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Protecting your kids from sexual abuse

In July 2020, Talofa Kids founder Caroline Ryan interviewed Dr Divna Haslam a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology

[Note: the delay in releasing this article was due to time spent to carefully translate it into Samoan]


Talofa Dr Divna Haslam,

Thank you for making time to discuss this important topic with me today.

I understand you’re currently involved in one of the most comprehensive studies on child maltreatment.

In your years of experience as a clinical psychologist and researcher, what has been one (or some) of the most profound discoveries you’ve made/learned?

That’s a great question! One thing I am constantly surprised about is how far-reaching the impact of parents is on the lives of their children.

People know that parents are important in providing love and food and shelter but research suggests that parenting impacts just about every aspect of a child’s life right through from behaviour, educational outcomes, social skills and even things like health outcomes, adult diseases, & risk-taking behaviours. The role of parents throughout a child’s lifespan is one of the most significant impacts, if not the most significant impact on a child’s life. It’s not even just that parents are important when children are young but how parents respond to their children impacts the child’s throughout their entire lifespan. While this might seem daunting it’s also reassuring. We, as parents, have a chance to set our children on the path to lifelong success! What an honour! That said parenting can be hard so if you are finding yourself struggling or worrying remember that children are resilient. No parent is perfect. We all need a break and time for ourselves. Reach out to friends and family and get the support you need to be the best parent you can be.

What are some of the reasons Samoa should pay closer attention to child maltreatment?

It’s not just Samoa it’s all countries and all people who need to pay attention to child maltreatment. It’s not a topic that’s comfortable to talk about but when we stick our heads in the sand and pretend maltreatment doesn’t exist we do a disservice to our children and our society. There are five common types of child maltreatment: physical abuse (including extreme physical discipline), sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and exposing children to domestic violence which can be very traumatising for children. There are far too many children who experience one or more types of maltreatment. Suffering from any of these forms of maltreatment has negative short and long term effects on children. Even worse many children suffer multiple types of abuse placing them at even greater risk of adverse outcomes. As a community, we all have a role to play in protecting children and ensuring child in Samoa and everywhere have the chance for a safe and happy future. We can and should speak up and act to protect our children.

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Today we are discussing the prevalence of sexual abuse in particular amongst children in Samoa and I would like to know what are some practical steps, we as parents and society can take to start taking action on how to keep our children safe.

There are a number of steps parents and society can take to help protect children from sexual abuse. The first thing is we need to demystify abuse and stop pretending it doesn’t happen or assuming it could never happen to our own children. Sexual abuse occurs across all ethnicities and social statuses. No child is immune. As a society, we need to acknowledge that we all have a responsibility to protect our children. We need to be aware of potential abuse and speak out when we see children at risk.

Parents, in particular, can take multiple steps to protect children. These include:

  • Use the correct names for body parts so children develop a language and knowledge of anatomy.

  • Talk to children about what kind of touch and behaviours are ok and not ok. Start early and speak often. Provide more detail as children age. Be sure to give specific examples of what is okay and not ok. Eg it’s ok for mum or dad to check on you in the bath but if someone tries to touch your breasts you should tell me.

  • Teach children that their body belongs to them. Even very young children (who do not yet understand sex) can be taught their body belongs to them. Reinforce this by not asking children to be affectionate in ways they don’t feel comfortable with. For example, avoid forcing them to kiss or hug people if they don’t want to. Offer an alternative option for them instead such as a high five.

  • Avoid secrets. Abusers focus on secrecy to ensure children do not disclose abuse. Teach children secrets are not okay and reinforce this by not asking children to keep innocent secrets (eg Don’t tell mum I gave you ice cream for dinner). Also, let children know nothing is ever so bad that they can’t tell you.

  • Avoid suggesting abusers are always strangers. Be clear that if anyone even family members and trusted adults act in a way that is not ok, that children should tell someone.

  • Only leave children alone with people you fully trust. Most perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the family and child (not strangers). Avoid leaving your child with people who seem too good to be true such as frequently offering free babysitting or who seem to take an extra special interest in your child.

  • If children do disclose any actual or suspected abuse believe them and take them seriously. Children do not lie or make up abuse.

  • Stay vigilant. Protecting children doesn’t happen in a single conversation. It requires ongoing care and attention. Watch for any warning signs such as changes in children’s mood or behaviour and speak with them if you are concerned.

If a child tells us that they have experienced abuse, what are some phrases that adults can say to make the child feel safe and not alone and then, what is the immediate action of the adult?

If a child tells you they have experienced abuse it’s important to stop and listen non-judgementally. Children do not lie about sexual abuse so believe the child and act to protect them. Reassure them they have done the right thing in telling you and that that behaviour is not ok and was not their fault. You might say something like “I’m glad you told me this. I’m on your side and I’m going to try and help you. You did the right thing telling me. That behaviour by person x is not okay but you have done nothing wrong. It is not your fault.”

The next step is to take some action to protect the child. What this is, will vary depending on what the child has disclosed and your relationship to the child. It might involve stopping any contact with the perpetrator, talking to the child’s family or notifying the police (911) or child protection. A good course of action is to contact a support hotline and develop a clear calm plan of action. In Samoa the best helplines to contact are

Although your studies are based in Australia, I was wondering if you have any experience in dealing with Pacific Island cultures of whom are well represented in Australia. Samoa is a deeply religious and conservative country - discussions around puberty, sex and even appropriate names for genitalia are very rare. How can we overcome this cultural barrier to comfortably talk about our bodies with children?

Samoa is not alone in being a deeply religious and conservative country. In many areas of the world, frank discussions about sex and using appropriate anatomical names for genitalia are uncommon. Some people are under the mistaken impression that talking to children about sex will make children more likely to be promiscuous or be seen to be condoning sex outside of marriage. This is not the case. It does, however, decrease children’s risk of abuse. It is difficult to overcome these barriers. Many parents feel uncomfortable and prefer to use terms like “private parts” and it can be challenging to be open with children when adults themselves feel uncomfortable talking about things or using the anatomical names for body parts. However, this is important for a number of reasons. Firstly research indicates knowledgeable children are less likely to be targeted by offenders. Secondly, it provides children with the appropriate language they can use to clearly articulate any abuse attempts. For example, if a child reports to a teacher that someone touched “va jay jay” or whatever pet name a parent uses to describe genitalia teachers may not understand what the child is saying and the disclosure attempt is lost. In comparison, a child who reports someone touched my penis or vagina is clearly and accurately stating what happened. Finally, using correct terms normalises speaking about sex and sends the message these things are normal parts of life which takes away the secrecy element perpetrators require. Yes, it pushes some parents out of their comfort zone but isn’t protecting the safety of our children worth it? Parents can start by using the correct terms with each other and getting comfortable using terms they would typically avoid before talking to their children. In this way, they can gradually increase their comfort level.

This final question is for the benefit of our younger readers who may be considering careers in advocating for children's rights or helping children in some other way in the near future. What are some career pathways and jobs should they be looking into?

There are numerous career options for those wanting to support children or make a difference. Formal professions include things like psychologist, lawyer, teacher, counsellor, social worker and child care. There are also other less obvious positions like working for the government child safety unit or working for charities focussed on child rights or safety or teachers aide.

On behalf of our readers, Talofa Kids wishes to thank Dr Divna Haslam for her time and valuable insight.

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