they do not pay heed to the power of good names or august environments. Reading the article, I was immediately reminded of Dr. Melvin Levine, who committed suicide in 2011 after years living under the specter of abuse allegations. Over a long and distinguished career, Dr. Levine became one the most respected pediatricians in the nation and a leading advocate for children with learning disabilities and the development of new strategies to help them succeed. Across the country, parents felt that they could trust him, and that he had the best interests of their children in mind. In a way, this was undoubtedly true. In other ways, it appears, this was manifestly not the case.

Unfortunately, we delude ourselves into thinking that certain situations are without danger. That is why it is incumbent upon us as parents to know the people who come into contact with our children, and not to let assumptions about stature, expertise, or fame get in the way of sober assessment and parental instinct.

In all honesty, however, there is only so much we can do. Once they reach a certain age, our children spend the majority of their waking hours away from us, and in the end it is incumbent upon them to know when to steer clear, when to say no, and, most importantly, when to speak up -- and loudly. For our kids to learn these skills, we need to educate them. And that is the best thing we can take away from the Horace Mann story. As the Bronx DA contemplates an investigation, which I think is appropriate, parents should take this opportunity to speak to their children openly, honestly, and in a developmentally-appropriate way about the realities of the world outside. Some pointers:

  • Tell them what to expect: Be clear about what is and what is not appropriate behavior to expect from other adults. This can be as simple as "good touch, bad touch," but should also include more subtle conversations. Is someone paying much more attention to you than the other children? Do you feel uncomfortable but you don't know why?
  • Tell them to speak up: Speaking up about possible abuse is always the right thing to do. Tell your kids that not only do they not have anything to feel bad about if they are in an uncomfortable situation or have been abused; they also should not worry about hurting an adult's feelings by telling a parent or other caregiver.
  • Model directness: Do not worry about being intrusive. If you are worried about an adolescent boy, you can just ask him, "Is someone touching you?" If the answer is yes, he'll tell you. If he isn't, he may well yell at you, but that's par for the course. Being concrete about what you are discussing, even with younger kids, is necessary. Muddying the water with euphemisms doesn't help anyone.
  • Model openness and honesty: The most crippling part of sexual abuse, which lasts far longer than any physical violation, is shame. Shame prevents kids from saying no, from speaking up, from processing their experiences in a healthy way. And shame comes so much easier to kids who are already embarrassed by their bodies and uncomfortable talking about sex. Help your child be knowledgeable, savvy, and comfortable in his own skin.

Parents may balk at the prospect of this conversation (or series of conversations, as it should be). Many have worried to me that they will terrify their children by telling them about what is a real but relatively rare danger. Of course, we don't want our kids to be fearful of the world. My response is that it is precisely the kids who are confident in their ownership of their bodies, confident in the support of their parents, and confident of their assessment of the motives of those around them that tend to avoid abusive scenarios in the first place, or quickly report an adult who is acting inappropriately. Though Kamil's story contains many horrors, it is also shows how a well-prepared young person can act in the face of abuse. These were children who were unafraid to speak up at the time, and as adults appear to have little shame concerning their run ins with alleged sexual predators.

Parents, teachers, school officials, anyone who helps raise children: prize honesty. Administered early, it is a potent antidote to shame. And shame, over the years, can turn dark. Long after it has enabled an abuser to take advantage of a child, it can still hurt. One of the abused students Kamil profiles committed suicide. Another will only allow the author to identify him by a letter that occurs in his middle name, even more than 30 years later. This is sad, chilling, and upsetting. And unfortunately, denial just perpetuates the damage. We can help adults who have suffered with the memory of abuse. But it is infinitely easier to teach children how to respond the right way to a wrong touch the first time.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

For more by Dr. Harold Koplewicz, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.