As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and now a mom, I cringed when I heard my almost-four-year-old daughter say, “Don’t tell dad I spilled all the dog food.”
Where had she learned to start hiding things from people? Had I unintentionally modeled secret keeping behavior? Had she picked this up at school or from a friend?
Since day one of her life, I’ve painstakingly researched ways to keep her, and now her younger brother, safe from childhood sexual abuse. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned that any caregiver, coParent, or still together family, can put in place to try to keep their kids safe from sexual predators.
1. Start Young, but Start Simple
Talking to your sweet, innocent toddler about body safety is not easy. Believe me, I know. If you’ve been a victim yourself, it can be especially hard. But it’s important. And it’s never too soon to start teaching children that their body parts are private.
When my daughter turned two, I started explaining that nakedness was okay at bath time with her parents or another trust caregiver present, but people outside of the home should only see her with her clothes on. I explained that doctor checkups were okay too.
2. Teach Body Boundaries
Next, I began reminding my daughter that no one should touch her private area (not me, her father, either!) and that she shouldn’t touch anyone else’s. Nor should they take pictures of her or her brother without their clothing on or show them pictures of that nature. According to Anxious Toddlers, “Sexual abuse often begins with the perpetrator asking the child to touch them or someone else.” Pedophiles may also try to groom children by showing them pornographic images.
Lessons about body boundaries extend beyond bath time too. We don’t force our children to hug or kiss relatives, other adults, or friends. If one of our children is visibly uncomfortable about an embrace, we say, “She/he doesn’t want to hug right now. But we can say hello and goodbye and it’s just as nice.” It’s not always easy to have these kinds of conversations with well-meaning relatives, but sometimes they need a lesson in body boundaries too! I’ve explained to my entire family- grandparents, uncles, and cousins – that when it comes to my kids “stop means stop” and “no means no.”
3. Use Real Names for Real Things
According to Sharon W. Doty, author of Keeping Them Safe: Protecting Children From Sexual Predators, avoid made up names for body parts. Calling your child’s private parts by cutesy monikers can be confusing and make them think there’s something weird about their bodies. It may feel uncomfortable at first but commit to using anatomically correct language. Use “penis,” “vulva,” and “vagina” where appropriate. The all-encompassing phrase “private area” or “private parts” works too.
4. Surprises Not Secrets
In our house we have surprises, but we don’t have secrets. If we buy a present for a family member, for example, we keep it a “surprise.” The beauty of surprises is that they always get revealed.
This “no secret policy” worked like a charm when my daughter was younger, but now that she’s getting older this rule has gotten more complicated. She’s wanting to bond with her besties by sharing and keeping secrets. Luckily, she’s old enough to understand our amended secret keeping policy which specifically includes “body secrets.” I’ve told her that if anyone ever asks her to keep a secret regarding her private area or theirs that she should tell me immediately.
We also make it a rule that in our family we don’t hide things from each other. We make a conscious effort to eliminate phrases like “Don’t tell your dad,” which is why I was so shocked to hear her ask to keep the spilled dog food from him. Because secret keeping culture is all around us, I simply reminded her of how we do things. By avoiding seemingly innocuous secret keeping between parents, my hope is that I’m fostering a culture of open communication across the board.
5. Stranger Danger
According to the US Department of Justice, only 10% of perpetrators were strangers to the child and 23% were children themselves. That means that childhood sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by someone the child knows. Making your “no secrets” and “body boundaries” policies known to family, friends, and caregivers may seem awkward at first, but letting people close to you know where you stand sends an important message.
As children age into elementary school they’ll spend less time supervised by you and more time with their peers. Give your children the tools to speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Having a code word or phrase can help older children get out of uncomfortable situations. “I have a headache,” for example, could be used by your child if he or she is at a sleepover and wants to come home.
This stuff was hard to talk about at first, but the more we’ve intertwined body boundaries and the no secrets policy into our family repertoire the easier it’s become. If I want my kids to have the carefree childhood I didn’t have, communicating about difficult stuff is what it takes. There’s no foolproof way to protect children from the evils of the world, but open communication is a great place to start!