Keeping Kids Safe From Harm
by Giving Them Guidelines
The author has worked with abused and neglected children and their families for over 25 years, with much of that time spent working with victims of sexual abuse. Currently, he works for a Children’s Advocacy Center, educating parents about what they can do to help their children recover from the trauma of sexual abuse. In this position he has specialized in learning how to help keep kids safe, and what parents can do to educate their children about “grooming” behaviors.
“Believe your kids, and have a relationship with them so that they never have a need to lie to you about anything, much less about a sex assault.”
Nine-year-old Timmy goes to his mom and asks, “Where did I come from, Mom?” Mom is not ready for the question, but then thinks to herself, “Wonderful! He’s asking questions, and I’m going to answer them. She then takes a deep breath and delves into a full-blown explanation of sex. Mom shares the names and functions ofall of the anatomy as well as the biology and even some of the emotional part of it; she leaves nothing to chance (or to the imagination).
After about 45 minutes, she is done, and says to little Timmy, “So that’s where you came from. Does that answer your question?” Timmy responds by saying, “No. I just wanted to know what hospital I was born in.
A humorous story, but a valuable one. Talk to your kids, and start young, and talk on their level, and keep talking until they let you know they are done listening. You (and your children) will benefit tremendously from it.
I was recently talking to a mother about her 7-year-old daughter who had been sexually abused. I was sharing with this mother how there was value in helping her young child learn about sex and putting it into a different perspective than what she had learned at such an early age. In the context of our conversation the mother asked, “How much information is too much information?”
I hesitated for a moment, because in my experience you can never share enough as a parent. You can help your children understand the pleasure of sex and the intimate nature of that union in a way no one else can (or will). You can give your children insight into your lives and values and family culture so that the subject of sex is not taboo or even bad; it is beautiful and enjoyable and maybe even sacred. No one else will tell them that, at last not from your loving parental perspective.
But is there such a thing as “too much” information? Well, in addition to what I just stated, I also told this mother that showing her young child pictures of adult genitals (or even another child’s) or things of that nature would fall under the category of “too much information. But I also assured her that I knew she would not do that. But, somewhere between showing pictures and saying nothing is where you need to be, not just as a parent but as a role model and educator and trustworthy person to your children.
With all of that in mind, in an effort to keep your kids safe I offer the following ideas about talking to your kids:
Talk to your kids about sex – in detail
(if you don’t provide the “details,” someone else will)
I tell parents all the time to “Get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations with your kids about sex.” If you are not talking to them, the only sources they have are people you don’t want to have teaching your kids about it.
A side benefit – if you are talking to them about sex, chances are a lot higher they will come to you with questions. If you never talk with them about sex, they will never talk to you about sex.
I recently talked to the mother of a 13-year-old girl who had been involved in some form of internet child pornography/sextortion. I asked this mom if she had openly spoken with her (teenage) daughter about sex and she replied, “Sort of.” While I was diplomatic in my response to this mother, “Sort of” is woefully inadequate.
The average age kids are exposed to pornography is 8-10 years old. If you want THAT to be how your child learns about sex, then don’t talk to them.
In my job I hear from law enforcement that kids are engaging in sex acts in elementary school. If you want THAT to be your child’s first exposure to sex, then don’t talk to them.
I am a parent; I know these are difficult conversations to have. And I am not saying to sit down at the dinner table and say, “Okay, everyone, tonight we’re gonna talk about sex.”
I am saying that it is critically important that you, as the parent, educate your children about these things. You will educate them with your values and your cultural norms and your ideas about what and how sex is good and right.
Teach them that their bodies belong to them and that they don’t have to go along with anything they don’t want to do, even if an adult tells them to do it. Teach your children very clearly what kind of touching is okay and what is not.
Please teach children the proper names for their genitals. I have heard children use terms like “cookie,” “taco,” “dingaling,” or “chacha” for their genitals. This often confuses the child and helps to obfuscate any abuse that may be occurring.
