Child sexual abuse is a common and terrible problem. Every 9 minutes child protective services are able to substantiate a claim of child sexual abuse and the majority of perpetrators are people the child knows. Discomfort around sexuality makes disclosure of abuse even more difficult, with many survivors reporting feeling shame or responsibility for being abused. Children are never responsible for sexual misconduct, and we believe that having a strong knowledge about their bodies can offer some protection. These are our 5 strategies for educating and empowering your children.
1. Identify body parts early with accurate language
Your children should know the proper names for their penis, scrotum, vulva, and vagina just as clearly as they could identify their hands and feet. It’s not uncommon for predators to use coded language for a child’s genitals as an attempt to conceal their behavior. Many people teach their children to refer to their genitals as “privates” or “private area” but this actually may be counterproductive. When children are not empowered to use the proper language for their bodies, they can internalize the message that these parts are “secret”, “dirty”, or “shameful”, which makes disclosure more difficult.
2. Clarify that some body parts should not be shown to other people
Although no body parts should be referred to as “dirty”, children should be taught that specific body parts shouldn’t be shown to anyone unless under the supervision of a parent for hygiene or health reasons. Just as they shouldn’t show their genitals to other people, they also should not touch or be asked to touch other people’s genitals. This can be done early, even as you’re changing your child’s diaper. Explaining what you’re doing while identifying their body as you clean (“I’m going to wipe your vulva first, now we’re going to wipe your butt to make sure you’re nice and clean!”) helps children learn what “hygiene touch” feels like rather than “abusive touch”. Creating this familiarity makes them more likely to verbalize if something feels wrong/different should another adult touch their bodies.
3. Discuss body (and hair) boundaries early
Starting young, remind children that no one should be touching them if they don’t want to be touched and they shouldn’t be forced to touch others. This includes hugging relatives who they might not want to hug. For some families, not hugging your relatives might come off as rude. To alleviate any tensions, you may consider addressing the matter with your family and friends first, letting them know you aren’t forcing physical contact because you want them to learn body boundaries. It’s crucial that we teach our children early-on that affection should be willfully given and received. Remind them that hugs don’t have to be the go-to option, and that they can consider other types of greetings like “high-fives”, blowing kisses, or just verbally greeting someone. Tell children that it’s okay to say no to touch, even if it means saying no to an adult. If your kid is a natural hugger, but seems to aggressively resist contact from a certain relative or friend, you should take notice. Most rejections of physical contact aren’t likely abuse, but openly and non-judgmentally asking your child about it gives them the opportunity to discuss the matter if they feel uncomfortable.
With that said, it is also important to let children know that other kids or adults should not touch their hair before asking permission to do so. Setting both body and hair boundaries will make your message clear. This can be especially helpful for girls of color who tend to have curlier or textured hair types that often get others’ attention with unwarranted touching before asking. Share example phrases with your child such as “I prefer people ask me for permission before touching my hair” or “I don’t like people touching my hair”.
4. Reassure them that they will never get in trouble for sharing body secrets
A common tactic used by perpetrators is to scare the child by convincing them that they will get in trouble or ruin their “relationship” if they tell anybody about it. Remind your child frequently that you do not keep body secrets in your family and that they should notify you if someone else is asking them to keep secrets about it.
5. Mentally rehearse disclosure
While discovering abuse is alarming, you’ll want to remain as calm and neutral as possible. Children are highly reactive to our moods and responses and extreme emotional reactions can be misinterpreted as anger toward the child. Additionally, sometimes children may alter the details in an effort to alleviate your stress response or internalize the belief that the abuse is their own fault. Mental rehearsals of disclosure allow you to be best prepared for the situation. You’ll want to actively listen to your child, reassure them they did the right thing by coming to you, and let them know you’re going to make sure that they are safe. You’ll want to report the abuse as soon as you are able to ensure the evidence is accurately relayed.
Even with the best education, abuse may occur. Sexual abuse is never the victim’s fault and there are resources for parents and survivors. If you or someone you love has experienced sexual abuse, we encourage you to talk to someone. You can get help 24/7 help from the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) or via their Live Chat.