For most of us, as parents, we would protect our children with our lives. From early mobility we are teaching our kids appropriate responses to danger. However, many of us are at a loss when it comes to protecting our kids where they are most vulnerable. I do my best to teach my children safety and good habits, but I don’t spend a lot of time considering ways that they could get hurt. I do however, struggle with a deep fear of my children being abused, be it physical, emotional, and especially sexual. My fear is that I won’t be able to protect them from those who would prey on their vulnerability. I fear that I won’t see the signs or that they won’t come and tell me. I fear that I won’t teach them what they need to know for abuse prevention and handling.
I have these fears but I am learning to choose not to live within them. Instead, I am learning to face them, for myself and my children; I want to equip myself and my children.
The things that I want to share have come from both my personal experience and from educating myself on how to equip and protect my children. I’ll just be honest and say that I have a hard time tackling this subject and I have been grappling with my fears as I write. I also want to be clear, I am sharing as a mom; I’m not an expert or an educator on this and I don’t have all the answers. I share this because I know that there are many who experience my fear and like I, struggle to find a balance of not transferring fear to our children while protecting them in the best way. I also share this because I know that for some parents, they are unprepared and so miss warning signs. My hope is that in sharing this, you will find some tools within it to assist you in a proactive approach to protecting your children.
- Correct Terminology
of the human sexual/reproductive anatomy. Our kids need to know the correct
labels of ALL their body parts including those that are private. This makes
sense on so many levels. I don’t have a fully labeled diagram teaching every
single body part to my girls but they are progressively adding to their
vocabulary. They learned that they had a vulva at the same time they learned
they had arms…maybe before. As I wash their bodies, from their first bath, I
start teaching them their body parts as I wash it. As they grow and learn more
body parts, more terms are added. So, while they learned about elbows and
ankles, they learned that inside their vulva was their vagina. Even health-wise my girls need to be able to
tell me exactly where is bothering them. It’s not about cutesy words so that no
one is uncomfortable just in case they talk about their body, it’s about having
a clear understanding of their bodies so that they can explain what is going
on. If you aren’t comfortably familiar
with the words, it can be really helpful to take some time to learn them yourself. See link for basic male and female anatomy .
- Teach your child appropriate touch. We need to demonstrate “good touch” through cuddling, hugging and all the lovely ways that we bond with our children. Our kids learn about hugs and kisses that are ok from us. We also talk to our kids about how they should be touched when they are being wiped after using the toilet, being bathed, or dressed. We talk to them about the way that we help them do any of those things being how it is appropriate. We also remind them that if there is ever a need for someone else to help them, they need to help just like we do and they can tell them that.
- Respect your child’s space and displays of affection. I tend to err on the side that if any touch makes a child uncomfortable, it is inappropriate. How many times do people beg small children for a hug goodbye? It is very possible and acceptable for a child to simply say “goodbye”. We have decided that we won’t encourage or force our kids to hug anyone. We also respect their wishes with pictures and if they don’t wish to have their picture taken with someone, they don’t. Does this disappoint people? Yes. Does it hurt their feelings? Unfortunately. We will take the trade off that our kids are learning that their bodies and affections are their own. They need to be respectful but they have every right to refuse hugs, tickles, cuddles, etc. They are learning that they are not responsible for any one else’s desire for affection and that they can say no to any touch, even appropriate, if they wish. We also show respect of space and privacy by asking for it ourselves and by giving it to them when they ask.
- Respect your child’s NO. Our kids learn that their NO is to be respected from us. They also need to learn that NO isn’t always verbal. Even in play, if one of the kids says NO or STOP, we do so immediately even if they are playing. If they say NO to a hug, we don’t give them one. They are learning that those are powerful words and ones that they are allowed to expect an immediate response to. We have also taught them that when someone says NO or STOP to them, they also need to respect that.
- You are your child’s voice, you are equipping them, you are not placing responsibility on them. Especially when they are young, don’t be afraid to speak up for your child. Demonstrate how they can politely let someone know that they don’t like something, teach them the words by using them. If your child seems uncomfortable, take the opportunity to ask them about it, try to express their feelings without projecting your feelings on them. As young children, they are learning how to deal with situations, they are not responsible for them.
- Watch your words. This goes with the last point. It's pretty common to tell children, “don’t talk to strangers.” “Don’t let anyone touch your privates” “Don’t keep secrets.”. But then we also teach our children things like, “Don’t touch the knives.” “don’t play in the toilet.” “Don’t hit your sister.” So if ever they don’t do what we say, they haven’t listened or obeyed our request. In their minds they have done something they shouldn’t have, making it even more difficult to tell us. I think that we need to change how we word our safety talk to put the blame and responsibility where it belongs while still teaching them safety. Maybe we need to say something like, “ Strangers shouldn’t talk to you because they know better. If they try, you come right to Mama.” “No one has the right to touch your privates places and if they try, you can say “No” and tell mama” “No one should ever touch you in a way that you don’t like.” I choose to give them permission rather than command by saying that they can always tell me if something happens.
- Place the blame where it belongs. I cringe to think of the times that Aneliese has come to me and said that so and so hit her and my first response has been, “What did you do that they would hit you”. I cringe because it is the wrong placement of blame; through that interaction I am teaching her that if someone hurts her it is because she did something. Of course as children play, that often can be the case, but my very wording is instilling in her that it is her responsibility that she was hurt. I’ve realized that I need to always acknowledge that someone else has done wrong or acted inappropriately before dealing with her response. The opposite is also true, if they have behaved wrongly, that gets addressed before the response of another. Our kids need to know that if they are abused in anyway, it is the other person who bears the guilt, NOT them. Kids need to have this instilled aside from any possible abuse situation so that they know that they will not be blamed.
- Be a safe place. I’m learning that it is really hard work to be a safe place to my children. If I ever hope for them to come to me with the hard things and the things that cause them deep confusion and shame, I must first be a place for them to come to with the less significant things.
I realize that while my thoughts here are in the context of abuse, they relate in many other ways to the holistic development of children. Something that Dan and I often remind each other is that as we are proactive and intentional about offering our children the love, affirmation, and strength in such a way that is clearly the opposite of abuse, we are equipping them. Can we protect them from everything? No. I wish it were different. In part two, I will be talking more about the initial response to abuse.
As always, I welcome interaction through comments and questions; I hope that you will join the conversation. I would just ask that because due to the nature of the topic, that you would choose your words with sensitivity and care.