For Kiela Daley, a mother of a 7-year-old girl on a competitive gymnastics team in Rhode Island, watching the sentencing of former USA Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar for sexual misconduct has been emotionally charged and difficult to watch.
"It’s incredibly frightening," Daley said about Nassar, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 125 women and girls in civil lawsuits. “It was such a wake-up call because you do put so much trust in these people.”
Women have appeared in court this week sharing powerful impact statements, and Olympic stars including two-time team captain Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas have publicly coming forward to report abuse by Nassar.
After Biles said she too was a victim of Nassar's earlier this week, USA Gymnastics released a statement. “We are our athletes’ advocates,” the statement said. “USA Gymnastics will continue to listen to our athletes and our members in our efforts of creating a culture of empowerment with a relentless focus on athlete safety every single day."
Because of Nassar’s case, Daley knows it means she’ll no longer be able to shield her daughter and must start to have an important conversation about sexual assault.
“I want it to be a dialogue that we have,” said Daley. “You have to have really hard conversations that you don’t expect to have with a 5- or 6-year-old.”
Cherie Benjoseph, the co-founder and executive advisor of KidSafe, an organization Raisman partnered with to help families prevent childhood sexual abuse, said the first step to keeping kids safe is starting the conversation.
“The philosophy that we have at KidSafe is that just like you teach a child any other type of safety, like swim safety or kitchen safety,” Benjoseph said. “We need to start young to teach them personal safety.”
Preventative education is critical
Parents should teach kids how to identify things that make them uncomfortable by asking questions that help them to listen to their bodies.
Questions like “How do you know when somebody asks you to do something that feels uncomfortable?” or “Who would you tell if something happened that makes you uncomfortable?” can be a great way for kids to practice, said Jenny Coleman, the director of Stop It Now!, another organization dedicated to preventative education.
Benjoseph suggested parents work with children to build a “circle of safe adults” who their child feels they can talk to. Children should know they can tell multiple adults in the circle anything until someone listens.
Children should also know that presents from adults and uncomfortable touches should never be kept a secret. Benjoseph said kids should be able to say, “I don’t have to keep this a secret. Even if someone tells me to keep it a secret, I don’t have to keep it. That’s just the type of secret I was told not to keep.”
Talking to tweens and teens
As kids age, it’s important to continue conversations that keep communication open, experts say.
Tweens and teens also need a circle of safe adults and access to information about their bodies and about sex and sexuality.
“We want to answer questions as they come up,” Coleman said. “Saying, ‘We just want you to know we’re here for you to ask questions’ opens up the space for healthy conversation.”
Spotting warning signs and responding to possible abuse
As a parent, educating yourself is just as important as educating your child, Benjoseph said. While each case is unique, there are warning signs of abuse to look for.
Young children may have trouble sleeping, become suddenly afraid of certain people or places, lose interest in school or change their personal hygiene habits, Benjoseph said.
Older kids and young adults may show similar signs, but other responses, like turning to drugs or alcohol, an increase in sexual promiscuity, or self-harming, are also known to occur.
When it comes to a possible abuser, experts say to trust your gut. Benjoseph said more often than not abuse is coming from a person the child knows and often trusts.
And if you’re unsure, just ask. Benjoseph recommends asking things like, “Has anyone touched you and it made you uncomfortable?”
“If the answer is no, the answer is no,” she said. “But if the answer is yes, you need to report it to the authorities even if it’s a trusted adult in your community or your family. You need to do what is right.”
Keep up a dialogue
Daley is headed to her daughter’s national gymnastics meet this weekend. Her daughter is excited.
“She’s 7,” Daley said. “She thinks she’s going to the Olympics.”
And while conversations about abuse are not easy, Daley knows they extend far beyond gymnastics.
“It makes me sad it is pigeonholed to this sport. It could be a teacher or a friend,” Daley said. “So I want it to be a dialogue that we continue to have.”