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Teaching Safety by Empowering Your Child

April 22, 2021
By Mara Mauze, PhD, ABPP

We recently participated in the cardboard kids project, sponsored by Child Safe SA.  The goal of this month is to teach children about health, safety, and wellness.  We know parents are often proactive teaching their children about safety related to seat belts, helmets, and crossing the street.  But some topics, like physical boundaries and abuse, can be more difficult or uncomfortable to discuss. Statistics show that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys experience sexual abuse and 91% of perpetrators are someone the child knows (neighbor, coach, relative).  It’s important to start having these conversations with your children and we wanted to give you some tips for successful discussions at your house.

Use Anatomically Correct Terms for All Body Parts.  Many children know the correct terms for things like elbows, knees, and ankles but use different words for private parts.  When we use nicknames for private body parts (buttocks, nipples, penis, vagina) we inadvertently teach children that it’s not okay to talk about these parts or that these parts are embarrassing or shameful.  Using anatomically correct terms for ALL body parts teaches children that it’s okay to talk about their bodies and what happens with them.

Teach Children About Their Bodies.  Children have many questions about body parts and differences between boys and girls. Answer these questions factually.  When your child is in the bathroom, give them options.  “It’s time to wipe your bottom. Do you want to wipe your bottom or should I help you wipe?”  “We need to wash your penis.  Would you like to wash your penis or would you like me to wash your penis?”  This teaches them they have control and choices over who touches their bodies.  Talk about the people who can see or help them with private body parts (Mom, Dad, pediatrician) and who should not.

No Means No.  As adults, we know the importance of setting boundaries with our bodies but we can practice this with children in little ways.  Teach everyone in your household that when someone says “No” or “Stop” we stop immediately.  At our house, when we are tickling the kids if one of them says “No” or “Stop” we immediately stop and put our hands up and say “No means no.”  This teaches children that it’s okay to say No and that the no should be respected.

Secrets versus Surprises.  Often when children are being harmed, they are told by the perpetrator that what is happening is a secret that should not be told to parents. Consider making it a rule that your household does not have secrets from Mom and Dad.  We talk a lot about secrets versus surprises. Christmas or birthday presents aren’t secrets, they are surprises.  Teach your children that if someone tells them something should be a secret, that is usually something that needs to be told to Mom and Dad. We also ask our children what they were told not to tell us.  My dad started this tradition when I was little.  Every morning after we’d had a babysitter, he would casually ask “What did the babysitter tell you not to tell us?”  We have implemented this same tradition with our children.  They have not yet reported anything concerning to us but it’s also a good way to gauge what’s happening when you are not home (i.e., the boyfriend came over or they had ice cream for dinner).

Limit and Monitor Technology Usage.  Our household has very limited technology usage.  However, as children use technology for school or have older siblings or babysitters who are using technology, it’s very possible they will see or hear things you would not want them to see or hear.  Establish guidelines early for technology.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has some wonderful family media guides available.

Talk to Your Children and Ask Questions in a Comfortable Setting.  When you pick your child up from a playdate, birthday party, or other event, save your questions for the car ride home or safe environment.  As parents, we may pick our child up and say to the child “did you have fun?” and we may ask the hosting parent “Did everything go okay or did my child behave?”  This can put your child in a position of having to answer this question in a situation that may not be comfortable.  Instead, when you pick your child up consider saying “I’m so glad to see you” and then ask questions in the car.  Good questions to ask are things like “who all was there? Who did you play with? What was the best part? Was there anything that you didn’t like or that made you uncomfortable?”  If these become a standard part of your routine, your child may be more willing to share.

Trust Your Child’s Instinct.  Teach your child that their body sends them signals.  Young children may not be able to identify that something made them “uncomfortable” but may recognize that a situation made them feel “icky” or made their stomach hurt.  If your child says these things or expresses that he or she does not like playing with a certain child or adult, trust that instinct.  Trust your instinct as well.  If you get a weird vibe, listen to that vibe.

We know these conversations are difficult and uncomfortable but they are also essential to empower our children to stand up for themselves and to help keep them safe. If we can be helpful in identifying resources or language to help you talk to your children, please let us know.

Beatriz Talayero says:
April 28, 2021 05:55 AM CST

This was very useful. Thanks Beatriz