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Good communication with your child is one of the best ways to prevent sexual abuse. When we help children feel good about their bodies, we give them permission to be open and honest about feelings and acknowledge that children have body rights. This also sends the message that they are in charge of their body and that they have a voice to say who touches them and how they are touched.
Model healthy boundaries. Children need to be able to set boundaries around who touches their bodies and who does not. Sometimes we inadvertently confuse children by insisting they hug Grandma even when they don’t want to. Help your children practice setting healthy boundaries. When children tell us they don’t want to hug and kiss everyone at a family gathering when it’s time to leave, support them by helping them find an alternative way to show respect to family members (such as shaking hands, high fives, waving). Practice this with them ahead of time and use positive reinforcement when they use their boundaries appropriately. Another idea is for you to act this out with a partner or friend in the presence of your child; this demonstrates that even adults have boundaries too.
Teach children anatomically correct names for their body parts. Research shows that when children are taught the anatomically correct names for their body parts, it enhances the pride they feel about their bodies. Just as you teach your children that a nose is a nose, they need to know what to call their genitals. Encouraging kids to use a correct and “universally” recognized word assists in other adults recognizing statements that could be abusive or worrisome. Additionally, providing correct language helps a kid understand their bodies and lets them know it’s okay to talk about and ask questions about all of their body parts.
Be clear with adults and children about the difference between okay touch and touch that is not okay. Often you need to teach more concrete rules with younger children such as, “talk with me if anyone—family, friend, or anyone else—touches your private parts.” Reassure children that it’s not their fault if someone touches them in a way that is not okay. Help them to identify safe adults in their lives that they can tell if someone touches them in a not okay way.
Explain to the adults and children in your life about the difference between a secret and a surprise (also called “okay” and “not okay” secrets) and show them how secrets may make kids unsafe. Surprises or secrets make a child feel warm, excited, and happy. The child is encouraged to tell surprises when the time is right. Examples include birthday presents, something made at school, and special outing. Secrets exclude others, often because the information will anger or upset someone. When keeping secrets with just one person becomes routine, children are more vulnerable to being abused.
Use positive reinforcement to teach body boundaries. Make it clear that children will be supported when they request privacy or say “no” to an activity or a kind of touch that makes them uncomfortable. Provide positive reinforcement when kids request privacy or when they practice skills which define their boundaries.
Use books to create open dialogues about body boundaries and body safety. These books can be incorporated into your normal reading time as a discussion starter.
Learn more about how to protect children in your care from sexual abuse by attending a Darkness to Light child sexual abuse prevention training