Jerry Sandusky Penn State Scandal: How to Talk to Children About Sex Abuse?

The Penn State University sex-abuse scandal that has shaken one of the top football programs in the country, with former defense coordinator Jerry Sandusky at the forefront, has captured national attention and catapulted the issue of child sexual abuse into the spotlight.

Some psychologists feel that the immense amount of media coverage the story is garnering presents the perfect opportunity for parents to discuss the issue of sexual abuse with their children. However, this undoubtedly has many parents wondering how best to approach discussing such a topic with their children.

"It's hard, but necessary," said psychiatrist Janet Taylor on NBC's Today Show.

She stressed the importance of parents talking to their children about what they would do if they ever found themselves or a friend in an uncomfortable situation.

"Use what-if situations," Taylor added. "What if you saw someone who was hurting a friend or hurting your sister, what would you do?"

Tim Sanford, a licensed professional counselor at Focus on the Family, a Christian organization dedicated to helping families thrive through marriage and parenting resources, told CP that how parents address the scandal and open the conversation with their children about sex abuse depends primarily on the age of the child.

Sanford said that while the scandal may be a good segue into bringing up the topic of sex abuse with middle and high school aged children, it is best not to initiate a conversation with elementary or preschool aged children unless they begin asking questions or it becomes apparent that they are in some way aware of what is being said in the media.

"Children's questions should drive the conversation, and parents should first find out how much they know," he said.

Based on their questions, parents can then discuss issues such as appropriate and inappropriate touching, telling a parent if someone touches them in a private area or makes them feel uncomfortable and other important topics.

If discussing the Penn State scandal with middle or high school aged children, Sanford said parents should talk about issues such as appropriate boundaries, how people in positions of authority can abuse their power, the fact that sex abusers can be people that they know, and the fact that they should tell a trusted authority figure if anyone touches them inappropriately or makes them feel uncomfortable.

In any conversation parents have with their children, it is important to instill a sense of comfort and trust and let the child know that he or she may turn to the parents if they ever feel threatened or uncomfortable, but Sanford said in a majority of cases, children don't tell their parents even if they have a good relationship with them.

"Children won't tell because the perpetrator either threatens them or their parents, or they’re too embarrassed to tell," he said.

Because of this, parents should be aware of signs of abuse, which include major behavioral changes, the child becoming either overly sexual in behavior or actions or non-sexual at all, the child exhibiting a lot of anger and frustration, he or she becoming overly concerned or protective of pets, depression and drug or alcohol abuse in teens.