Yesterday, a friend texted me feeling anxious after hearing news of kids being molested by a trusted adult and wondered what she should be doing to keep her own kids safe. What should she tell them? What do I tell my kids?
These are difficult parenting moments, right? No parent wants to tell their kids bad things happen in the world. No one wants their kids to learn some adults hurt kids. We want them to stay innocent and protected from these horrible things. It makes sense. We're wired to protect our kids, but just like real self-care sometimes means doing the difficult thing (getting our ass out of bed and to the gym), protecting our kids sometimes means having uncomfortable conversations.
Here are some tips to make it easier for you and effective learning for your kids.
1. Teach body safety like you teach all other safety rules. Examples: "Look both ways before you cross the street." "We wear bike helmets to protect our brains." "No one is allowed to touch your body without your permission." Keep it simple and matter-of-fact.
2. Keep your adult anxiety and fear out of the conversation. You wouldn't show your five year-old pictures of a mangled kid under a car to teach them about street-crossing safety. You don't need to watch the evening news with them or share details about child molestation to teach them body safety. In fact, depending on their age, you shouldn't.
3. Teaching body safety is an on-going conversation. Just like you don't show your kid a cross walk once and then never mention again how to cross a street safely, you don't talk about body safety rules once and then never again until they are dating. Take the pressure off yourself and consider you are starting an on-going conversation.
4. Use natural teaching moments. Use everyday events to remind or quiz (kids love a quiz!) your kids about body safety rules. Example: your kid has a doctor appointment.
Parent: "Now is Dr. _____ someone who can touch your body? Why? Why not?"
Another example: Your kid is going on a playdate at a new-ish friend's house.
Parent: "You haven't played at ____'s house before. This is a great time to review the safety rules. Can you remember some?
Kid: "Wear a helmet. No leaving the property. Never touch a gun and immediately leave the room and tell an adult (OMG. That's another blog post.) No one is allowed to touch my body without my permission. If someone wants to touch my private parts or wants me to look at or touch theirs, I tell _____'s mom and you."
When it is an on-going conversation and part of everyday activity, kids internalize the safety rules.
4. Develop their skills to decrease vulnerability. Knowing body safety rules is one thing; having the ability to say "No" to a big kid or an adult is another. Especially if your kids are rule-followers vs rebels. Help your child develop the skills necessary to stand up for themselves by practicing in real life. You want them to be able to be...
Assertive: To say "No" to an adult in a firm and respectful way.
Intuitive: To trust their gut.
Courageous: To ask for help from an adult when they need it, and not just you.
Attached: To tell you if something happens.
Real life strategies to foster these skills:
- Have your kid order for themselves in a restaurant.
- Allow your child space and time to answer an adult's questions, especially strangers making small talk (like grocery store clerks, for example).
- Ask your child to run something over to the neighbor's house for you.
- Have an older child purchase something from the corner store while you wait in the car.
- When rough-housing at home, stop as soon as your child says, "Stop."
- Knock before entering the bathroom or bedroom.
- Invite your child to give you honest feedback. Practice taking it. ("What do you think about this meal? How did you feel when I lost my temper?")
- Listen, really listen (like put down your phone and make eye contact) when your child is telling you something about their day. Give them the message everyday that you want to hear everything; that they can tell you anything.
5. Have an explicit conversation if you haven't already. The age and stage of your child determines how much you tell them and when. Just like the birds and the bees. You don't explain intercourse the first time your are talking about puberty. When they are ready, you tell them more. Fortunately, most kids ask questions or show us behaviors that tell us they need more information. Some kids don't, though and we have to be more direct. I find books are a great way to introduce concepts and get the conversation going. (Please re-read any book like this before you share it with your child to determine whether it is appropriate for your child's age/stage.)
For 4-8 year olds
Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Maude Spelman
6. Educate your kids about their entire body. Start "sex-ed" early and and often. The more educated and aware a child is about their entire body (physical, mental, energetic, intuitive) the better care of it they will take. The more they value and honor their bodies, they less likely they are to let anyone else hurt it. The days of telling kids about puberty in 6th grade and sex/AIDS in 8th grade are gone. Our kids are living in different times. We need to equip them with the body knowledge and self-care habits from the get-go. Amazing You by Gail Saltz is a great book to start with. Tracey Biebel, LCSW at Practicalparentingpdx.com is the best for advice in this arena. In fact, much of what I know I learned from her.
7. Model what you want them to know. Don't underestimate the power of what you are showing your kids. How you conduct yourself. How you care for yourself. How you assert yourself. How you ask for help. How you trust your gut. All of this, they are watching and learning and absorbing. Take comfort in that where you may be lacking in terms of the right words at the right time, your kids are learning how to be safe in the world from watching you. If you aren't sure you're role modeling what you want for your kids, it's time to turn it around.
Okay. Hope that helps. Always happy to talk more. Drop me a line with your questions or concerns. If I can't help, I know people who can!