Would My Child Tell? Teaching Kids About Reporting Inappropriate Touching

A Mom went to the park this weekend with her six year old twins. She sat on the bench, pulled out her newspaper and within minutes, her little girl came running over to tell her she fell down. With tears in her eyes, the child showed her mom the scrapes on her knee from where she had fallen off the slide. The woman seemed well-prepared to handle the incident. She cleaned it up, kissed the boo-boo and within seconds the little girl was off to play again.

I wondered whether it was the reassurance of hearing her mother say “All better,” that enabled her to resume her activities. It reminded me that typically, children tell us when they are hurt. My thoughts quickly turned to the situation at the Miramonte School district, the many recent incidents in New York City schools and the factors surrounding the Penn State case. If children are so quick to tell a parent of their minor scrapes, why is it that they often keep silent when they are touched inappropriately?

As a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City for the past fifteen years, the answers come rather quickly to me. Why don’t children tell? When a child scrapes his or her knee, no one says to that child:

  • Don’t tell anyone, no one will believe you.
  • Don’t tell anyone, they’ll say it was your fault.
  • Don’t tell anyone, it will make your Mommy and Daddy really sad.
  • Don’t tell anyone because I (Daddy, Grandpa, uncle, family friend) will go to jail.
  • Don’t tell anyone, your Mom and Dad won’t love you anymore.
  • Don’t tell anyone, this is our special secret.

How can we talk to our children so they will tell us if something happens to them?

It starts by understanding how to talk to children about their bodies in a way that is not scary. Start with the conversation about head, shoulders, knees and toes. Be certain to identify the correct terminology for their body parts. As children approach the age of three, this conversation should continue. Children should be taught that their bodies have private parts that are not for anyone else to see or touch. Again, be certain to teach the correct terminology for the body.

A child who can only identify their private parts by a nickname may be more reluctant to make a disclosure because they are embarrassed to share the nickname they use. A funny moniker might also cause a disclosure to be missed. The 5-year-old who tells her busy kindergarten teacher that the janitor licked her cookie might simply be given another cookie rather than the help she is seeking.

How do we encourage children to confide in us?

One tool to enable your child to share something difficult with you is to teach them how to approach the subject. Tell your child they should come to you and tell you they have something to tell you that they are scared to tell. Then you as the parent can help the child tell what they need to say. In an effort to have adults relate to why it is so difficult for a child to disclose sexual abuse, a colleague of mine who teaches child sexual abuse prevention asks the parents in the room to turn to the person sitting next to them and tell them about their first sexual experience. Very quickly the parents understand the apprehension involved.

What else can parents do to reinforce the message about body safety?

Use incidents in the news as teachable moments: Has your child asked about Penn State or other cases in the news? Has something happened in your community? Explain to your child that an adult (teacher, teacher’s aide, coach, custodian, etc.) touched a child in a way they should not have. The child was very brave and told someone. Now the adult will not be able to touch him or other children any more.

Practice what-if scenarios: Ask your child how they would react if someone touched them on their buttocks. Ask them why would they react that way. Ask them what would they do if someone offered them a treat or gift and told them not to tell you. Help your child arrive at the right answer, which is to say no, and ask you first.  You can also point out that this scenario violates two rules: tell Mom or Dad whenever given a gift and no secrets. Parents should note that giving a child a gift and asking them to keep it a secret is a very common step in the process of grooming a child for sexual abuse.

10 Tips to Keep Our Children Body Safe:

  • Teach children correct terms for body parts.
  • Teach children no one should touch their private parts and they should not touch the private parts of others.
  • No Secrets – Abuse thrives on secrecy so open communication is one of the best prevention techniques we have.
  • Identify Safety Zone Person -Teach your children that they can come to you to discuss anything, even if they think they will get in trouble.  Convey to them that you will listen with an open mind even if they were doing something they should not have been doing. A safety zone person can be a neighbor, family member, religious official or anyone who your child feels comfortable confiding in should something happen to them and they are reluctant to discuss it with parents.
  • Tell a parent whenever they receive a gift.
  • Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection.
  • Teach children it is OK to say No to an adult if they are doing something to hurt you.
  • Do not ask a child every day if they have been touched. Children become desensitized to the question. A child who has said answered no for the past 6 months will likely continue to say no even if they have been touched out of fear of the parent’s response to the change in answers.
  • Remember that perpetrators of child sexual abuse can also be other children. All lessons should apply to anyone who might touch the child inappropriately, whether adult or child.
  • Believe your child if he or she makes a disclosure. It is the role of a parent to be supportive and obtain help for their child. It is the role of the police to investigate child sexual abuse allegations. Tell your child it was not their fault and that you are proud of them for telling you.

