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.