Dear Mama Drama:
With the recent news about sexual abuse at Penn State, I’m concerned about my own children’s safety. How do I talk to them about staying safe without scaring them? What precautions should I be taking when they are with other people to ensure they are not put in risky situations?
The tragic situation at Penn State is a good reminder to all of us that we need to have regular conversations with our children about safe touch. While these are not easy conversations, they are essential to keeping our kids safe.
In August our Mile High Mamas intern, Nicole, wrote an informative piece about talking with kids about sexual abuse and safe touch. Click here to read it. The key points remind us to talk about our bodies naturally, teach children the body safe rules, and to be aware of signs of sexual abuse.
Parents often think more about teaching safe touch to young children and assume they remember the information as they get older. However, it is essential to keep the conversation going throughout our children’s lives.
As children enter school and spend more time with adults other than their parents it is important to continue having regular conversations about keeping their bodies safe. Going to school, field trips, sleepovers, camps, and traveling present natural opportunities to discuss safe touch. Essential pieces of these talks are to teach children they have the right to say no if someone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, touches or tries to touch their private parts, or tries to get them to touch the other person’s private parts. Teaching them the importance of reporting to a trusted adult right away is another key step.
Middle and high school age children still need their parents to talk with them about this issue as well. It’s easy to assume they know enough at this age, but their level of independence and can make this a risky time for them. They need to know how to say no to both peers or adults who make sexual advances toward them as well as who to tell if this does occur.
Parents need to know that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone who is familiar or well known to a child. Perpetrators establish opportunities for the abuse with grooming behaviors that create a sense of trust with the child (and often the parents) and break down boundaries. Grooming behaviors involve creating opportunities to be alone with a child and getting a child to allow touch that just crosses the line, before moving into more extensive abuse. Perpetrators may use presents, threats, and coercion to lure in their victims and keep them from reporting.
Make sure your children know that they need to report to you no matter what the threat might be from someone trying to hurt them. And make sure you are tuned in to the less overt cues your children give you that indicate they are uncomfortable with someone or that gifts someone is giving them are inappropriate for the relationship.
As you choose caregivers, babysitters, and mentors for your children, take the opportunity to do background checks and talk with references. Trust your instincts and if you feel like something is off, look at other options. As hard as it is to fathom, parents need to keep in mind that family members can also be perpetrators of sexual abuse. Be aware of any history of sexual abuse in your family and stay tuned in to your kids. Click here for Nicole’s post on profiles of abusers.
If you suspect sexual abuse is occurring to your child or someone else’s, report it immediately to the police or social services. As we have seen in the Penn State case, not reporting to the legal authorities can leave children at risk for continued abuse. More information on preventing and identifying sexual abuse can be found at The Kempe Foundation and Stop It Now!
Books are great ways to start conversations about sexual abuse and empower both children and adults. Here are some good ones:
It’s My Body by Lory Freeman – preschool and early elementary
My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky – preschool and early elementary
My Body is Private by Linda Girard – upper elementary and middle school
The Girl’s Body Book and The Boy’s Body Book by Dunham & Bjorkman – supports the conversation about changing bodies (ages 8- 18) which provides opportunity for continued conversations about safety.
Note: See Lisa’s interview on 9News about preventing sexual abuse.
Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential. Check out Lisa’s blog Laughing Yoga Mama for more parenting insights.