#1. We talk to our kids – but no one else.
A lot of parents (but arguably not enough) talk to their kids about body safety. Yet, many of these children are still abused – almost always by someone they know, often a family member. Educating a child about privates and safe vs unsafe touches is important, but it’s not the end of our responsibility to protect them as best we can.
It should also be a complement to what we’re doing as a whole to keep our kids safe. And that includes sharing our body safety rules with family, friends, and the people we trust with our children. Finding ways to minimize or interrupt 1:1 situations – for example, if a person routinely watches your child, create ways for you or someone else to ‘stop in’ unexpectedly. If your child goes for play dates at friends’ houses, know who is in the home – you should know if there are older siblings or visitors staying in the home and trust that the family knows your body safety rules and follows them as well. Lastly, we should be well educated on different ways abusers groom and seek to gain access and control of children. Often these red flags are clearer after a child has disclosed, but we are hearing from more and more parents that are recognizing such risk and taking action (like this woman). The idea is that we want to deter a potential abuser rather than put it on a own child to defend their body.
Kids are smart. They learn just as much from what we don’t say as what we do. When kids are taught about body safety but we treat it like a secret by not talking opening with others, they may not truly believe that they should tell and that someone will understand and help them.
#2. We refer to people who break body safety rules as ‘bad people.’
We’ve read this in a body safety book or two – telling children that there are ‘bad people out there who break body safety rules.’ Well, what does that say to a child who is molested by their favorite cousin, a friend, or their own parent? A child may become protective of their abuser because of an emotional connection they have with this person.
Instead, we can tell our children that people who break body safety rules need help – because it’s not the right thing to do. The reality is that for one reason or another, there is a psychological problem with the person who commits abuse. It may be pedophilia, sexual deviancy, narcissism, or a low sense of moral standing in combination with depression or low self esteem and/or a substance addiction.
For juvenile offenders, it may be a response to their own experiences of sexual abuse,or even physical abuse/neglect, or sexual curiosity of a child that has not been educated about their own sexuality and what constitutes healthy behaviors, and therefore fails to fully acknowledge how harmful their behavior is. Which is why it’s SO important to talk to our kids, so we can bring down the 40% of sexual abuse perpetrated by minors.
#3. We refer to abuse as something that ‘hurts’.
Abuse is hurtful – but not always in a way that leaves a mark on their body. The trauma of sexual abuse is psychological – from not feeling in control of one’s body, the betrayal of someone they trusted. It is confusing when a child feels they’re supposed to be their own defenders – especially when the offender is someone that is viewed as a protector. Sexual abuse often feels pleasurable to the body, and this builds a sense of shame as they feel this is something they must want or are willingly participating in. In order to make sense of this, children often take responsibility for the abuse – they feel they must deserve it, they are ‘lesser’ people because it is happening, that they can’t say anything because of the disruption to their family and life if they tell. The fear of losing a parent, or their home can often be enough for the child to feel they should endure the secret of their abuse in order to protect their family.
So, please let’s be honest with our children and tell them the truth. Our private parts – the penis, the anus, vulva, and vagina have lots of nerve endings. This makes these parts of our body very sensitive, and it can often feel good to our bodies when these parts are touched. This isn’t something we can control – just like if someone tickles us or hits us – we cannot control laughing or pain. This is called an ‘autonomous response’. No matter what we do – we cannot stop how our body feels. Remember, education is empowerment – ignorance does not protect their innocence. If we are real with our kids about how our bodies work, we can help avoid feelings of shame from their body’s reaction to abuse – just because it’s pleasurable to the body, doesn’t mean it’s wanted – or right.
*Side note: Our children are allowed to touch their own bodies in private – like when they’re in bed or a bathroom.
#4. We them to shout NO! Run fast! Tell someone right away!
This would be our biggest hope, that a child would have the courage and opportunity to do so. But if we’re going to be honest – can we really imagine our children yelling no at a grandparent or a school teacher and running away? The reality is – abuse is rarely committed so black and white. Many abuser use a tactic called grooming. It starts as hugs, or tickling games, or an arm on a shoulder. Rarely is abuse perpetrated in a manner that the person being attacked would immediately sense the threat – and even so, it is naive to imagine that a person – especially a child would have the ability to escape the situation.
Instead, lets impress upon our children that they have a right to say no to people if they don’t like how they’re being touched or treated but regardless of what happens – it’s never their fault. And this is a point we often stress – it is never too late to tell.
Never do we want a child to feel that it’s their fault for not being able to stop an abuser, or that it’s their secret burden because they didn’t tell someone right away. This is true for adult survivors of sexual assault as well – what society at large doesn’t understand about trauma is a lot.
Survivors of assault often process their abuse – starting with shock, denial, confusion, fear, and shame. Rarely is the first reaction to go and tell someone when often, they themselves, are confused about what happened.
#5. We tell them their bodies belong to them, and then we treat them like our property.
Inevitably, when we bring this up, there are people who believe that forcing their children to hug family or laugh at photos of their children terrified on the lap of Santa or the Easter Bunny (arguably, most terrifying) is some sort of sign of respect or right of passage of childhood. What it really says to a child is that sometimes big people have a right to force them to do things they don’t want to do – and they may even find it funny to treat children this way. Bottom line, the child’s choice about their body doesn’t matter and it’s not defended either. Not surprisingly, people who sexually abuse children don’t believe that children deserve to be treated with equal respect. They often don’t see children as ‘people’. So, while this may not be the most detrimental point of this whole post, we still have to ask – would you rather side toward protective parents or abusers?
Whenever we have these talks with our kids, we need to put our words into perspective. Would we understand what is being told to us if the roles were reversed? Are our expectations reasonable? Are we not just talking but showing our kids how important their body safety is by living in a way that embraces their rights and minimizes risk? Are we building a closer relationship with our child and giving them the tools to understand the world, their bodies, and right of all people to be treated with respect?
We are their teachers, their guardians, their cheerleaders, their confidants. It is not just a responsibility, but an honor that we must embrace with the interest of not just ‘getting through it’ but getting the most out of it.