How Young Is Too Young To Teach Kids About Sexual Assault?

Should we be teaching kids about sexual assault, or are we forcing them into a cycle of fear?

Young girls aged between 10 and 14 form the greatest proportion of victims of sexual violence in Australia, followed closely by young women aged 15-24 years, according to the Centre Against Sexual Assault.

A recent spur in media reports about child sexual assault cases has resurfaced concerns about protecting children, including just last week when a seven-year-old suffered a horrific sexual assault in a public bathroom.

And earlier this week two young  girls aged 12 and 14, were approached by a man in separate incidents in Sydney's south-west, according to police.

So how early should parents and schools begin teaching children about sexual assault and what strategies can be considered most effective.

Daniella Muzitano, whose child is in Kindergarten said while she talks to her son about stranger danger often, it's too early for them to discuss sexual assault.

"I wouldn't have any of these [sexual assault] conversations younger than seven or eight years-old," Muzitano said.

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"But it's different from child to child. I think it depends on the maturity of the child."

"I do have conversations with my son about strangers approaching him and not to be on his own and not to talk to strangers and that's something that I do on a weekly basis."

Muzitano said she also knows children are more aware of the dangers now because of things they hear from friends and around the playground, adding that they're already told basic protection strategies like always going to the bathroom at school with a friend.

She said her child's school also talks to all students if there are ever any reports about children being approached around the community.

Muzitano told 10 daily that while she sees many kids being allowed to travel alone at around eight or nine years old, she said she would be too hesitant to let her own son out that early, saying she wouldn't really feel comfortable until he was in high school.

But Professor of Law at Flinders University, Mary Heath, who teaches tertiary-level students on the sensitive topics of rape and sexual assault law, said the issue is less to do with age and more to do with the ways in which parents teach their children about both sexual health and sexual assault.

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Heath said common messages shared with children are founded on fear and often unhelpful stereotypes about where the dangers of sexual assault stem from.

She told 10 daily that young children grow up receiving mixed messages which can become confusing, such as being taught to respect and follow directions from all adults, which can conflict with messages about stranger danger.

"Empowering children to be in charge of their own lives and their own bodies is really crucial," Heath said.

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She said it was important not to teach kids to live their lives in fear.

"In relation to sexual assault, it's hard for us to remember that we are not keeping children safe just because we are keeping them in the presence of friends and family," Heath said -- adding that research consistently shows that young people are more likely to experience sexual assault from people they know rather than strangers.

Heath said it was important for parents to establish a relationship and environment where their children feel comfortable to talk to them about their experiences and seek their help.

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Heath said this is a strategy that's also linked to teaching sensitive subjects in classrooms even at a tertiary level, adding that it's important for teachers to understand that they are sharing a classroom with students ranging from those who may have experienced sexual assault themselves, to those who may have been perpetrators and even those who don't really understand it.

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She said talking about these difficult conversations in the classroom can be hard for some students, but giving them enough notice allows them to prepare emotionally and results in positive feedback from students about being better-equipped to talk to people and seek help.

"The whole point is to make it as accessible as it can be."

If you need help in a crisis, or just need someone to talk to, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800