We teach our young children all sorts of ways to keep themselves safe. We teach them to watch the hot stove, we teach them to look both ways before they cross the street, but more often than not – body safety is not taught until much older – until sometimes…it is too late.
We cannot always prevent our children from being sexually abused, but arming our child with knowledge is a good preventative measure.
Research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. You want to hear something even scarier? According to the US Department of Justice (nsopw.org) only 10% of perpetrators were strangers to the child and 23% of the perpetrators were children themselves!
These statistics do not surprise me. In my practice I meet children on a weekly basis who have been victims of sexual abuse. Many of them are under five years old. Almost all of them knew their perpetrator and more often than not – it is another kid! Yes – another kid.
Parents will frequently tell me that they didn’t think this could happen to them. That they never leave their children with strangers. That they always keep their children within their eyesight.
Does your child go on playdates? Do they go to daycare or pre-school? Do you have friends or family over to your house? Do they play at the neighbor’s house? The fact is – you cannot fully prevent the risk of your child being sexually abused. I know that is hard to stomach – but unfortunately it is reality.
I have worked with really great families – who thought they had really great friends, neighbors, playmates, teachers, coaches, teammates, cousins, babysitters, siblings, uncles, boyfriends, and classmates. Perpetrators look just like you and me. They look just like your child – I think that is the scariest fact.
The children I have worked with have come from good neighborhoods, good homes – go to really good schools. I have worked with kids who have been sexually abused by other kids as young as 4! I have worked with children who have been sexually abused on playdates, sleepovers, in the classroom, on the playground, on the school bus, in their playroom and out in their backyard.
Now that I have officially scared you to death – let’s walk you off that cliff. We have to face the fact that we cannot protect our children from breaking bones, getting hurt or making mistakes. Nor can we prevent them from being at risk for sexual abuse.
Just like we allow our children to get on a bike, even though they might fall and hurt themselves – we have to allow our children to go out into the world and interact with those around them. But…just like the bike helmet, we can arm our children with knowledge that might keep them safe. Knowledge might be the one difference that might save them from being a victim.
Parents do not always talk to their children about body safety early enough. I have heard all sorts of reasons why this does not happen. They are too young. I keep an eye on them. They won’t understand. It is a scary topic. It won’t happen to me. We live in a good neighborhood.
Talk to your children. It is never too soon. It doesn’t have to be a scary conversation. Don’t wait another day. Start these conversations today. Here are the 10 most important areas to cover:
1. Talk about body parts early
Name body parts and talk about them early – very early. Use proper names for body parts – or at least teach your children what the actual words are for their body parts. I can’t tell you how many young children I have worked with who have called their vagina their “bottom” and other various names. If children need to make a disclosure of abuse – this can make their story confusing.
2. Teach them that body parts are private
Tell your children that their private parts are called private because their private parts are not for everyone to see. Explain that mommy and daddy can see them naked, but people outside of the home should only see them with their clothes on. Explain how their doctor can see them without their clothes because mommy and daddy are there with them and the doctor is checking their body.
3. Teach your children body boundaries
Tell your children matter-of-factly that no one should touch their private parts and that no one should ask them to touch somebody else’s private parts. Parents will often forget the second part of this sentence. Sexual abuse often begins with the perpetrator asking the child to touch them or someone else.
4. Tell your children that body secrets are not okay
Most perpetrators will tell children to keep the abuse a secret. This can be done in a friendly way such as, “I love playing with you, but if you tell anyone else what we played they won’t let me come over again” or as a threat – “This is our secret. If you tell anyone I will tell them it was your idea and you will get in big trouble!”
Tell your children that no matter what anyone tells them, body secrets are not okay. Let your children know that they should always tell you if someone makes them keep a body secret.
5. Tell your children that no one should take pictures of their private parts or show them pictures of private parts.
This one is often missed by parents. There is a whole sick world out there of pedaphiles who love to take and trade pictures of naked children online. This is an epidemic and it puts your children at risk. If you only talk about body safety you might be missing a risk factor. Tell your children that no one should ever take pictures of their private parts.
Also pedaphiles like to groom children by showing them pornographic pictures. This is their way of “normalizing” the abusive behavior. Let your children know that no one should be showing them pictures of other people’s private parts.
6. Teach your children how to get out of scary or uncomfortable situations
Some children are uncomfortable with telling people “No” – especially older peers or adults. Help give them excuses to get out of uncomfortable situations. Tell your children that if someone wants to see or touch private parts they can lie to them and tell them they need to leave to go to the bathroom.
7. Have a code word your children can use when they feel unsafe or want to be picked up
As children get a little bit older, you can give them a code word that they can use when they are feeling unsafe. This can be used at home, when there are guests in the house or when they are on a playdate or a sleepover.
8. Tell your children they will never be in trouble if they tell you a body secret
Children often tell me that they didn’t say anything because they thought they would get in trouble too. This is often reiterated by the perpetrator. Tell your children that no matter what happens – when they tell you anything about body safety or body secrets they will NEVER get in trouble.
9. Tell your children that a body touch might tickle or feel good
Many parents and books talk about “good touch – bad touch” – but usually these touches do not hurt or feel bad. Try and stay away from these phrases, as it can confuse children that are “tickled” in their private parts. I prefer the term “secret touch” – as it is a more accurate depiction of what might happen.
10. Tell your children that even if they know someone or even if it is another child – these rules are the same
This is an important point to discuss with your children. When you ask young children what a “bad guy” looks like they will most likely describe a cartoonish villain. Be sure to mention to your children that no one can touch their private parts.
You can say something like, “No one should touch your private parts. Mommy and daddy might touch you when we are cleaning you or if you need cream – but no one else should touch you there. Not friends, not aunts or uncles, not teachers or coaches – no one. Even if you like them or think they are in charge, they should still not touch your private parts.”
I am not naïve enough to believe that these discussions will absolutely prevent sexual abuse, but I know that children are at a much greater risk without these talks.
knowledge is a powerful deterrent to childhood sexual abuse – especially with young children who are targeted due to their innocence and ignorance in this area. Have these discussions often. One discussion is not enough. This is a topic that should be revisited again and again. Find natural times to reiterate these messages – such as bath time or when they are running around naked.
This can be a life-altering article for some families and it has the power to prevent some horrific and traumatic experiences. Please share this article with those you love and care about and help me spread the message of body safety!
I recently came across another therapist who offers an e-course to walk parents through completely safe guarding their technology. There are so many ways we can protect our kids if we just knew how! His wealth of knowledge is super helpful! You can learn more about his course here at iparent 101: Safety in the Digital Age.
To better arm yourself with knowledge, read this article on possible signs of sexual abuse:
Check out Anxious Toddler’s other safety articles: