Tips for Promoting the Sexual Safety of Young Children
Last week, I attended a workshop titled, “The TALK: Talking to Adults, Listening to Kids – Realistic Strategies for Promoting the Sexual Safety of Young Children.” Sponsored by a parenting group in a nearby town, the speaker, Nora Shine, PhD, was a psychologist, experienced in dealing with child survivors of abuse and trauma.
It was a challenging session to attend. Challenging in the sense that the subject matter—the sexual abuse of children—is a devastating and terrifying problem. Increasingly, in the media, we hear about cases of abuse—from the Sandusky scandal at Penn State to the Catholic priests who abused children for decades—and Dr. Shine shared the grim news that many more cases go unreported. She explained that one in five children under the age of 20 experiences sexual abuse—and that number is considered low. In a startling 94% of cases, the abuser is not a stranger, but someone known to the child and/or his/her family. The average age of a child when abuse takes place is seven years.
Dr. Shine’s talk included a number of strategies parents can deploy to protect against abuse—and that’s why I attended. She has given this talk in numerous settings to help parents and community leaders be informed, vigilant, and proactive in ensuring kids are safe.
Dr. Shine spoke about the precautions we take every day as parents, such as the use of car seats, to protect kids. Car seats, she noted, are a pain. Think about how hard it is to get a squirming toddler buckled in or how snowsuits make snapping those car seat buckles difficult, even impossible. It would be so easy to not use that car seat, but we don't because we know that a car seat is the safest way to transport a child. We know it’s what we have to do and what we should do to keep our kids safe. Taking precautions that may seem like more work in the short-term are ultimately, from Dr. Shine’s perspective, what lead to long-term safety.
One of the precautions she championed is the traffic light. Protecting kids from sexual abuse is, explained Dr. Shine, like a traffic light. For example:
Green (go) - Situations and people you instinctively know to be safe for your child.
Yellow (proceed with caution) - Situations and people that make you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and/or troubled. These are the most critical in stopping or preventing sexual abuse. So many people ignore signs of inappropriate behavior, assuming that they read the situation incorrectly, when really deep down they’ve noticed something that is not right. If people did something here—spoke up or intervened in some way—abuse could be stopped.
Red (stop) - Situations of abuse.
Other precautions Dr. Shine spoke about included parenting strategies that focused on openness and honesty, including:
Answer questions: Some people are uncomfortable talking about sex and the human body. Predators know that and use it to their advantage. Parents should give children facts about their bodies, sex, reproduction, and other topics in a clear and honest way, putting aside their own discomfort, so children feel comfortable asking questions and speaking up when something is not right.
Model boundaries and respect: Establish family rules (e.g., everyone gets private time when they are in the bathroom, no one is naked in front of guests, etc.) and then be consistent executing those rules.
Adopt “privates” rules: Dr. Shine is a big proponent of using the correct name for body parts, believing that euphemisms and nicknames retain some element of shame or discomfort. To that end, sometimes using the general term of “privates” may help others feel more comfortable (this is especially helpful when out in public, visiting with friends and family, etc.). She recommended using clear rules about privates, such as: privates are private, no adult should show any kid their privates, and no one should ever take a picture of a child’s privates. These “privates rules” should emphasize that the child’s responsibility is to always tell mom or dad when someone violates the rules.
Establish truth rules: Dr. Shine suggested that families create rules around the need for kids to tell their parents the truth—no matter what anyone else says. Emphasize that they will not get in trouble for sharing the truth or telling a secret to mom and dad (this is helpful as abusers often tell their victims not to tell anyone about the abuse, referring to it as their “secret”).
Limit 1:1 time: One of the best ways to end abuse is to eliminate opportunities for someone to spend one-on-one alone time with a child. All interactions should be in a public place with others around, and, if that’s not possible, another adult should be nearby or plan to “pop in” unexpectedly.
Walk with confidence: Dr. Shine wasn’t a fan of the “stranger danger” talk, seeing it as fear inducing and unrealistic (e.g., we tell our kids not to talk to strangers and then we chat with the person we’ve never met who’s in front of us in line in the grocery store). Rather, she encourages parents to teach children to walk with confidence, pay attention to what’s around them, follow their intuition, and be wary of tricky, overly familiar, or pushy people.
Since talking about these topics can be hard, Dr. Shine suggested getting a book to read together with your child, as a means to get the conversation started. Some of the ones she recommended included:
- It’s Not the Stork by Robie Harris (I’ve had friends suggest this book, too.)
- How Babies are Made by Steven Schepp and Andrew Andry
- Those are My Private Parts by Diane Hansen
For parents, she mentioned, Protecting the Gift by Gavin De Becker and The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear From You About Sex by Sharon Maxwell.
This post doesn’t begin to capture what I learned from this course—I had eight pages of notes! At times, I found the content overwhelming, but, after a week of reflecting upon Dr. Shine’s content, I have four key take aways:
Talk to kids about their bodies, reproduction, and adult versus kid behavior. Answer their questions concisely, addressing just what they are asking. Don’t add information they are not yet ready to hear.
Establish a family dynamic where kids know how important it is to tell parents what’s going on—both good and bad.
Listen to your instincts and don’t feel afraid or ashamed to speak up when something or someone makes you uncomfortable—no matter what.
Listen to your kids and pay attention to what they say and do. If they say they don’t want to do something or be with someone, ask why, instead of pushing them into it.
This talk brought an increased awareness to a dark and disturbing problem. I’m more aware now, with some ideas to implement, and I thank Dr. Shine for that. As she noted at the end of her talk, “Kids cannot protect themselves from predators. Adults must protect them.” By sharing what we know, we can make sure we’re working toward that goal.