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Ever since the Penn State child abuse cover-up has been exposed, we have been getting calls and emails from many parents asking: “What do I tell my child to keep them safe?” “How can I keep my child safe?” “Tell me what to do!”
First and foremost is that we need to continue to be outraged over adults not protecting children. It is that energy that will make parents take pro-active steps towards teaching their children personal safety and being more aware and educated as to how to recognize the dangers.
Did you know that 90% of the time a child is harmed, it is by someone you/they know and trust?
Parents need to remain calm in front of their children, as one of the reasons kids don’t always share questions about the headlines they're seeing is that they think their parents will overreact. So for starters, we suggest you keep a poker face when talking and listening to your children - it's a great technique to use with children of all ages. And as you read through the suggestions below, please note that these are not band-aid fixes in response to the Penn State tragedy; these are skills, language, and concepts to integrate into your everyday parenting.
Here are 10 things every parent should discuss with their kids, starting as soon as they begin to speak:
1. From a young age, instill in your children that their bodies are special and belong to them. (This can relate to everything from taking care of our bodies nutritionally, keeping us physically healthy, as well as beginning the conversation about private parts and safe and unsafe touching.)
2. Children should know and use proper names for body parts. An elbow is an elbow and a penis is a penis. We as adults need to be comfortable ourselves, otherwise we are passing down the message that it is “taboo” to talk about our private parts. Note: if they ever have to report abuse, saying Uncle Joe touched my “cookie” will make it more difficult to understand what occurred.
3. Discuss with children how various touches make them feel. Note the difference between the feelings of a safe touch: comfortable, warm, cozy, special, loved and the feelings of an unsafe touch: awkward, nervous, scary, confusing, sad, and mad, etc. Directly say to kids - "if you receive a touch, even if from someone you love and you are confused by it, then you can always report it to another adult to help you understand if it was a safe touch or an unsafe touch." This is called reporting. (Similar to reporting bullying.)
4. Discuss the difference between tattling and reporting. Tattling is when you tell on someone just to get him/her in trouble. Reporting is when you talk to a trusted adult because of your safety and/or the safety of others.
5. Empower your children so they know their bodies belong to them. This means that if they do not feel like giving someone a hug (visiting relative, for example), they do not need to be rude, but can politely say, “no, thank you”. Forcing a child to hug or kiss someone is sending the subliminal message that the feelings of the adult are more important than respecting the child’s body boundaries.
6. Teach children their bodies are special and they have the RIGHT to keep them safe. Read our book, My Body is Special and Belongs to Me! We wrote this book as the conversation every parent wants to have with their child and is not sure how to start or how to answer the questions their child may ask. There is a great parent section as well. Check out www.kidsafefoundation.org/products.
7. Teach children their privates are private and so are everyone else’s, which is why we call them “private parts.” No one should be looking, touching, taking a picture of yours, and they shouldn’t be looking or touching anyone else’s. (Starting this message young leads to better choices regarding issues of sexting among pre-teens and teens and other life choices.)
8. Discuss good and bad secrets with your child because a child who keeps secrets is a predator’s dream. Teach your children that a good secret has a time limit (the person telling you to keep the secret wants you to tell eventually). An example: A parent and child shop for a gift for a sibling. Parents ask the child not to tell until the birthday. Feelings associated with this good secret are similar to the feelings a child would have with a safe touch: special, excited, proud, and happy. A bad secret has no time limit. The person might have directly asked the child to keep the secret, or has threatened or bribed the child into silence, and to the child this is a secret with no end in sight. Feelings associated with a bad secret are similar to the feelings of an unsafe touch: scared, uncomfortable, afraid to tell, awkward, confused, alone, shame, and fear of getting into trouble. Teach your children that if they ever have anything on their mind that gives them those types of feelings then they always know they can come to you and tell (report) you anything.
9. Remind your children regularly and often that you are available to listen to them, noting that whatever they have to say, no matter how bad it might seem to them, you will be able to handle it and get any help that is needed. (This is important for sexual abuse, bullying, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, etc.) Also note to children of all ages, that if they ever receive an unsafe touch of any sort it is NEVER their fault. (The fault belongs to the adult, not the child.)
10. Tell your children how proud you will be if they report to you any safety concern, even if they are confused by a touch, what someone said, a secret they were asked to keep, and that you are here for them always to help. Tell your children that adults you trust can help in ways you (children) can’t always see! Open communication and safety discussions as a natural part of your parenting are some of the best ways to keep children safe.
For more safety tips and information about KidSafe Foundation visit our website at www.kidsafefoundation.org.