The conversation you must have with your child: appropriate vs. inappropriate touching?

Children today are around more adults on a daily basis than ever before. From childcare to sports practices to dance classes, not to mention camps and after-school programs, children are meeting and interacting with many adults on a daily basis. You want to believe all these adults are trustworthy and reliable but there is an underlying fear of stranger danger and sexual abuse. It’s a topic no parent wants to think about, let alone speak of. However, this is why it is so important for parents to talk with their children about inappropriate touching. As for younger children they can begin to learn about their bodies.

There is a large amount of responsibility one holds with this topic, making it a vital conversation especially now that the new school years have recently started. There will be many changes in your child’s life, including interaction with new peers, teachers and other professional adults. The only adult who remains constant for them is you, the parent. Therefore, this is best addressed by you. Don’t let this conversation become an archived hidden blockbuster nightmare your child never remembers having with you. Read on and I can offer you some guidelines on how to have the talk without feeling uncomfortable about it.

The trickiest part of speaking about this topic is perhaps the language you engage in and the choice of words you pick to make sure it sounds simple, elegant and clear all at the same time.

What to say?
A suggestion would be to frame the discussion around “safety” rather than “abuse,” as it’s less scary for the child. We are looking to make them aware so a way to think of it is like alerting them to cross the street by checking on both sides or being careful with hot appliances in the kitchen. Start as soon as your child is developmentally ready to listen. The average age of abuse is 8 to 9, so speak with your children before they reach that vulnerable age. As early as 3 is good because this is when most children enter nursery or reception. As a parent use your discretion depending on the child’s age, but the important thing is to have the conversation.

When should I speak about it?
Any time is good, but you could take advantage of teachable moments, like if your child has overheard a related story in the news or come back from school with some confusing information from a peer.

Your language must be basic.
The standard rule is to tell your child that anything covered by a swimming costume is considered private. When referring to parts of the body, use anatomically correct language. Using words such as ‘hooha’ for ‘vagina’ can delay disclosure. However, it you’re really too uncomfortable to use the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ with them, make sure that you clarify on what term you do use, and it means the same to both of you. It’s important to explain that these body parts are private, therefore they not only must seek privacy but respect another person’s privacy, such as their siblings. Essentially the goal is to have the conversation and if you require help, a great guide can be your paediatrician. Children’s librarians can also recommend numerous age-appropriate books that can aid your conversation. One book I recommend which is useful with younger children is “I said NO!”- A kid to kid guide to keeping private parts private. By Zack & Kimberly King.

Giving examples of appropriate versus inappropriate touch.
During this conversation, it’s important for parents to help their children identify that there are a whole range of behaviours that constitute sexual abuse. It is defined as any forced or tricked sexual touching by a grown up or older child, as well as non-touching acts such as flashing, peeping, uncomfortable phone calls, and showing pornography to a child. On the other hand, acceptable touches would be examples such as: changing a baby’s nappy, giving a toddler a bath, or getting a vaccination from the doctor. If you are feeling confused, sad or uncomfortable when someone touches your private parts, this is considered inappropriate. You can tell your child that if someone puts their hand under your shirt or in your pants, that is unsafe.

What can they do?
Your children must know if anything makes them uncomfortable, they should be able to tell mum and dad and also a third person, considered the safety person. This person can be another adult whom they trust, like a grandparent or teacher. Sometimes children tell an adult and the adult doesn’t believe them. Your child must be told to keep telling people until someone does believe them and they must also know it is never their fault. In addition, you must also teach them to say “NO” as soon as they sense or feel a touch is not right, if it is scaring them or confusing them.

Discourage the word “secret”.

Sexual perpetrators generally use the tactic of grooming. Grooming is the process of getting a child to feel comfortable with the person and with the idea of sexual behaviors. It generally starts small with harmless “secrets” to see if the child will keep it. There then may be little inappropriate jokes or gestures. And even gift buying. Phrases such as, “This is our secret. Don’t tell anyone.” are commonly used. As a parent teach your child that there are no secrets from Mum & Dad or the third safe person. You could substitute the word for words like “surprise”. This implies that if the child hears anyone say, “you can’t tell mummy our secret”, well the child knows this is something that needs to be shared with the parent.

Expect questions.
The questions your child asks and the answers that are appropriate to give will depend on your child’s understanding, maturity and age. You must not laugh or giggle even if the question is silly or is completely based on fiction. Validate their feelings first before reacting in anger, surprise, disgust or embarrassment.

Your child should feel comfortable with their curiosity and never ashamed for speaking his thoughts out loud. Even if your child is manifesting with homosexual ideations, one needs to listen empathically and sensitively.

Validate that their body is their own all along.
They have every right to protect it. It is very important that your child knows that he or she can always tell you or another trusted grown-up if he or she has been touched inappropriately. This reassures your child in knowing that you’re committed to protecting him/her. Along with this validation it’s a good idea to ask them how they are feeling in their body, maybe butterflies in the stomach or something else. It encourages them to pay attention to what reinforces their own feelings.

Above and beyond everything, keep the channels of communication open, your child will know what to do even when a known person touches them, and how to respond: he or she must report it to someone immediately.

Chief mum to a teenager and a tween. Life & Youth Coach, Author of Thoughts Translated & Metamorphosis. Surfing along, just like you :)

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