Experts Explain: How to Talk to Your Kids About Sexual Assault in Sports

"Parents or other caregivers can play a critical role in helping children who have disclosed abuse," Executive Director of National Children's Advocacy Center, Chris Newlin, tells PEOPLE

USA Gymnastics
Photo: Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle/AP

Experts are speaking out on the importance of safety in sports in light of the recent alleged sexual abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics, former national team doctor Larry Nassar and Michigan State University.

Dozens of alleged victims are currently pursuing lawsuits against USAG, MSU and Nassar — all claiming similar stories of abuse and neglect including allegations that Nassar inserted his fingers into their vaginas and rectums without gloves as part of what he claims was a legitimate medical treatment. (Nassar has pleaded not guilty and denies any wrongdoing.)

Nancy Hogshead-Makar of Champion Women, an advocacy group for female athletes, says open dialogue between a parent and child is key to preventing this type of sexual abuse. This is especially true in athletics — where the bond between coach (or doctor, trainer, mentor) and athlete are “much different” from that of a teacher-student relationship.

“Teach your kid early on that saying no is okay. They have control over their body, not their coach, doctor or superior,” Hogshead-Makar tells PEOPLE. “You want to have the ‘good touch/bad touch’ conversation, but sometimes when you’re having that talk it’s already too late.”

Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer turned lawyer/advocate, says explaining to a child what an “inappropriate” adult acts like can help prevent abuse.

“So they understand that a good coach will never text you or give you gifts, there should be appropriate boundaries between adult and child,” she says. “For parents, they should look for coaches, doctors, any superior who is authoritative not an authoritarian.

“And always always check their credentials.”

For more on the USA Gymnastics scandal, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

And if a child hints at abuse already happening? Chris Newlin, executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, says parents and caregivers play a “critical role” in helping children who have disclosed abuse.

“While this can feel overwhelming for adults, children are looking to trusted adults to help them make sense of the world and this situation,” Newlin tells PEOPLE. “It is very important to remain calm and not to express shock, panic or disbelief as this may cause a child to discontinue sharing; and also to speak in a soft soothing tone.”

He adds, “In a private setting, it is important to listen to what the child is sharing and to reassure the child that she or he has done nothing wrong and has done the right thing by telling about the abuse.

It is also important to let the child know you are here to help, as are other specially trained professionals; but be careful to not make promises you cannot keep (i.e. promising the child you will not tell anyone). After responding to the child’s needs, it is important for adults to make a report to local law enforcement and Child Protective Services who will then conduct an appropriate investigation and also to assure children are connected with the necessary resources to help them recover.

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