Help your little children understand that sex feels good and it is supposed to feel good but that there are appropriate and inappropriate times.
Don’t shame them or how they might feel if they are touched. If you shame them, they will most likely feel guilty if, at age 8 or 10 or 12 someone touches them and they enjoy it. Take this shame away from them by being open and talking honestly about it.
Talk to your children about their bodies and about sex without embarrassment so that your kids will feel comfortable talking to you about these things.
Be open, be bold and own your parental power over educating your children on these things. If you don’t, someone else will step in, and they do not love your children like you do.
Talk to your kids about relationships, about intimacy and about commitment
(and about how sex fits into all of these)
Kids, even little kids, need to learn about these things.
Again, you are not going to take 6-year-old Charlie and say, “Okay, Charlie, tonight I am going to teach you about intimacy.” In fact, you are probably not going to have that conversation with a teenager, either.
The idea is to open an ongoing dialog where questions can be asked or information can be shared without it being forced.
When I talk to parents about this, I tell them to seek “organic” opportunities to “seek and share” with their kids.
An example of this might be watching a movie or even walking down the street and two people are kissing (passionately?). Don’t just change the channel and hope they did not see or do not ask a question.
Look for those opportunities, welcome them, and take advantage of every one of them. In that moment you can ask your child, “What do you think about that?” A nice “soft” question like this is one they can answer and will answer as fully as they feel they want to.
Depending on their response, it’s a chance for you to share what you want them to know, and hopefully embrace, regarding intimacy, commitment, and even sex.
These are NOT, however, an open door to share 90 minutes of biology and experience!
In these moments share with your kids as much as they ask for, and keep it safe and interesting for them. You’ll know you went too long when their “eyes glaze over” or they say something like, “Can I go out and play now?” You know your kids; pay attention to them as you talk.
What your children need in these conversations is for you to set the example, and to have open, trusting conversations with them about stuff that matters to them and to you. The more you are approachable to them (by being open and honest) the more likely they will be to come to you about stuff that matters to them, and the stuff that matters to them also matters to you.
Talk to your kids about how to keep themselves safe and give them rules.
As hard as we try, we can never have enough rules to keep our kids safe. Unfortunately, as hard as we try, kids are going to break the rules anyway; it’s part of how they develop. However, there are a few rules that I think every child should be aware of and understand:
1-Sleepovers and Unicorns
I used to tell my kids, “Sleepovers are like unicorns; you might read about them in books, but you are never going to see one.”
If I could share one RULE to keep kids safe, it would be no sleepovers, EVER. In my years of professional work with abused kids, more “bad stuff” happens during sleepovers than any other single event.
I am not saying your kids cannot have fun; I am saying that any overnight event is an invitation for bad stuff to happen. And I’m not just talking about with friends; I’m talking about even with the cousins, etc. If cousins need to sleep overnight (e.g. family reunion) then have each child sleep in a room with one or more related (mom or dad) adults. Just keep supervision present.
Your relatives may call you weird or paranoid, but I have worked with thousands of families who did not observe this one rule and found out it might have thwarted some abuse.
2-Tell your kids to NEVER trust anyone who asks them to break mom’s or dad’s rules.
Again – this applies even to grandma and grandpa. If you (and your kids) make exceptions (for certain people), then they won’t know how to stay safe when a different occasion arises
Most abusers have kids break rules about touching, gifts, staying out late, seeing pornography, etc. This is often part of the “grooming” process and allows the abuse to blackmail the child into compliance because if they don’t comply the abuser will tell the parents the kid broke the rules.
You can have lots of conversations about rules, but teaching your children not to listen to others about breaking rules is crucial.
3-Tell your children to NEVER keep secrets from mom and dad (and it’s okay if they ruin your birthday)
Parents should explain to children that bad people may try to trick them into doing things and keeping it a secret. We can remind children not to keep secrets and that no matter what someone might say, it’s okay for the child to tell mom or dad about something that is supposed to be a secret.