Prevention contains the prefix ‘pre’ which means before. Teach children these tips before there is a problem and you may be able to PREvent the problem from occurring in the first place. Finally, make your community aware that the children have been taught what child sexual abuse is and to tell someone right away if they are touched inappropriately.

If given the choice between a child who has been taught to tell if they are touched inappropriately and one who has not been educated on prevention techniques, offenders will likely choose the latter every time. Teach prevention to all the children in your life and the offenders will have a few less choices.

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About Jill Starishevsky
Jill Starishevsky is a mother of two and a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City. In October 2006, Jill launched HowsMyNanny.com to support parents and their children. HowsMyNanny.com is the first online nanny reporting service that works to keep children safe by enabling parents to receive positive or negative feedback on their child’s caregiver. Jill is also the author of “My Body Belongs to Me”, a children’s book intended to prevent child sexual abuse by teaching children that their bodies are their own. http://www.MyBodyBelongstoMe.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1578782740 April Mae

    Thank you for this is an amazing article!!  It will definitely help me approach the topic with my 9yr old daughter.

  • http://twitter.com/saving4someday Sara Hawkins

    There are so many things in here that had me shaking my head in agreement.

    The one thing I think needs clarification is this statement:

    Teach children it is OK to say No to an adult if they are doing something to hurt you.

    Personally, I think children should be taught that they can say NO to an adult regardless of whether they are hurting them. As an adult, I’m not limited to saying NO only to people hurting me, so neither is my child. Sure, it may hurt the adult’s feelings but a child has the right to tell an adult NO for any reason. It’s a learning curve, for sure, to help the child understand such a nuanced way of dealing with people but predators don’t always ‘hurt’ (as in pain) the child so the child may not know they’re being ‘hurt’ AND in many instances the physical sensations are not ‘hurt’ and in some instances can actually feel pleasurable.

    As the parent of a child sexual assault survivor, this should be highlighted:

    Remember that perpetrators of child sexual abuse can also be other
    children. All lessons should apply to anyone who might touch the child
    inappropriately, whether adult or child.

    My daughter was sexually assaulted at the age of 4.5 yrs by a 15 year old boy. Someone we knew. Predators are more likely to be people we know – and there is no ‘minimum age’ of a perpetrator.

  • Kay M.

    I think every parent should have to read this article. My daughters were sexually abused by my second husband. It went on for a year before I found out about it because he told them he would kill me if they told. When I found out we left until they could clear him out of the house. I thank God every day that they are well adjusted adults now, but wish they never had to go through any of this to begin with. 

  • http://www.onedotenterprises.com/ Nancy

    Good article. From the time our son was old enough to talk, we always gave him permission not to hug or kiss someone, even family, if he didn’t want to. Sometimes, people of all ages, just don’t feel like being affectionate so it’s good to give kids control over their own bodies.

    The one thing that I jumped out at me from this article is the first paragraph. Every time I took our son to a public place to play, I NEVER EVER got absorbed in chit-chatting with friends, reading the paper, or anything else that would take my attention away from watching him. I know parents can’t be with their kids 24/7 but when they are, especially when they’re young, it’s a parent’s job to watch them, even if they are accused of being over-protective, which is what I was called many times. My response? I’d rather be over-protective than feel regret after something bad happened due to my negligence! That pretty much shut them up.

    Now our son is a healthy, well-adjusted teenager.

  • Paul

    Thank you for your insight….too late for me now personally. I wish I had had this information 30 years ago but maybe it will help me save someone now. 

  • http://twitter.com/RRBNY Rebecca

    Thank you for this.  This is such an important message and bears repeating often.

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  • Yonette Eastman

    kk

  • Concerned Granny

    hi I’m a granny, and my three year old granddaughter is rubbing herself , and always got her hands on her private part. She spends a lot of time with her cousins and no or not any supervision from the parents. I told my daughter of my concerns and she got very upset at me . And refuse to let me see my granddaughter . I want to have her checked out by a doctor. But wonder if I’m just over reacting.

  • Kmpkl

    Around that age it is perfectly normal for girls to discover touching themselves feels good. And it’s my belief we shouldn’t discourage that, just teach them when it’s appropriate to do it. Obviously around ppl isn’t. The reason I don’t discourage is for several reasons; I want my daughter to feel comfortable with her body and know it’s just hers. And when she’s a teen and starting to have urges, I would much rather she knows she can get herself off and doesn’t need a guy for that.

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