Growing up, many of us probably put ourselves (or were put) into situations where something bad could have happened to us. Hopefully you came out unscathed. Unfortunately, many people were not so lucky. No matter how loving a parent, or how smart you may think you are, there are times when we don’t listen to our instincts. How do we teach our children to protect themselves while still giving them a sense of autonomy and freedom?
A couple of weeks ago I went to hear a presentation by Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After. Pattie is a mother and widely recognized and respected children’s advocate. She has made it her mission to empower families through her innovative and non-fearful safety programs for parents and children.
A False Sense Of Security
Pattie began by lecture by reminding us that what was going to protect our family is not where we live, but what we know.
- 90% of childhood sexual abuse occurs by someone the child knows – not by a stranger.
- Childhood sexual abuse occurs among all socioeconomic and educational levels, and across all racial and cultural groups.
- More than 80% of sexual abuse happens in a one adult/one child situation. Think carefully before leaving your child alone with one adult, especially with coaches, counselors, etc. Drop in unexpectedly on occasion.
- Sex offenders look for opportunities to groom a child with manipulative ploys of attention, flattery, gifts etc. A parent’s job is to watch for signs of “grooming” and to stop it before abuse occurs. 89% of offenders gain access through “grooming techniques”.
- The most vulnerable age is between 9 and 12. This is an age when children become more secretive and parents tend to back off to give the child some autonomy. Children at this age also start a different reasoning process where they think they’ll be blamed for the abuse.
Predator Myths And Realities
- Myth: Only strangers or registered sex offenders abuse children
- Myth: It’s never the older brother next door, the babysitter’s son, the older cousin.
- Myth: Predators are “weird/scary” looking
In reality, when predators are caught, they are often the people about whom people say, “We trusted him. He was a great guy. He was so nice to everyone”. Predators target people who want to fit in. But the possibility of getting caught is the number one deterrent. If your child communicates with you, if you are paying attention, if your child is the type who would say “you shouldn’t touch me like that” – your child is less likely to be victimized.
- Trust your instincts, let your kids trust their instincts
- BELIEVE YOUR CHILD. If you discount their “uh oh” feelings you are essentially telling your child “I don’t have your back”.Only 1 – 4% of reported cases are fabricated and there are 39 million reported survivors of abuse in the United States alone.
- Build self-confidence
- Don’t teach “stranger-danger”. Use the phrase “tricky people”. These are people who try to trick you into breaking the rules. As we already learned, 90% of abusers are not strangers!
- It’s not what people look like, it’s what they say or want to do that you need to be wary of
- Teach children to recognize “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” people and situations. This is terminology they understand and it covers people you know, don’t know and know just a little.
- Know how kids communicate: they may tell parts of what happened or mention it in a roundabout way that they don’t want to be around a certain adult. Pay attention to their cues. Sometimes a child will pretend it happened to someone else to test your reaction.
- If your child does disclose, respond in a gentle fashion. Tell them how brave they are that you’re glad they’re telling.
- Talk to your kids about their daily activities. Encourage them to share the “ups and downs” of their day.
- Be very clear about who is allowed to bathe and dress your child. Just because your nanny is allowed to do it doesn’t mean her husband should, too.
- Open, honest communication is the best sexual abuse prevention tip. Start early discussing personal body issues with clear language and continue the dialogue as they grow up.
What Kids Should Know At Every Age (from Safely Ever After)
I am The Boss Of My Body!
Mom and dad are the boss when it comes to staying healthy and clean, but in all other circumstances, your child is the boss. Children as young as age 3 – 5 should know the correct names for body parts, the difference between “safe” and “unsafe” touches and understand the concept of “No-Go-Tell”. For children age 6 – 10 you can tell them that they they have the right to say NO to any uncomfortable touches, no matter who it is, even to an adult or older kid. Also, they need to know it is not their fault if someone tries to touch a private part of their body and they have the right to express or receive physical affection on their terms (By the way, parents, this means you need to stop forcing your kids to hug Grandma Betty if they don’t want to. More on that later). Children ages 11 and older can be told that it is OK to say STOP to anyone’s touches anywhere on their body. And affection between adults and children does not include touching or kissing private parts, undressing together or sharing bodies in a “yucky” or uncomfortable manner.
The “Helping” Rule.
Children age 3 -5 need to know that they should not help anyone who asks them to find a lost pet, give them direction, or carry packages to their home or car without mom/dad/caretaker present. Also, safe grownups don’t ask kids for help when you’re by yourself – they’re supposed to ask OTHER grownups. Children age 6 – 10 must also know that before assisting anyone, check first with the adult in charge of your safety. If you can’t check first, the answer is NO. Children this age also need to understand the difference between helping with chores in the home vs. helping someone out in the world when you’re on your own. Additionally, they should not enter someone’s home to help them unless their parents say it’s OK. Tell your children age 11 and older that they must be wary of people who ask you for help when you’re alone or with your friends in public places. Employ the “check first rule” whenever possible. And remind them not to be tricked by offers of money or gifts in exchange for assistance.
Candy, Gifts, Treats.
