(USA TODAY) - When it comes to talking to your children about sex abuse, the motto should be start "early and often," according to Kimberlee D. Norris, co-founder of nationwide litigation practice, Love + Norris, which represents victims of child sexual abuse.
In many sexual abuse cases, the abuser is someone the child knows, and the parents may trust — like a coach, a priest, a family member or even another child. Recently, an investigation by the USA TODAY Network's Pacific Daily News unearthed nearly 100 lawsuits alleging assault, manipulation and intimidation of children by Catholic priests on the tiny, remote U.S. territory of Guam.
"The risk is anywhere that we gather children in any context," Norris said. "For the preferential offender who prefers a child as a sexual partner, any activity that gathers children becomes an attractive target."
But how do parents broach the subject of sexual abuse with their children?
It doesn’t have to be an emotional sit-down talk about sex abuse, according to Shannon Self-Brown, a professor Georgia Statue University, and child clinical psychologist.
“There are things you can do from the moment you have your child that really start communicating about healthy relationships and boundaries with your body,” she said.
Here are a few tips about how to talk to your child about sexual abuse:
Use the correct terms for body parts
It may make you feel more comfortable to call your daughter’s vagina a coo-coo, and your son’s penis a pee-pee, but you should call their private parts by their correct name from the get-go.
“That way your child isn’t learning there is any shame or anything to be embarrassed about with their genitals or private parts,” Self-Brown said.
Talk to your child about touch
Norris said that all abusive circumstances begin with barrier testing, when the abuser tries to figure out what the child will allow in terms of physical touch and "erode the sense of what is appropriate by repeated touch."
Parents should let their children know that there are people, and sometimes even relatives or those close to us, who have the wrong motive when they touch.
"You don't have to go into it in great length, but let your child know any place your bathing suite covers is only for you," Norris said.
You should continue to reiterate that your child’s private parts belong to them and them alone, according to Alice Sterling Honig, a Professor Emerita of Child Development in the Department of Child and Family Studies at Syracuse University.
Honig said parents can tell their children: “[Private parts] are supposed to be covered up when you are dressed, and no one should touch your privates except you, and you shouldn’t touch anyone else’s private parts,” Honig said. “It’s not right for grownups to fondle your private parts even if they say they love you, and it's never right for grownups to get you to touch their private parts.”
Explain that people may try to trick or bribe them
Parents should explain to their children that people may try to trick them in order to harm them, according to Honig. A trick could be something as simple as a stranger saying that they have a present in their car, or a coach touching an athlete inappropriately and telling them that they will harm their family if they tell.
Honig said it's important to let children know that they need to tell an adult if something that makes them uncomfortable happens, even if they promised not to tell.
"You have to tell someone if somebody is doing something wrong to your body," Honig said. "Even if it feels good and you're told not to tell anybody, or if a person says I am going to hurt your mom and daddy, and even if you promise that person never to tell, it's never wrong to break that promise."
Yeah, it's awkward, but you should talk to your kids about sex
Think your child in late-elementary school or middle school doesn't know the basics about sex? Think again.
Norris said many parents put off "the talk" with their kids until later, so it becomes a "weird, awkward" conversation where the child doesn't want to talk about sex and becomes hesitant to bring it up to their parents if something happens.
"Part of the solution is making conversation about sexual topics early on happen in a natural way, so it's not happening in this strange, bizarre, unnatural way with a child," she said. "And just keeping the communication pathway open about every subject matter."
In circumstances where abuse may have occurred, parents many times find out because they asked the child if something was going on, or asked if they needed to tell them anything, Norris said.
She said parents can find ways to educate their children about sex at an early age by using real-life situations.
"My child was 3 and a half ... when we had a cat that adopted us in the neighborhood, and she had kittens and it was a great opportunity to talk about mommies and daddies and where kittens come from," she said. "Communicating early on about sex-ed with real names of body parts and communicating that you have the right to determine who you are physically affectionate with and you have the right to say no."
Don’t force your child to give physical affection if they are uncomfortable
Physical interaction should never be forced on a child, Self-Brown said.
“When introducing a child to new people don’t force them to give a hug to someone they just met,” Self-Brown said. “There are subtle modeling things important in communicating to children that their body belongs to them and they don’t have to go along with things adults tell them to if they don’t feel comfortable.”
For more on symptoms that a child may be victim of abuse visit StopItNow.org.
Follow Mary Bowerman on Twitter: @MaryBowerman