Preventing Child Abuse


DEVELOPING HEALTHY SEXUALITY IN YOUNG CHILDREN: PREVENTING CHILD ABUSE

We all want to keep our children safe from danger, especially from sexual child abuse and molestation. At the same time we don’t want them walking around fearful of the outside world and seeing human beings as dangerous.

I know that for myself, coming from a family-oriented culture, it is equally important that my children are respectful of adults and friendly to people in general. In South Africa we grew up kissing adults hello, and we still do this. So within our different cultures, how do we find a way to educate our children to be open and friendly, and yet give them a healthy sense of protection at the same time.

My belief is that one of the best ways to prevent children from being hurt, is to raise resilient children, who have a healthy self-confidence, and who are able to speak out and to say “No”. Children who understand the difference between right and wrong, can trust their intuition, and have the confidence to speak up when things don’t feel right – that is what we are aiming for. This inner confidence provides an intrinsic protective factor. It takes time to promote this internal confidence in children and will serve them well once they have it. But it’s not all that it will take to protect our children and to keep them safe.

We need to be explicit when teaching our children about healthy sexual boundaries and giving them a solid foundation of correct information on sexuality. Teaching them about anatomy, giving them a language they can be comfortable using, giving them examples of what danger could occur and concrete examples of how to manage these scenarios.

The topical areas to cover would be:

Private Parts:

Children should know the difference between private parts and other public body parts. The parts that are covered by our swimming clothes are private. And private means that only oneself, a loving parent and a doctor may touch them and with permission. Boys have a booty and a penis, and girls have a vagina, a booty and breasts.

Secrets:

Secrets are often associated with abuse, and so we teach children to not keep secrets because they don’t have anything to hide from you. They won’t ever get into trouble for sharing a secret with you. Surprises on the other hand are good, they make you feel happy. It’s ok to keep something a surprise, like the gift you’re buying for your friend’s birthday.

How to Say No and Get Help:

When something feels wrong or uncomfortable, I like to teach my children to say 3 things, and we practice these together.

  1. Say NO!
  2. Run away
  3. Go and tell

Say NO as loudly as you can, as angrily as you can, say it with a mad face, say it with a firm voice. Kids love to play and practice, so turn this into a game, and help them learn a serious lesson in the process. Then run away and think out loud about all the people that they could go and tell. And what would they tell? Mommy, someone touched me on the butt. Mommy, someone looked at me and I felt funny inside. Mommy, someone tried to touch me on my private parts. It’s important for them to practice this and to say it out loud.

Stranger Danger:

It’s ok to be friendly with people in general, but also important to maintain some boundaries around people that we don’t know, until we know them a better. There are different levels of relationships, going from stranger, to acquaintance, to friend and to close trusted other. Imagine drawing our circles of closeness on the floor and having your child identify who would be in those different circles. You share more intimate details with those you are closest too, and it takes time for that trust to build. At the same time, you are more cautious around strangers until you’ve had time to get to know them.

Along with this, making sure your child knows their full name and home address, and your phone number.

Inappropriate Boundaries:

Unfortunately, most often molestation and inappropriate touch happens to our children in our own communities, with people whom we know. This makes it more confusing for children. Some of these people are adults, and it also frequently happens with our children’s peers. When peers are older and are sexually curious, or when peers have been exposed to pornography or their own molestation, they might act out what they have been exposed to, on our children. Some children struggle to regulate themselves and might also touch and hug and violate human space boundaries just because they are still learning about what personal space is.

Knowing what is normal at different ages is really important, so that we are vigilant, but at the same time, we don’t overreact. I’ve had families seek out counseling when there have been inappropriate sexual boundaries crossed, with family friends. It can be awkward to navigate, as we don’t want to lose friendships over poor boundaries, but at the same time, we want our children protected. Finding a way to have these conversations with our family friends is important and can be done.

Supervision:

Many children like to play “doctor-doctor”. Putting boundaries around this game can prevent the touch from becoming inappropriate, or from having children take off their clothes. Having the play the game on dolls and soft toys works better than their own body parts. And if you do find them undressing, put these boundaries in place, in a neutral way. “I know that you are curious and enjoying this game, but we don’t undress in front of our friends, you can play doctor on your dolls instead”.

Supervision is also necessary when our children are hanging around older children who are sexually curious, or around children of the same age, who have trouble with regulation and keeping personal space in general. My daughter loves to hug her friends, and one day she hugged her friend so hard, that they fell over, and my daughter was lying right on top of her friend. It looked a little odd, and it was just at this moment that the friend’s parent walked into the room. I called the parent after the play date and addressed what had happened. “You walked in and might have seen something that looked inappropriate. As you know my daughter loves to hug and they fell over and that’s how they ended up in that position. I wanted you to know that I saw that and how it happened. Have you had any problems with the way my daughter hugs your daughter?” She had actually not even noticed what happened, but I was glad to have dealt with it so quickly, establishing that these types of communication is fine in our relationship.

Protecting our children from abuse is important to us all. We can do this through setting up internal and external factors. Intrinsic protective factors will include good self-esteem, assertiveness and confidence. External protective factors will include supervision and having rules and boundaries around certain games and places to play.

And if you have questions, concerns, or just want to additional help navigating and communicating about these topics, I invite you to contact myself or another therapist. It’s important to build a healthy sexual foundation from the start.

-Kathryn