One of my favorite people in the world recently asked me for a favor; to write a blog post about how to talk to kids about safe vs unsafe touching. She, like many other parents I know, wants to do everything possible to prevent her children from becoming victims of child sexual abuse (CSA). Having treated so many children who have experienced CSA in my career as a therapist, I know all too well how important this topic is. Never one to shy away from a challenging blog post, of course I said “sure”!
First off, I think it’s important to state a few obvious truths:
1. Of course not all sexual abuse can be prevented.
2. Of course a larger discussion should be had about how to more actively dismantle a culture that propagates misogyny, patriarchy and rape. I’ve talked a little bit about that before in this post.
How common is CSA?
The current statistics vary, because most victims of CSA never report it. However, many sources agree that at least 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience CSA. We also know that children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13, usually by someone they know. Many times, children are “groomed”, in other words, the perpetrator will gain the trust of the child and/or their caregivers before initiating sexual contact.
We already know, and I don’t think I need to go into much explanation here, of the myriad of long lasting detrimental effects (including physical, emotional and behavioral effects) CSA has on children. If you’d like to read more about that, this is a great resource.
How do I know if my kid has been abused?
When determining whether or not a child has been perpetrated against, the signs are not always clear. However, here are a few things that always raise red flags for me, when I’m working with children who may have been abused:
- Sudden regression of behaviors. For example, a child that was previously potty trained suddenly going back to having accidents. Or a child who no longer sucks her thumb, suddenly using this as a soothing action again. Of course, there are many other reasons for behavior regressions, like a new sibling, so be on the lookout for other causes as well.
- Other adverse behaviors, such as eating problems, bed wetting, insomnia, high anxiety, or self-destructive behaviors.
- Highly sexualized behaviors or talk - this one can be tricky, as it is absolutely developmentally appropriate for children (even very young children) to begin exploring their bodies, masturbating, or even attempting to explore other children’s bodies (i.e. “Hey! You have a part I don’t have! That’s fascinating…”). However, when those behaviors or knowledge seem to include things that go beyond what would be developmentally appropriate for their age, that is a red flag.
- Noticing an adult has an inappropriate connection to a child. For example, an adult who shows an unusual interest in a child or teen, or who insists on being alone with a child.
So… Help! What do I say to my kids?!?
Even though it can feel very uncomfortable, research shows us that having conversations with kids about safe vs unsafe touching is the best form of prevention. Here are some tips:
- Begin these conversations early, starting around age 2. For example, when giving your child a bath, you can identify what their private parts are, and that you are helping them clean, but that normally other adults should not be touching them.
- You can give them clear examples of what “safe” vs “unsafe” touch is. For example: “Safe touch is like when mama or daddy help you clean your penis, or when the doctor checks to make sure your penis is healthy.”
- Help them develop language for saying “no” when they’re uncomfortable, such as “No! Stop that!” or “I don’t like that, stop.
- Also, make sure to call their private parts by the actual names- vagina and/or penis. This ensures that they can be clear in their description if something happens.
- Be honest, open, and age appropriate. For example, you can use dolls with younger kids to explain what touch is safe, and what is not safe.
- Be calm and comfortable when your child comes to you with questions about sex, touching, and boundaries (which they will). I know! I know! Easier said than done. But this is important so that kids feel like they can have honest conversations. If you’re super uncomfortable, enlist another trusted adult to help with these conversations. Books can also be a big help with these conversations… here’s an example of one I like, but there are plenty out there.
- Use concrete examples when having a conversation about prevention. For example, “What if you’re at a friend’s house, and your friend’s cousin asks you to take off your clothes, or touch in a way that feels uncomfortable? What can you do to be safe?” or “If a grownup or an older person doesn’t follow the rules about touching, and touches you in a way they’re not supposed to, make sure you tell me or [another trusted adult] so we can help keep you safe” or “If someone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, and then tells you they will hurt you or someone else if you tell, they are tricking you into being quiet. You can still come tell [a trusted adult] and we will keep you safe.”
- Tell your children that you will never be angry or upset with them if they tell you that they have been abused. And, if they do disclose something to you, make sure you stay calm.
- Don’t force touching! Sometimes our instructions on touching can be confusing. If you’re telling your child to give Grandma or Uncle a kiss and/or hug, even when they don’t feel like it, it can be confusing when other adults ask for a kiss or a hug. Always tell your kids that they never have to touch/hug/kiss anyone they don’t want to. If others are upset by this, or don’t understand it, let them know why you encourage healthy boundaries. You can teach your kids alternatives they may feel more comfortable with, such as giving a high five, blowing a kiss, or a fist bump.
- Don’t shame healthy sexual touching or exploring. If your kiddo is caught masturbating or exploring themselves in a healthy and developmentally appropriate way, simply talk to them about when and where that kind of self-touch is appropriate. For example, “I bet that feels good. Let’s make sure that you do that in private, like when you’re alone in your bedroom, or in the bathroom.”
- Remember that sometimes touch, even when inappropriate, can feel good. Remind your kids that even though it may feel good, it’s still not ok if someone else is touching them.
- If you catch your child playing sexual games with another child, like “doctor”, again, don’t shame them, but set expectations: calmly explain that they need to keep their hands to themselves and keep their clothing on when playing with friends.
- And finally... Don’t forget to talk to your kids about not inappropriately touching other kids. For example, when having these conversations state, “Just like it’s never ok for someone to touch you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s never ok for you to touch someone in a way that makes them uncomfortable.”
I’m sure this list could go on, but these are just a few tips to get you started. Do you have other ways that you have successfully used to talk to your kids? List them below in the comments section!
Ariel Shumaker-Hammond, MPH/LCSW is a therapist at Porch Light Counseling specializing in perinatal mood and anxiety, relationship and family counseling. You can read more about her here.