For all of us parents, protecting and educating our children is always — always — at top of mind, but any time there’s any scary, sad, infuriating news about abuse that hits close to home, it raises fresh questions for most of us about how to address sexual abuse with our young kids. We asked Wee friend, mom of three and respected psychotherapist Perri Shaw Borish her thoughts on the matter, and here, she weighs in with useful advice. (You can read about Perri’s practice here.)
Thinking about how to communicate to our children about safety and boundaries and their bodies can feel really scary and overwhelming as a parent. But I’ve found that approaching it simply and honestly and at a developmentally appropriate level for the age of one’s child is the best way to go. Avoiding it entirely or being vague can lead to more confusion and misunderstanding, and it can send the message to your child that you’re not comfortable talking about this stuff with them — and you want them to be able to talk with you about anything.
So how do we do go about starting this conversation? You might consider talking about how there are good kinds of touch and not-good kinds. You know: The good touch is a hug from your mom. The not-good kind is a touch from a stranger or even someone you know who makes you feel uncomfortable or afraid. Be clear with children about boundaries and body safety — it is just as important to tell children not to touch others as it is to tell them not to let people touch them.
You can emphasize that our bodies are our own, and that they are private. No one has the right to touch us in a way that makes us uncomfortable or scares us. Even if that person is someone in our family or someone we know very well, he or she still doesn’t have the right to touch us in our private parts.
Furthermore, you can say that if someone does try to touch them in a way that doesn’t feel right, they should say No or Stop and then tell mom, dad or another adult they trust right away. Emphasize to your child that no matter what that person may say to them, they must tell a trusted adult as soon as possible. Even if somebody tells them to keep it a secret — DON’T. And they should also know that if something does happen, if someone does touch them or try to touch them, it’s not their fault, they won’t be in trouble, and they are not to blame if an adult doesn’t respect private areas.
There are also a few books I like for young kids on this subject: There’s I Said No: A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private by Kimberly Kind, Zach King, as well as Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Spelman.
Finally, if you have questions or are looking for more information, here are a few easy-to-access resources for parents — and these places are also good spots to find referrals for other experts in the city:
The Joseph J. Peters Institute
The Philadelphia Children’s Alliance
The City’s Office of the District Attorney