Teaching Children To Protect Their Bodies From Possible Sexual Abuse: A Preventative Approach

There has been a lot in the news lately about trusted members of the community sexually abusing youth. Many in the public have responded to these accusations with disbelief, surprise, denial and, of course, sadness and/or anger.  While we all should be angry about sexual abuse and the predators that engage in it, when we look at the statistics, we should not be surprised that the offenders are trusted members of our communities and/or families.  Only 10% of abuse is done by strangers.  See the following statistics taken from www.darkness2light.org:

  • 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 18
  • 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 18
  • 1 in 5 children are solicited sexually on the Internet
  • 30-40% of victims are abused by a family member
  • Another 50% are abused by someone outside of the family whom they know and trust
  • Approximately 40% are abused by older or larger children whom they know

This article is meant to teach parents about the important aspects of preventing child sexual abuse and protecting their children.  The lessons in this article are for general use and should be adapted to meet the developmental level of each child.  Parents of children with special needs may be able to use some of these techniques, but will need to adapt most of them; for assistance in adapting these lessons for your special-needs child, contact a local psychologist or developmental specialist.

Sexual abuse is the use of a child for sexual gratification and activities such as the fondling of a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and commercial exploitation through prostitution or production of pornographic materials.

Having “The Talk”
You will need to have a talk with your child about their body and who is allowed to see it or touch it.  It is important to realize that you will have this talk often, not just once.  For younger children, “the talk” should happen over several “smaller talks.”  For tips on how to make the talk developmentally appropriate, please contact Dr. Clauselle, or your local psychologist/child developmental specialist.  Here is what the talk should entail:

  • Have a discussion with your child about his/her feelings — happy, sad, angry, “uncomfortable.”  This is important because children often cannot put words with feelings, and thus cannot describe or identify how they feel when something makes them feel “uncomfortable” or uneasy.  Use experiences from your life, and your child’s life, to model different feelings with different scenarios.  Identification of feelings is a skill that should be modeled for youth continuously.  If children are not equipped to identify “how they feel,” they are less prepared to handle situations that make them feel “uncomfortable.” 
  • Teach your child to “trust his/her gut” or the feelings that happen in their body when something happens.  Use certain instances from their lives.  For example, ask them, “How did you feel when we yelled ‘surprise’ at your surprise party?  Did your tummy tickle?  Did your shoulders tense up?” or “How did it feel when your teacher yelled at you?  Did your tummy tickle in a different way?  Did your hands sweat?”  Body awareness is a very critical part of teaching your child to “trust his/her gut.”  Explain that sometimes our bodies give us signs that something is not safe.  It is important to note that we as parents often unknowingly teach our kids not to “trust their gut.”  For example, if a child says, “My feelings are hurt,” and a parent responds, “Don’t be so sensitive” or “Johnny was only joking, don’t take it personally”, they may be teaching their child to minimize their internal communications.  While I am not suggesting that children be validated for every feeling they have, parents are encouraged to seek a balance between validating and normalizing the way their children feel.  A better approach is to listen to what the child is saying, let them express their feelings, and then solve the problem with them on a proactive approach to that feeling.  Thus, you have taught them to “trust their feelings” and internal communication, and how to respond to it.  This is a big step towards prevention.
  • Talk about private parts (parts that are covered by your child’s swimsuit).  Teach your children the proper medical terms to describe their body parts.  This is for two reasons:

1)      Predators often use nicknames for genitals to confuse kids, or to make their actions seem like play.  Your child is less likely to consider it play if they know the real name of their body parts.

2)      Predators do not want to abuse a child that is going to speak up and cause problems for them.  If a child says, “That is my penis” or “You are touching my vagina,” a predator is more likely to think someone has spoken to this child about sexual abuse and leave the child alone.

Good Touch/Bad Touch
Discuss with your child which areas of their bodies are OK for others to touch and which parts are not.  This can be taught at a very young age using coloring books and dolls.  Go over specifics with your child on good touch (hugs and kisses from parents, handshakes and hugs from friends).  Be sure to explain that certain touching is acceptable by specific people.

Good Touch That Turns Bad
Let your children know that some touching, like tickling, could start off feeling good, but it can turn bad if it touches one of the private areas.  Explain that, even if it feels good (remember you have already gone over body awareness with them), if it is in a private part, it is a bad touch.  Also explain that if something feels weird, it probably is and they should remove themselves from the situation or call an adult. (Remember: you have already gone over “trust your gut” with them.)

The #1 Key to Prevention: Role-play What Your Child Should Do If They Are Involved in a Situation When Touch Turns Bad
Emergency preparedness teams tell us all to have an emergency plan that we practice with our families, before an emergency strikes.  Firefighters tell us to practice an escape route out of our homes in case we ever have a fire.  Thus, this psychologist is asking families to practice, or “role-play,” with your children how they will get out of a “bad touch” situation, before one occurs.

Role-playing is very important because it is common for kids to freeze in the face of trauma; even if your child has mentally rehearsed with you what they should do.  You can role-play with your child using a simple phrase like “Stop, don’t touch!” or some other phrase that will send a strong, clear message to the predator.  Make your child say the chosen statement over and over again, practicing strong body language and using a strong, deep voice.  Most of the time, it will take children several times to be able to say the chosen statement with authority.  Then you should act out certain scenarios, acting as different people from your family and community; while it is not necessary to use names, you should use different categories.  For example, you might say, “OK, this time we will pretend I am (the parent acting as predator) : a police officer, minister, priest, coach, scout leader, a friend over for dinner, a friend’s older sibling, babysitter….”.   As you do this, you will see your child’s expression change as they think to themselves, “That person would never do bad touch.”

The internal dialogue and internal conflict your child experiences when pretending that a community leader engaged in “bad touch” is exactly the type of dialogue you want your child to have prior to any sort of abuse happening.  You will take the opportunity to discuss that “prevention means being prepared.”  For example, having a fire escape/emergency preparedness plan does not mean that you are going to have a fire. Further explain that we do not know who may have a problem with “bad touch” and that sometimes people we know and/or respect can end up having a problem with “bad touch.”  If they are old enough, you can explain to them the statistics, and that only 10% of kids abused are abused by strangers.

Often, parents have said to me that they don’t want their child to say “Stop, don’t touch!” to the wrong person and misinterpret an innocent action.  I always say it is better to be safe than sorry.  Besides, the worst-case scenario is that they tell a well-intending grandmother not to touch their vagina, and most likely that well-intending grandmother will laugh and be happy that you taught them to say this.

Last but not least, teach your children that there are NO secrets in your household.  Explain that it is your job to protect them and that you cannot do your job without all of the information.  Let them know that some predators say or influence children not to tell their parents.  Explain that they should tell you everything and not be afraid. 

Resources for Parents for More Information
“It’s My Body: A Book to Teach Young Children How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch” (Children’s Safety and Abuse Prevention) by Lory Freeman. Available at Amazon.com for $7.95 or less

Website: www.dunebrook.org/lessons/good_touch_bad_touch.html

Coloring book: “Good Touch, Bad Touch Educational Activities Book,” Salt Lake City Police Department.  Order at http://www.positivepromotions.com/

Website: http://www.stopitnow.org/

Website: http://www.darknesstolight.org/

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