Most parents want to do what’s best for their children when it comes to their physical and emotional well-being. However, teaching them about boundaries related to sexuality often falls off the list of “important conversations” to have with young children. Reasons for this may be that some consider this topic too uncomfortable, taboo or unimportant. As such, those conversations don’t happen soon enough or at all, despite the reality that children, especially very young children, are particularly vulnerable to predators.
It has been highlighted time and time again how unwanted sexual advances can happen at any age, in any place or with anyone. The best way to protect children now and throughout their lives is to educate them in an age-appropriate and empowering way.
Sexuality is a natural part of human lives, and often starts at an early age, with children exploring their own bodies or becoming curious about their parents’ bodies. There is an innocence associated with their curiosity, and responding appropriately in this normal developmental stage, can foster healthy sexual development. Having an open and direct conversation with your kids, starting at an early age, can have a profound impact on their sexuality into their adulthood as well.
Dawnelle Tilden, LPC LAC, is passionate about this topic. As a therapist with Maria Droste Counseling Center and a mom, Dawnelle believes it is never too early (or too late) to start having these conversations with your children.
“Parents talk to their kids from very early ages about basics like making healthy food choices, being kind to others, the importance of hygiene, doing the right thing and many others. The conversation around boundaries and consent when it comes to their own bodies should be no different,” Dawnelle said. She wants this to be a natural part of life in hopes of preventing unwanted and unnecessary sexual violations.
Why start with toddlers?
Too often young children are violated by someone they know or trust, or by someone that is trusted by their family. It’s common to imagine it would never happen, but by talking to your kids at this age you can dramatically lower the chance of sexual abuse happening to them.
- Kids love to be naked and explore their own bodies and others’ as well. It is important for them to know what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Appropriate behaviors include touching their own bodies in private, asking before touching/hugging others, and being examined by a doctor at a check-up or looked at by a parent to make sure everything is okay. Inappropriate behaviors include touching others’ bodies without asking, touching their genitals in front of others, being naked in front of strangers and someone touching them in a way that is uncomfortable or makes them feel uneasy.
- Having this discussion with young children promotes confidence, self-esteem, personal responsibility, a sense of safety and an understanding of what control they have.
How to open the conversation with toddler/school age children
Focus on positive messages, not fear. Help them understand that they can feel good about their bodies and that they can be in control of what happens with their bodies.
- Your body is yours. It is beautiful and special to you. No one else is allowed to touch you without your permission. No one is allowed to hurt you.
- Anything your bathing suit covers is private, and any part of you is off limits if you want it to be. You get to be in charge of your body.
- It’s okay to say “I don’t want to give a hug” or “I don’t like that.” Or “Stop tickling me.”
Three-, four-, and five-year-olds know how to name their body parts and wash themselves. Use appropriate terms (penis, vagina, butt, breasts, etc.), not nicknames, when helping them or anytime you talk about specific body parts.
Let your kids know it is safe to tell if someone touches them, no matter what the circumstance, and no matter who it is.
- If someone touches you in a way you don’t like, mommy or daddy need to know about it, even if it may be scary to tell.
- You don’t have to keep a secret about someone who touches you, even if the person says that if you tell, they will hurt you or hurt someone you care about.
How to advocate for your child
Children may not always feel comfortable sticking up for themselves against someone bigger or older. In that case, it is up to you, the parent, to take that role.
- Back your child up, or speak for them if necessary, especially with older friends or relatives (even when the unwanted contact is just a hug or sitting on a lap).
- Believe your child if they tell you something happened. Reassure them that you will protect them and it won’t happen again. Follow up with appropriate action.
- Let your child know they did the right thing by telling you. Stay calm, and assure them they are not in trouble or at fault, and thank them letting you know. Try not to get upset in front of your child.
- Remind your child that they are always safe to tell you if someone makes them uncomfortable (even a friend or relative).
Why this matters
The latest statistics from WINGS Foundation are that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18. You can be the best parent and not see that this is happening, so it is important to help your children protect themselves when they aren’t with you. A lot can be prevented with ongoing conversation. (This topic requires more than one talk.)
Sexual abuse, even just one or a few times, can cause trauma. Not only will talking frankly with your kids greatly help to prevent them from being abused, it can also stop the cycle of sexual abuse (the abused becoming abusers).
Early positive intervention can prevent unwanted sexual contact and the mental health issues, promiscuity, substance abuse and other problems that often result from sexual abuse. It can also make children less vulnerable to child trafficking.
Signs abuse may be happening
Children grow and change quickly at this age, but certain behavior changes will stand out as unusual if there is an underlying cause. Signs to watch for include:
- Wetting the bed
- Anger outbursts or drastic change in behavior
- Acting out behavior in school/home/sports
- Fear of being alone with someone or not wanting to go to their house, practice, etc.
If you have any concerns that your child is being abused, or have questions about this topic, reach out to one of these resources:
- Child Abuse Hotline #1-800-CO-4-kids (1-844-264-5437)
- National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation (preventtogether.org)
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center (www.nsvrc.org)
- Your pediatrician
- A therapist/counselor
We prepare our children throughout their lives to handle all kinds of difficult situations. When we teach kids to be autonomous with their own bodies, we prepare them to deal with unwanted physical attention at any age and also to respect others. Most importantly, as kids, they will not have to feel helpless and wonder what to do if someone does hurt them. They will know, at the very least, to tell you or someone else they trust.
***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Dawnelle Tilden, for contributions to this blog.***