Surveys show that as many as 1 in 4 children have suffered some sort of sexual abuse by the time they reach 18. Statistics show that child sexual abuse crosses boundaries of race, class, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, affecting all types of communities. What can you do as a parent to help protect your child?
Children today are around more adults on a daily basis than ever before. From childcare to sports practices to dance classes, not to mention camps and after-school programs, children are meeting and interacting with many adults on a daily basis.
That's why it is so important for parents to talk with their children — as early as age 4 — about inappropriate touching. And children even younger can begin to learn about their bodies.
Joining me today to discuss talking to your kids about inappropriate touching is Steffi Benjamin of the National Center for Children and Families. Inappropriate touching may seem like an uncomfortable or difficult discussion to have, but we'll give you helpful steps that can make the experience more effective and comfortable for you and your child.
What is "inappropriate touching"?
The clinical definition of child sexual abuse is inappropriately exposing or subjecting a child to sexual contact, activity or behavior. An easier way to think of it - and to teach children about it - is by contrasting "good touches" and "bad touches."
- A good touch can be explained as a way for people to show they care for each other and help each other. Examples you can give include hugging, holding hands, or a parent changing a baby's diaper.
- A bad touch can be explained as the kind you don't like and would want to stop right away, such as hitting, kicking or touching private parts.
Before you talk with your child, it's important that you understand just what "inappropriate touching" means and are comfortable speaking about it. Quite often, the subject of sexual abuse can make parents immediately think, "It's too awful to think about," or "That would never happen in our neighborhood/family/school."
The truth is, sexual abuse cuts across all cultural, racial and economic lines and in most cases the molester is someone the child knows. EVERY parent should be having this discussion with his or her children. Children are not usually threatened by this information; they embrace it!
How can I approach the subject with my child?
- When you are ready to sit down and talk with your child, take the time to do it right. Talk to your child in a quiet place, away from distractions. Try to maintain physical contact during the discussion, either by holding hands or sitting together on the floor or the couch. This makes them feel safe and reinforces the concept of "good touch" with an adult they can trust. Don't force an end to the conversation-a child may have ongoing questions and concerns. Keep in mind that you will probably have to have this discussion a number of times as your child gets older. Repeating your discussions every year will reinforce what they have learned and reintroduces points they may have forgotten.
- Teach the "Safe Body Rule." Rather than expect your children to judge a touch only by how it makes them feel ("good" or "bad"), give them a solid rule that they can follow. Using the "Safe Body Rule", teach them it is NOT okay for anyone to touch their private parts, or what is covered by their swimsuits. It is easier for a child to follow a rule and they will more immediately recognize a "bad touch" if they have this guideline in mind.
- Use proper body names. Sexual predators often take advantage of the fact that we don't speak freely with our children about sex and our bodies. By talking about genitals and age-appropriate sexual matters to children in a respectful manner, we stop teaching by exclusion that all these things are secret and not to be talked about. One of the most important goals of having this conversation with your child is to let them know that they SHOULD speak up if something happens and should not be embarrassed or scared to talk about their own bodies or of your reaction.
- Ask them to talk about the subject. Research shows that children are much more likely to learn prevention skills when they actively participate in activities or role-play. Be sure to engage your child during your discussion. Ask them to give an example of a "good touch" (hug from mom) and a "bad touch" (a kick on the playground.) Do a role-play by asking questions such as, "What would you do if."
- Explain your child's right to say NO. Inappropriate touching-especially by a trusted adult-can be very confusing to a child. They are taught to trust adults, and can feel conflicted, scared and confused when this trust is breached. Because in about 89% of sexual abuse cases the abuser is someone the child knows, you need to tell your child that he or she has the right to say NO to ANY "bad touching" by an adult. Constantly reinforce the idea that their body is their own and they can protect it and take care of it. This concept can come up in a number of different circumstances (when a child has a "boo-boo" or is getting a bath).
- Prepare them to react to a "secret." Explain that if an adult does something your child thinks is wrong and then tells them to keep it a secret, they should tell you immediately. Giving children specific examples like this will help them feel more empowered to act if necessary. Role-play can be a valuable tool in this step as well.
What can I do to protect my child?
- Be aware of WHO is around your children. It is very important to know who is around your children on a daily basis at things like a playdate or a soccer practice, and for special occasions such as neighborhood parties or family gatherings. If a child's behavior changes after being around specific adults, take note.
- Always check references of babysitters, counselors, etc. Many states have public registries that allow parents to screen individuals for prior criminal records and sex offenses. Once you have chosen the caregiver, drop in unexpectedly to see how your children are doing.
- Pay attention to patterns you see in adults. Is an adult paying special attention to your child or taking an uncomfortable interest in what your child is doing? Take the time to talk to your children about this person and find out why the person is acting in this way.
- Create circles of protection. Involve other parents or family members who are at after-school events or gatherings. Discuss the subject with them, creating circles of safe adults who will also watch out for children. You may also want to Invite your local law enforcement or child abuse prevention organization to a neighborhood discussion group to learn about the issue and to process people's emotions.
- Be approachable. The best protection you can give your child is a sense of safety and openness with you. If your child feels it is okay to talk about his body, feelings and "bad touches" with you, he or she will be more likely to alert you of uncomfortable situations. If your children do confide problems to you, strive to remain calm, non-critical, and nonjudgmental. Listen compassionately to their concern and work with them to get the help they need to resolve the problem.
Should you discover that your child has been inappropriately touched, as a parent it is the most important that you be an emotional support. In order to support your child, it is important that you stay calm, listen and reassure your child, make sure your child is safe, and get help.
There are several measures you can take to help both you and your child prevent it from happening. Make a choice today to sit down with your child and start a discussion. Remain open to their thoughts, questions and concern, and tell them that they should always speak up, ask questions and keep on talking until someone listens. The key to prevention is knowledge. Talk to your kids today and ensure a safe tomorrow!