An estimated 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys will have sexual contact with an adult by the time they turn 18. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 84% of sexually abused children are victimized before the age of 12.
When I say “sex ed begins way before adolescence”, I’m talking less about the birds and the bees (though teaching healthy sexuality in general is very important) and more about teaching your kids body autonomy and body safety.
Children who understand that their bodies belong to them and them alone are far less likely to be victimized. Child molesters prey upon kids they perceive as weak. They look for kids they can gain access to (through deception and trust-building), who they can convince not to tell (through manipulation and threats), and who are often less confident or assertive.
I’m going to offer some tips on addressing body autonomy with your kids. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a place to start.
This is not a “one and done” deal. These conversations need to happen regularly, and the older your children get, the more in-depth you can go (always at an age-appropriate level). The good news: if you’re in the habit of having these conversations with your kids, your kids will be more likely to come to YOU with their questions and concerns. And having the conversations gets easier and easier because the topics aren’t off-limits or taboo.
Here are some tips for empowering your children with body autonomy:
Don’t skip over the private parts.
It’s so cute and fun to teach babies about their fingers, toes, and belly buttons. It’s significantly less fun to teach them about their genitals (go figure). But it’s vitally important to let your children know that their private parts ARE body parts (everyone has them, God made us this way, etc.), and by doing so you’re letting them know that their private parts are nothing to keep secret or be ashamed of.
Terminology matters. Experts believe using anatomically correct terms helps empower kids, promotes a healthy self-image, and improves communication in the event of abuse or attempted abuse. If it feels like you’re stealing a piece of your child’s innocence by using the “grown-up terms”, don’t worry – you’re not. Kids can handle the real words, and they’ll still be innocent and precious. 🙂
Who can touch their private parts?
This is a tricky one, because if you have family members, babysitters, or day care providers who come into contact with your small child, they will likely at some point come into contact with your child’s private areas (diaper/clothing changes, bath time, etc.). So teaching your child that no one can touch them except themselves (and Mom and Dad, and doctor when Mom or Dad are there) can get a bit murky, especially for a little one.
The better conversation (age-appropriate) is not touching altogether, but what constitutes inappropriate touching. Keep it simple when your child is very small, but as they get older, you’ll need to introduce the concept of unwanted affection. This includes how it makes them feel, because the messages they’ll receive from a predator will be very confusing (and this is often a grown-up who loves them and who they trust) so you want to really emphasize that your child should trust their gut.
I’d also be very clear to any babysitters or child care providers that beyond wiping their butt, there’s no need to touch the child’s genitals. Adults can skip the child’s genitals in the bath (or skip the bath altogether). At an early age you can introduce personal hygiene, so they can start washing themselves. If you do that, tell your child that only they and Mommy/Daddy are to wash their private parts in the bath — and if anyone else does it, the child should say NO and then tell Mom and Dad.
Don’t force your kid to give physical affection.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a parent embarrassed that their child doesn’t want to show someone affection. They resort to bribery or even guilt trips (“Look how sad they are. Don’t you want to give them a hug so they’ll be happy?”). Believe me, I get it — we want our children to “perform” because we feel their behavior is a reflection on us as parents.
But that’s a whole ‘nother Oprah.
Guess what: Unwanted or unsolicited affection is often how child molesters start. They don’t go straight to sexual touching, they work up to it. The goal is to desensitize their victim to the molester’s touch, and then gradually escalate to more intimate touching. (They often introduce the child to pornography as a way to illustrate this type of touching. So it’s advisable to have the conversation about anyone showing your child pictures or videos of naked people or people touching each other’s private parts as well.)
At some point, every parent will be faced with a dilemma like this one:
Great Aunt Judy comes for a visit. She wants your little Joey to give her a big hug. But little Joey doesn’t want to give Aunt Judy a hug. Why not? You don’t know, and Joey’s too young to articulate it.
So what do you do? Do you force Joey to give Aunt Judy a hug? Do you bribe him with a cookie to give her a hug? Do you tell him how sad he’s made her and make him responsible for her feelings?
Dear Lord, no.
Why not? You’re there supervising, you can see Aunt Judy has no ulterior motives. What’s wrong with teaching Joey to be polite?
Aunt Judy’s heart may be as pure as Mother Teresa’s, but that’s not the point. The point is that Joey doesn’t feel like giving a hug, and it’s his body, so that’s okay. If giving physical affection when he doesn’t want to is what Joey learns is “polite”, then he may give in to other unwanted advances down the line, denying his gut intuition, in order to be polite and keep out of trouble.
Granted, this is an awkward situation. But here’s how I recommend you handle it:
- Acknowledge your kid’s feelings: “You don’t want to give Aunt Judy a hug right now?”
- Validate it: “That’s okay. Sometimes we don’t feel like giving hugs.”
- Offer an alternative: “How about we give Aunt Judy a high five instead?”
- Ultimately, BE OKAY with whatever your kid decides. If Joey doesn’t want to give a high five, conversation over. You can look at Aunt Judy, smile and shrug your shoulders and say “Sorry! Maybe next time.” And move on.
Those moments can certainly be uncomfortable, and believe it or not, people can get their feelings hurt — I know because I’ve done it. But I firmly believe all parents need to adopt the rule that they’ll never apologize for doing what’s right for their kids. Will you misjudge people or make mistakes in the process? Sure. But you’re making the best decision with the information you have, in the best interests of your child. That’s your job as a parent. And the adult (key word here is ADULT) will get over it. If they don’t, they’ve got other issues.
Ask your child questions.
Most parents tell their kids that if anything happens to them, whether it be sexual abuse or bullying or whatever, they should tell the parents or another trusted adult. I applaud that – it’s wonderful advice. However, there are two potential pitfalls with this:
- Some kids don’t have the vocabulary to articulate that someone gives them the creeps or something just doesn’t feel right, or
- They’ve already been manipulated into thinking that their abuser cares about them and his behavior is normal, or they’ve been promised that he will hurt them or their family if they tell.
IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: We as parents often tell our children that there are BAD people out there that want to HURT them. This statement is so fundamentally wrong. First of all, most people are good and do not want to hurt children. Secondly, child predators are people the child knows and trusts – like members of their own family! They’re aren’t “bad” people to the child. Third, sexual abuse doesn’t always hurt. It may make the child feel uncomfortable at first, but it can also feel pleasurable. Be careful with your words – they matter.
So don’t wait for your child to tell you something. Ask questions. That doesn’t mean you need to insinuate that people are out to hurt your child or ask leading, suggestive questions. And don’t belabor it either. Simply ask open-ended questions. Ask your child how they feel about the people they’re spending time with. Ask them if there’s anyone that makes them feel weird or nervous. Ask them if anyone seems tricky. By doing this you’re encouraging them to pay attention, to put a read on people, and to trust their gut.
And let them know that safe grownups don’t ask kids to keep secrets from their parents.