One of my fears as a parent is that something bad could happen to one of my children, and worse, that it could happen because of me, because of something I did, or somewhere I took them, or someone I placed misguided trust in. As a survivor of childhood s3xual abuse, this is a fear I have faced since the day each of my daughters was born.
No (normal) parent will willingly befriend someone who puts their child at risk but the vast majority of s3xual abuse comes from someone who is known to the victim. That’s just how it is. (BTW, I know there are random numbers in some words in this post. I just don’t want the post to come up in the ‘wrong’ types of internet searches!)
Because of this I’ve spent four years as a mother wondering when the right time would be to have a talk with Ameli, being the oldest, about body safety.
Recently my outgoing and confident girl has become really attached to a number of male presences in her life, from a family friend to a local Vicar, and while I don’t have any reason to mistrust these people, I have become increasingly aware that I need to talk with her about her body, safety, and knowing when a secret is not a good thing.
Remember that body safety isn’t just about potential s3xual abuse, but also about bullies on the playground and other forms of mistreatment. In a way approaching it from a broader perspective of ‘people who hurt you or make you feel uncomfortable’ is easier, as you don’t have to worry as much about introducing an otherwise foreign concept to a child.
I am no expert here, and I am sure that there are people out there who could have or would have done this differently, but below are the steps I went through in having a discussion with my four year old about respecting her body, standing up for herself, and having bodily autonomy. For more expert help, pop over to the NSPCC website and read about their underwear campaign.
Something To Remember About The Talk
Firstly, I did not want to bring my own issues to the table. The things I have seen, lived and read (in news papers and so on) are not realities to her yet. She is still innocent. I didn’t want to make this conversation stand out as anything frightening.
Secondly, I felt I needed to both make her see the importance of ‘No’ without making her distrust everyone around her.
Third, I found it valuable first spending time talking about our bodies, naming our body parts, and I have read many times that children who know the anatomically correct names for their body parts are less likely to be victimised, and more likely to be believed. Remember that words like v8gina, p3nis, 8nus might make us cringe because we’ve been taught not to use them, but to a child it’s no different to elbow, ear, or toe.
I feel that I achieved that, so I am going to share with you how.
Our PlayLearning theme this week was ‘My Body‘. We looked at the lungs, heart, ears and finger prints. While we were stamping trees with our fingers dipped in paint, I tested the water with a question:
1) What’s the difference between a secret and a surprise?
There are both good secrets and bad secrets, both good surprises and bad surprises. We went through a list of these and decided which were which: bullying, pinching, buying someone a birthday present, hiding flowers behind your back, someone asking you to show them your panties, someone swapping lunch with you without telling the teachers. I made it into a ‘quiz’ and she thought it was a fun game.
2) Listen to your gut feeling
Once we’d established what were good or bad secrets, I asked her a question, and asked her to close her eyes and tell me what her ‘gut’ feeling was, if it was a good or a bad thing. If she can learn to listen to that little voice, be it the Holy Spirit, instinct, intuition or whatever it is, I firmly believe that will take her far in life.
3) Respond accordingly
If your gut feeling tells you it’s okay – you can swap sandwiches from your lunch box – then go for it. But if your feeling tells you it feels wrong, or you don’t like it, or you are uncomfortable with what is being done, asked or said, react. Here I told her to do something I’ve been telling her on the playground since she was very small:
- Stand up straight
- Raise your hand in a ‘stop’ motion
- Look the person in the eye
- Say NO
- Walk away – or run away if you feel you need to
- IMMEDIATELY tell Mama, Daddy, a teacher, or another adult you know. If one adult doesn’t listen, tell another.
This applies to someone who feels ‘off’, playground bullies and anyone who would victimise you in some way.
We practised this a few times, and she did just great.
Because I would hope that she will never be in this situation, but know that in life she may come across other people being bullied especially, we also practised what she should do if she sees someone else being hurt. In that we went through the same steps, but added ‘Take the person’s hand and get them to walk away with you’.
(I’m operating on the assumption that in her childhood, she’s not going to be in a situation where helping another child is actually dangerous for her!)
4) Discuss the importance of truth
It’s so important that a child knows you will always believe them. Always. For this reason it’s essential that they understand that they can’t tell a fib about someone. Be careful how you phrase this however. The thing is, a child that hasn’t been exposed to s3xual behaviour isn’t likely to make stuff up about it. Always listen to your child, and always encourage your child to trust their instinct, that ‘small voice’ about someone.
I had a teacher at school who just didn’t feel ‘right’. I never saw anything, or experienced anything, but he just didn’t feel ‘right’ to me. I asked my mother to promise to never send my little brother on camps and field trips with this teacher, no matter what. It turned out another boy in my class had said the exact same thing about his younger brother to their mother. A couple of years later this teacher was sent to prison for assaulting a boy in my brother and the other boy’s class. Children who are taught to trust their instincts are a lot more attuned than most adults.
Here are a few more resources if you want some further ideas:
6 Ways For Children To Learn About Their Body – Positive Parenting Connection
5 tips for talking to young children about sex, body exploration, and avoiding shame – Offbeat Families
Teaching your child to protect himself - FamilyEducation
Teaching Safety Skills – Rosies Place
Tips for Teaching Children Personal Safety Skills
Safe and Unsafe Secrets – KidPower