If every nine minutes a child sexual abuse case is substantiated, we can’t afford to assume that the issue won’t affect our own families. My children find our conversations about sexual abuse uncomfortable, but as a former victim advocate and violence prevention educator, I make sure we have them anyway, not just in April, which happens to be National Child Abuse Prevention Month. In our house, we have an ongoing dialogue about body safety. We use proper names for body parts, we talk about consent and uncomfortable touches and we enforce safe boundaries.
In the United States approximately 1 in 10 children (1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys) will be victims of child sexual abuse, making it likely the most prevalent health concern our children face with some of the most serious consequences. Those of us who have worked in this field speak often about the things we wish all parents understood, and I want to share some with you.
It all starts with a conversation.
One afternoon while my 5-year-old dances in the kitchen, she very casually tells me mid spin that she kissed her boyfriend at school today. After my brain goes on a quick five-second spiral about all the terrible things this means, I take a deep breath and ask her to come here. A simple question — “What does it mean to have a boyfriend?” — starts an easy enough conversation where we tackle concepts ranging from consent to safety to love.
My teenager thinks that because of my work in child welfare, I always assume the worst. He isn’t wrong. I know that my work has meant that I see the very worst humanity has to offer. Although my son believes I am always assuming the worst, I believe that what I know to be true about child abuse and how we prevent it informs my parenting in ways I am truly grateful for. I know that the conversations I have with my children make them safer.
I want my kids to know they can come to me when things get confusing or difficult. In order for us to have this relationship, we need to set up the foundation now. These conversations don’t have to be terrifying or uncomfortable, but sometimes they are. As a parent you need to be prepared to start the conversation, and follow where it leads.
Start talking about consent now.
Whatever age your children are, it is never too early to start talking about consent. If you have an infant let him or her know that you’re going to change their diaper or rinse the soap from their hair. As your child gets older, let them know that they have control over their body. It is your job to help keep them safe and healthy, but it is their body. Even very young toddlers can understand that we need permission to touch people.
We can and should teach our youngest children the meaning of consent and show them in age-appropriate ways what this means. Explain to them when at the doctor what is happening and why. Encourage them to decide what kind of affection they are comfortable with and from whom. Model this by asking before you kiss or hug them. Let them know in no uncertain terms that they get to decide who touches them.
Enforce safe boundaries.
It is important we encourage our children to set boundaries they are comfortable with around their bodies, and it is often our job to enforce these boundaries. It may hurt grandma’s feelings that your son doesn’t want to give her a hug goodbye, but it’s more important for our kids to know we expect others to respect our boundaries. If we cajole our child into showing affection for grandma or allow grandma to guilt our child into a hug we are showing our child that consent isn’t important.
This applies when our children show us through body language that they’re feeling uncomfortable. If my child looks uncomfortable sitting on their uncle’s lap, I need to say, “It looks like Sally wants to get up and play,” and follow through to make sure my child no longer feels unsafe. We teach our children what to expect from friends and future dating partners with our actions when they’re young. If they are used to being pressured into giving affection to family, we’re laying the groundwork for their peers to pressure them into unsafe choices in adolescence.
Household rules are another great way to teach children safe boundaries at home. Discuss with your kids what privacy rules you agree to — things like shutting doors when we go to the bathroom and knocking on bedrooms doors before going in. Remind your kids that we change our clothes in private, and we keep our clothes on when playing with family and friends.
Teach safe and unsafe touch.
This is often where the conversations become uncomfortable, but it is important that we prioritize our children’s safety over our comfort level. Use the foundation you built talking about consent to go a step further and talk to your kids about what happens when touches feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Make sure your children know they can tell adults and other children “no” and that no adult should ever tell them to keep a secret from their parents.
Teach your children that any time a situation feels unsafe, they have safe adults they can go to who will listen and believe them. Be sure your children know who those adults are and make sure at least one of those safe adults is someone outside of your family. Practice with your child telling a safe adult that something unsafe happened. Let your child know that if something unsafe ever happens, it is never their fault, and they can always talk to you about it.
Use proper names for body parts.
It can be tempting to teach our children they have “lady bits” and “man parts.” But the earlier we introduce proper names for body parts, the sooner we teach our children that their bodies are not shameful. It might be embarrassing when your 4-year-old announces to a crowded room that their vulva itches, but they need to know they can come to you with questions or concerns about their bodies. Using correct language takes some of the confusion and uncertainty out of these conversations. What’s more, teaching our children correct names for body parts is a proven way to prevent child sexual abuse. By giving our children the power of language, we are protecting them from those who seek to use children’s ignorance as a weapon.
Explain to your child that they have a penis or a vagina and that these are private parts of their body that no one else should touch or look at. Let them know that as their parent, you may need to help them with their private parts to keep them safe and clean, and they can let you know if they can do it themselves. They should also know that no one should ask them to touch or look at their private parts.
Answer questions about sex and bodies honestly in age-appropriate ways.
We want our children to grow into teenagers with accurate information. We want our kids and teens to come to us when they have questions, instead of getting inaccurate information from their peers or the internet. These questions often catch us off guard and can feel overwhelming.
You don’t have to launch into “the talk” if your young child asks why their brother doesn’t have a vagina. Start by answering the question they asked in the most basic way you can. Often we hear a question and launch into an explanation far beyond our child’s original query. If my 4-year-old asks where babies come from, I can start with: They grow in a uterus and come out through the vagina. If that satisfies my child, great. They might not yet need the whole explanation. Later on, when my 8-year-old wants to know how babies get in the uterus, we can explain the mechanics of sex. Children begin talking at school about sex and bodies often before parents are aware these conversations are happening. We want to be the source for this information, so don’t be afraid to start these conversations even when your children don’t ask questions.
Trust yourself; you’ve got this.
I know these conversations seem daunting and you may not know where to start. This may not have been the information we received as children, but it will help to protect your children from abuse in the future. Trust yourself and start small. Look for opportunities to ask questions to start these conversations in organic and authentic ways.
Reading is also a great way to introduce these topics. Here are a few great books to help get the conversation going:
For young children:
The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls by Valorie Schaefer
What’s Going On Down There?: A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up by Karen Gravelle
It’s Perfectly Normal! Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris
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