Often children lack information. As providers, we don’t want to scare kids or plant seeds of worry in their minds. We want to protect their image of our world without inducing anxiety. However, as child advocates we must give age-appropriate information about what to do if something bad happens. Not only do we need to emphasize the “Don’ts,” (Don’t talk to or accept gifts from strangers), we also have to teach the “Dos,” (Do resist, do tell). One idea I particularly liked was acting out scenarios with the kids in your family so they can see what could happen and strategies to deal with given situations.
Kids are naturally powerless and dependent, which gives perpetrators the power. We instill power in our children when we allow them permission to decide what happens to their bodies 100% of the time. Kisses and touches should always be a child’s choice.
This one is difficult because it demands that we resist the urge to insist that our children greet a loved one with hugs and/or kisses. If a child wants to share affection, great. If they simply want to say hello, that should be fine too. We cannot give kids the message that they are only sometimes in charge of their bodies. They need to know they can say “no thank you,” even to an adult and/or a relative.
A child should never be bribed for affection. Can you picture anyone in your life saying this: “Oh, you don’t want a hug? That’s okay. I’ll just take back that toy I brought you.” I’ve heard it before in my own family. It stems innocently from a loved one wanting to share a sweet moment with a child and being denied. We as adults need to move past the initial sting of a child not wanting to be hugged or kissed, and be perceptive to the touch preferences of all of our children. Demanding affection clearly sends the wrong message, even from the most loving, adoring friends and family. Again, kisses and touches should always be a child’s choice.
Positive and welcomed affection is actually an important deterrent in terms of predators seeking victims who may feel unloved or ignored. From an early age my oldest son preferred not to be cuddled as I wished to cuddle with him. I had to work to find an acceptable method of expressing affection with my little guy. Luckily, one day he discovered how much he loved goodnight back scratches. My younger two kids? They couldn’t go without their goodnight hugs and kisses. Even now, years past persnickety toddler-hood, my firstborn may accept someone’s request for a hug, or he may offer up a high five or handshake instead. And that is perfectly fine with me.
Another point to consider is that we essentially take our kids’ rights away when we instruct them to obey a caregiver and do whatever they are told. We set them up to believe that whatever the adult says is law. In reality we must walk the fine line of teaching safe, respectful behavior, and at the same time impart “body safety rules.”
Adult authority must never go unqualified. It’s a good idea to level the playing field and set both the caregiver and children up for success by saying something along the lines of, “I expect that things will go smoothly this evening, and that you will have a fun time and follow our family rules. But, if anything makes you feel sad, scared, or uncomfortable, that’s the first thing we’ll talk about when I get home.” This lets both the child and caregiver understand that you are invested in the safety and well-being of your child. Your child has rights and is not an easy target.
Our children may be isolated from those who can help them. Children need to know there are a lot of people who will help them. Ask your son or daughter with whom they feel safe. Create a support list of names and numbers. If your child is ever in crisis and cannot talk to you for whatever reason, (s)he will have a list of people who can help.
Additional Parent Tips
1. Employ a “No Secret Policy” in your family. Sexual abuse thrives on secrecy. Surprises are different: short-lived & happy. Kisses and touches should never be a secret.
2. Passwords or code words are never a good idea. Many of us grew up with this concept, but in reality it is just another way for perpetrators to lure children closer. It also sends a message to our children that at some point we may send a perfect stranger to fetch them.
3. Begin to call private parts exactly what they are from age 2-3, just as we name an arm, a leg, or a toe. This is an opportunity for us to remove the taboo from the beginning. This can happen naturally at bath time or while getting kids dressed. I also like to add in a little “you are in charge of your own body” chit chat.
4. Public restroom safety can be tricky territory. Use the buddy system whenever possible. Also, don’t be afraid to stand outside with your foot in the door and carry on a conversation with your child if (s)he is alone in a bathroom of the opposite sex.
5. Be alert to adults in your child’s circle that spend an inappropriate amount of time physically interacting with children. This includes touching, wrestling, tickling, massaging, scratching backs, etc. As I mentioned earlier, affection is a positive and important part of development. However, it is not normal for adults at family functions and gatherings with friends to focus all of their attention on being “touchy” with the kids. Perpetrators have a grooming process to desensitize their victims, so this behavior should raise red flags.
I’d love to hear what additional safety rules you follow in your family. Please feel free to share in the comment section. As they say, it takes a village.
Tomorrow’s segment of “Keeping Our Kids Safe and Thriving” will address stranger abduction.