Teach your children age 3 – 5 to say no to anyone who wants to give them candy, gifts or treats unless their parent is with them and says it’s OK first. Children age 6 – 10 can be told that it is not OK for someone to offer them a treat in exchange for keeping a secret. By age 11 and older can be told that they should tell their parents about anyone who wants to give them an expensive gift or treat without their knowledge. They should also understand that bribing a child with the promise of a gift or treat is wrong, and may even be illegal. Remind them it’s not their fault and it’s important to tell right away.
Trusting Your Instinct/your inner voice/”the uh-oh feeling”.
Children by age 3 – 5 can be told to listen to their inner voice or that feeling you get in your tummy when something feels wrong or “yucky”. They should know to tell mom or dad about any “uh oh” feelings they have, no matter when it happens. With children age 6 – 10 you can tell them to get away quickly from anyone who makes them feel weird, yucky or uncomfortable. And remind them that they don’t have to be polite to anyone who gives them that “uh oh” feeling. Children age 11 and older should be told to pay attention to their feelings, especially if someone tries to get them to do something they know is wrong or makes them feel badly. Remind them that their own inner alarm is their best safety system.
With children age 3 – 5 tell them that there are no secrets from mom or dad. Remind them that safe grownups don’t tell kids to keep secrets from their parents and that there is a difference between a “secret” and a “surprise”. Tell children age 6 – 10 that they won’t get in trouble for telling their parents about any kind of secret that an adult has told them to keep. Remind them to tell mom and dad right away and not to hold on to “yucky” secrets, especially ones about their body. Tell them that safe adults don’t tell kids to keep secrets from their parents.
Out And About.
For children age 3 – 5 tell them that if they are lost, Freeze and Yell or ask a Mom with Kids for help. Remind them to never go outside to the parking lot to look for their parents and teach them your address and a parent’s cell phone number. Children age 6 – 10 should ask a mom with kids, or the cash register person for help. Remind them not to wander around or leave the area to search for their parents. Tell them not to enter restrooms alone or with someone they don’t know and not to use shortcuts through alleys or play in unfamiliar areas. For kids age 11 and older you can tell them not to be tricked into getting into a car with someone you don’t know because they seem nice or because they offer you something enticing like payment for doing work. Also, if they want to change their plans, go somewhere else, or enter a car even with an adult they know, they have to call and check in first with their parents to let them know. If they can’t check first, the answer is NO.
Children age 3 – 5 need to be told that they should always ask mom, dad or caretaker before they go anywhere or take anything even from someone they know, Also, if they’re finished playing in one ares and want to do something else, check first. Age 6 – 10 you must have permission before getting into a car or entering someone’s home. Check first, even f it’s a neighbor or someone that you know. If you don’t have permission first, don’t do it. For kids 9 years old and up – use a family code word. For children age 11 and older teach them to always let their parents know where they’re going and when they’ll be back. Additionally, they should know that if they are changing plans, to let their parents know first.
For kids age 3 – 5 replace stranger-danger concept with “tricky people”. Remind them that it’s not what someone looks like, it’s what they want you to do. Teach them that “tricky people” may ask kids to do “thumbs down” things. For kids age 6 -10 you can teach them that a tricky person may be someone they know, don’t know, or know just a little. They should learn that they can recognize a tricky person by their behaviors and actions – by what they say and do. For children age 11 and older remind them that they don’t have to be polite to anyone who tries to trick you into doing something feels bad and to be alert for tricks that sound “too good to be true”.
For children age 3 – 5 teach them that they should always tell mom or dad if they feel scared, uncomfortable or have an “uh oh” feeling about someone. And if they are afraid to tell their parents, they should tell a teacher. Teach children age 6 – 10 to tell their parents about anyone who’s made them feel yucky or touched them in an uncomfortable way. Remind them that if they can’t tell their parents, then tell a teacher and if that doesn’t work, keep telling a grownup until you get help. For children age 11 and older you can tell them to tell a parent, a teacher, a guidance counselor or other trusted adult if they need help. If they’re not comfortable talking to a parent, consider other safe grownups who will help you, like a friend’s mom. Above all, keep telling until you get help.
Give Grandma Betty a Hug!
I wanted to emphasize that first point about being the boss of their bodies. We should never force children to be affectionate to everyone. By doing so, we are telling them that they’re not really the boss of their own bodies. There are may reasons a child may not want a kiss or hug from a relative. My grandfather used to lick his lips before he gave kisses. It wasn’t inappropriate, it was just gross! Instead of telling your child what to do, simply ask him or her, “Do you want to give Grandma Betty a hug?” If the child still feels uncomfortable, show them that you have their back. If the person in question is pressuring you, or doesn’t agree with letting children make this decision, try saying, “We’ve been working really hard with the kids teaching them the ‘I’m the boss of my own own body’ rules. Can you help me with this?” This way you are bringing the other adult into the fold, the child doesn’t sense any aggravation between you which could lead him or her to decide not to say no next time.
Safely Ever After
There was so much more information that Pattie gave us including details on boundaries, red flags and common lures, but I feel as though this post has gotten really long. If there is interest, I will do a follow up post with more information, but I highly, highly recommend contacting Pattie at Safely Ever After to have her speak at your school, your group, even your home. As street smart as I am, I came away from Pattie’s lecture realizing how much I really didn’t know and how much I really hadn’t spoken to my children about!
How about you? Do you already speak to your kids about keeping themselves safe? Do you have any tips to share? Was any of this particularly eye opening to you? I love your comment, let me know your thoughts!