Child (sexual) abuse is a problem that breeds in secrecy, so simply speaking openly and publicly about it will enhance efforts at prevention.
Too often there is a phenomenon called “victim shaming,” where the victim is blamed (and therefore shamed) for the abuse.
People will say, “You shouldn’t have dressed that way,” or “You shouldn’t have been out that late,” or “You shouldn’t have gone to that party,” or any number of statements that place blame on the victim.While this may ease the conscience of those making the statements, they are absolutely NOT TRUE!
How can I say that? Ask yourself, “How provocatively dressed or how late would it need to be for YOU (or someone you know) to sexually assault another person?”
If your answer is “It doesn’t matter,” that’s because IT DOESN’T MATTER. No matter what a person is wearing or where they are or what time it is, sexual assault is the fault of the perpetrator, not the victim.
Is it any wonder that it takes years for girls to disclose abuse, if they ever do?
I think this is a very common way to shame the victim and to keep sex abuse and sex assault in the shadows. While dressing modestly may have value in your family or community, if you suggest a girl’s sex assault was due to her clothing then you are excusing the perpetrator’s behavior and blaming the victim.
All of this to say that sexual abuse should be openly discussed in families. Children need to know it happens, and blaming victims or ignoring it will not reduce the risk to your children. Taking away the secrecy of it will help.
4-Teach your children to NEVER stay in a place or with people if you don’t FEEL GOOD about any part of it…(instinct)
Sometimes victims will say, “I knew I shouldn’t have gone/stayed/trusted/etc.” That is their instinct, their sense of self preservation kicking in.
Teach them to trust that and find a way out.
Professionally we do not use “stranger danger” anymore. All too often it is not a stranger who abuses, so children need to be confident in their own feelings and instinct.
We also do not use “good touch/bad touch” either. First, if it feels good (and sex does feel good) then how can it be bad? And if it is grandpa touching me (or grandma or Uncle Bill, etc.) how can that be bad (to a 6-year-old)?
Bottom line – teach your kids to trust themselves! If they don’t like it, then it needs to STOP!
5-Tell your kids to NEVER get into a vehicle of someone they do not already know and trust
This may seem obvious, but it happens. Oftentimes it is teenagers who think they can stay safe.
Some families use a code word (e.g. pancake or Abraham or flagpole) so the child knows they can go with this person.
As with everything, have plans and talk about this with your children so they know.
6-BELIEVE your child
When children are brave enough to disclose sexual abuse, it is important that you respond by believing the disclosure, doing everything you can to protect them, enforce the laws against the perpetrators, and offer effective medical and mental health care.
In my career I have spoken to many, many parents who have said, “I just can’t believe he would/could do such a thing.”
Early in my career I dealt with a mom whose teenager disclosed that the father had been sexually abusing her for years. We had a detailed disclosure by the girl and this was corroborated by medical evidence. This mother could not believe that her husband would do this.
She was in absolute denial. In her mind, this man that she (thought) she knew and loved is not capable of such things. The alternative is that she allowed this to happen (also a fallacy), and that was intolerable for her.
I spoke to this mom and asked her to go home and think about what her daughter and the medical exam said about what had happened. A week later we met and her first words to me were, “He did it, didn’t he?” I responded, “Yes, he did,” and we were able to help her get to a place and a space where she could be there to help her daughter (and other children) to heal.
It takes so much strength for a child (or even an adult) to disclose sexual abuse, we need to reward that courage by believing the disclosure.
Some might say that this allows girls to “lie” about being abused. While there may be a very small risk that some teens might manipulate their parents this way, younger kids do not.
Believe your kids, and have a relationship with them so that they never have a need to lie to you about anything, much less about a sex assault.
By Michael Meyers
Michael holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a Master’s Degree in Psychology.