As much as we would love to envelop our kids in bubble wrap and follow them around everywhere, our job is ultimately to teach them to take care of and stand up for themselves. In recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month this April, and because childhood sexual abuse is an important issue to educate children about, I am sharing some tips for teaching kids about sexual abuse and body safety.
Nothing can guarantee our children’s safety, but talking to them about consent and their bodies and teaching them how to find a safe grown-up to tell if abuse does take place can both reduce the risk of abuse happening and prevent further abuse. Having open and ongoing conversations with your children about their bodies can help them feel empowered and confident and show them they have you on their team, no matter what.
1. Make sure you are emotionally regulated first.
First and foremost, do what you can to get emotionally regulated and come from a place of love, not a place of fear. If you are panicking and overly fearful, your kids will pick up on it. As a trauma therapist, I have heard many stories from people who tried to tell their parents about abuse they experienced. Some report their parents responded appropriately, but far more report their parents either didn’t believe them or became so emotionally upset that their feelings became the center of the attention. Rather than the parent staying as regulated as possible so the child could trust them with their feelings, the parent’s trigger took up all the emotional space. This can make the child feel they not only have to navigate through the abuse on their own, but are now responsible for managing their parents’ feelings as well.
Set conversations up with the message, “Your body is awesome, strong, and beautiful, and it is my job as your caregiver to help you have a good relationship with your body and keep it healthy and safe.” Being able to have these conversations from a calm place will help build trust between you and your child. This is not to say the topic is not a difficult one, because it is. But talking about bodies should be as casual and calm as teaching kids to buckle their seat belt or cross the street.
As a trauma therapist, I have heard many stories from people who tried to tell their parents about abuse they experienced. Some report their parents responded appropriately, but far more report their parents either didn’t believe them or became so emotionally upset that their feelings became the center of the attention.
2. Use real names for body parts and start young!
Another difficult topic for many parents is using real names for body parts. Call a penis a “penis,” not a “wee wee.” Call a vagina a “vagina” and not a “hoo hoo.” Giving private parts nicknames implies there is something to be ashamed of. You can talk about how private parts—breasts, vaginas, bottoms, and penises—are very sensitive; you may notice children play with themselves rather casually. You can say to them, “Those parts of our bodies are special, and they can be very sensitive, but they are only for you to touch.”
It is also important to talk to them about not touching other people’s private parts. This means talking to young children as well. I began talking to my sons about their bodies from the time they were babies. Talking about their bodies casually has given my boys the ability to be comfortable talking to me about their privates. Although these conversations can be awkward and at times, humorous, the fact that my boys can talk to me about their bodies tells me I am a safe person for them to come to. There are countless stories of children not talking to parents or caregivers about abuse because they had no language about it; there was no guidance from healthy, well-boundaried caregivers. Their only guidance was from the perpetrator, who inevitably instilled shame and secrecy.
3. Teach what healthy touch is and is not.
Teaching children what not to do is vital, and talking to them about what healthy touch looks like is also very important. Our pediatrician always says, “The only time it is okay for another person to touch or look at our private parts is when they are keeping us safe, healthy, or clean.” Teaching children what healthy touch looks like gives them a framework for listening to their own intuition about what is not safe or healthy. If you have older teenagers that are starting to experiment with sex, this will be a different conversation. Having continuous conversations about sex and consent is extremely important. We not only have to teach kids about saying no to things, but also what it means for them (and for their partners) to say yes. Sex is pleasurable, and we must be able to be honest about that. Otherwise, they are once again navigating these waters without adult guidance.
4. Let children know they are in charge of their bodies.
Another notion we must come to grips with as parents is that our children are in charge of their own bodies. Think about it—can we control where and when they pee? What and when they eat? Where and when they sleep? No. We can and need to have structure, boundaries, schedules, and rules around these areas, but ultimately, children are in charge of their bodies and need us to teach them how to make good choices about taking care of themselves when we are not around to watch their every move.
If we try to control our children too much, they will learn either to rebel or to submit. This also means they should be in charge of when and to whom they give affection. Not forcing them to give grown-ups a hug or kiss is a way of teaching consent. You can provide alternatives. Give options like “How would you like to say goodbye? An air high five, a fist bump, or just a wave?” I often say, “We don’t have to do anything with our bodies that doesn’t feel right, but we do have to treat people with respect. So, I’d like for you to choose how you want to say goodbye.”
Teaching children what healthy touch looks like gives them a framework for listening to their own intuition about what is not safe or healthy.
5. Create a culture of believing children and avoid shame-based language.
Encourage children to talk to you if someone ever tries to touch them or coerces them into unhealthy touch. Reassure them you will believe them and help them get through it. Teach them to use their strong voice, and role play saying things like, “It’s not okay for you to touch me like that!” Creating a culture in the family of recognizing shame is also very helpful in creating open lines of communication.
Instead of calling children “bad” when they misbehave in some way, say instead they have made a “bad choice.” Discerning between these two may enable them to continue having open communication with you as they get older. Behavior and character are very important because perpetrators count on children believing the abuse is something they want, asked for, or deserved. Empowering children to believe they are strong, loveable humans, regardless of any mistakes they make, will help.
Thinking about someone hurting our children can feel overwhelming and unbearable. However, all we can do is empower them with language and unconditional love. Having ongoing, calm conversations about consent, their bodies, and healthy touch can reduce their risk of being victimized and empower them to have a healthy relationship with their bodies throughout their lives.
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