Start the Conversation: Abuse
In issue 10, we talk about Maya’s experience with abuse. We felt it was important to dedicate a page to understanding abuse and how to get help (click here to preview the page). To share more resources on this sensitive topic with parents and caretakers, we’ve consulted educator Diane Kay to share tips on how to appropriately open the dialogue on consent and boundaries. Her expert advice is also broken down by age group, so you can choose which approach is right for you and your child.
Age-Appropriate Tips for Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse
As a survivor of child sexual abuse and a parent myself, one of my biggest fears is that my children may one day experience the same thing I did. Because of that, I have spent countless hours studying this topic. From both my findings and my personal experience, I have learned that the best way to prevent these tragedies is to educate ourselves and prepare our homes. We can start doing this from day one with our newborn babies and can continue until the day they leave for college. Below are a few age-appropriate conversation ideas to teach children about consent and boundaries and some tips to help keep kids safe from sexual abuse.
- Teach your child the correct names for body parts. This normalizes their body and inspires confidence in who they are. Talk about their bodies while helping them get dressed, changing a diaper, or giving them a bath. "Let's wash your hair. Now let's wash your scrotum." Hearing the names of those body parts should warrant the same reaction as saying "nose" or "elbow,” not a laugh or an “ewww!”
- Do not slap away touching. It is normal for babies to explore their bodies. They are not touching their private parts to sexually arouse themselves. They are learning about and gaining control of their bodies. Do not shout “No!” or slap away their hand. It’s no big deal if a baby touches their nose—try reacting the same way for the rest of their body.
- Demonstrate safe touch. Snuggle, hug, kiss, and high-five your baby. Babies love skin-to-skin time. Show them that there is such a thing as safe touch, and be someone who can provide that. Modeling safe touch will show them what to expect from others, and teach them to be alerted when someone violates these boundaries.
- Request and respect privacy. Children should learn what is appropriate and inappropriate to do in public. When you use the bathroom or get dressed, you can give them opportunities to practice respecting privacy by requesting it. When your child uses the bathroom or gets dressed, you can explain that these things should only be done in private areas.
- “This is my body.” Remind your child often that their body belongs to them. Not even loved ones or other grown-ups (like doctors, etc.) should look at or touch their body without a parent present. You can also teach your child that not even mommy or daddy should touch private areas unless they are helping bathe or wipe after using the bathroom.
- No means no. Children in this stage can start learning about consent and setting boundaries. Whether it’s a hug from grandma or an invitation to play a game that makes the child uncomfortable, they can say no. This is also a great stage for learning to respect boundaries set by others. Teach your child that they cannot force other children to hug, kiss, play, etc.
- Talk to your children about sex. When talking with your children about sex and reproduction, start with the basics and match their maturity level. You can begin to teach about the reproductive organs that are not visible outside of the body. For example, a simple way to start explaining the vaginal area can be to say, “Babies come out this way.” Add more details as your child matures. This will begin to give them a clearer idea about why those private body parts are private. Your children will learn about sex eventually. It is important they learn this information from you and not from someone else. Addressing consent in this conversation is crucial.
- Explain sexual abuse. At this age, you can speak a little more candidly about sexual abuse. Review appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Talk about the risks, why it’s wrong, what to do if it occurs, who to talk to, etc. Come up with a plan together.
- Discuss an online safety plan. Now that your child is spending more time online independently, discuss what to do if something uncomfortable comes on the screen. Whether it be an inappropriate private message from a friend or a nude picture of a stranger, create a plan for what to do, who to tell, and be prepared to respond calmly.
- Focus on common factors that increase the risk of sexual abuse. Victims of sexual abuse often struggle with low self-esteem, body image, have stressful home environments, are disabled, are exploring their sexuality, or are part of a blended family. If your teen is experiencing one or more of these, they need you. Be there and listen. Ask questions. Constantly remind them how much you love them and how highly you think of them—not because of their appearance or accomplishments, but just because of who they are!
- Talk openly about relationships. Because your child is constantly being influenced by peers, other adults, the media, and other outside sources, it is important to have frequent conversations at home to make sure your child is receiving accurate information. Discuss the safe and healthy ways to make sexual decisions, talk about contraceptives, the dangers of unprotected sex, and any other helpful information. Get to know who your child is spending time with. Remind them they are not required to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, whether it be sexual or not, and that by saying no, they are actually demonstrating their maturity and bravery.
- Trust your child. Their entire lives, you have been preparing them to become adults and make wise, independent decisions. You have discussed important topics and modeled healthy boundaries and relationships. Now it’s time to trust your child and let them make their own decisions. Make sure they know that you will be there for them. If your child makes a mistake, love and support them.
Remember, lots of little chats will be more effective than one big sit-down conversation. Repeat those little chats often. Love and communicate with your kids. They need you!
Diane Kay, M.Ed.
After surviving childhood sexual abuse, Diane wants nothing more than to keep kids safe from the nightmare she experienced. As a developmentalist, she spends countless hours researching best methods to help children grow into thriving adults. She is married to Ben Kay (MD, Psychiatry), and together, this husband-and-wife team shares what they’ve learned through their personal experience and professional training.