As A Therapist And Parent, I Know Tough Conversations With Your Child Can Prevent Sexual Abuse
In addition to being an NYC therapist, I’m also a father and I recently had to talk to my daughter about sexual abuse, safe touch and saying no. These conversations are never fun–they can be tough for both children and parents (They can even be difficult to write about in a blog format). But, it’s something I strongly advocate parents doing whether you have a toddler or an older child. Being open and unafraid to talk to your kid can both protect them from harmful, creepy people and prepare them to be confident as they get older and head into age-appropriate sexuality as teenagers.
Should I Talk To My Kid About Scary Stuff Like Sex And Bad People?
In a word, yes. However, these conversations, depending on the age of your child, don’t necessarily need to involve talking about sex per se until later on. That being said, kids knowing the names of both their body parts and parts they don’t have, and having some sense of what they look like and how they work is important to the process of keeping them safe. It’s about more than just learning the words penis and vagina (though that is essential). It’s about making talking about private parts ordinary–something that parents and kids just do sometimes.
If you have a younger child, talk about how your child’s body belongs to him or her–that their private parts are private. Begin by saying on occasion that no one should touch him or her without his or her permission. It’s often helpful to use visits to the doctor as an example. Ask, “Is it okay for doctor So-and-So to touch you? She needs to look at your penis to make sure it’s healthy” or “Dr. Do-and-So is going to touch your vagina. It’s okay because he’s making sure it’s healthy. He’s a doctor and Mommy says it’s okay.”
Kids Know More Than You Think
It should be said that kids aren’t dumb. They aren’t unaware of the scary shit in the world. They’re aware of penises and vaginas and, at the very least, that there is something kind of strange and intriguing going on with them. Kids know way more than parents think. For example, a good friend of mine teaches science at a private elementary school and has been tasked with their sex ed curriculum across the school. Every year, I hear about all of the comments kids make about sex when she invites them to talk about what they know–it’s hilarious, but also a bit troubling to see how much the parents think the kids don’t know.
Of course, there are things kids don’t know and don’t need to know about sex at a particular age. But, there are also things that they know already that might need clarified or things they don’t know, but really should. If they’re old enough for a gym teacher or a stranger to try to touch them, they’re old enough to know this danger is out there. And also the correct word for penis.
More Than A Conversation: Organizing A Relationship With Your Kids Around Safety
It’s essential to not relate to talking to your kid about these tough issues as a singular conversation. Sure, you probably don’t want to have the safe touch and say no conversation super often, but there are a lot of opportunities to remind your kids that their bodies belong to them and their private parts should only be touched by mom and dad or a doctor and only when they say it’s okay. There are many ways to let children know they can and should talk to their parents about anything they want. The key here is making these subjects ordinary. It helps kids feel safe, strong and confident when they insist people treat them well. Kids like feeling confident, as all people do.
Rather than one or a series of discrete conversations, what I’m talking about is a way of organizing a relationship with your children that makes them aware that their safety is important. It’s teaching them that they are looked after in the world and that their parents will work hard to hear them and keep them safe. It’s also about treating kids and their relationship with their bodies seriously.
Avoid Shaming Body Parts And Experiences
A huge part of building this relationship is being able to talk to your kids about these scary topics in a way that doesn’t involve shame. Parents can have their own shame around sex and bodies. The world is also filled with shame (See: Adam and Eve, for example). Kids can pick up on this shame from their parents and the world.
As I’ve written about before, I believe sex is a terrific, fun, healthy thing and bodies are wonderful in all kinds of ways. We don’t want boys or girls thinking there’s anything wrong with any part of their bodies. How do you keep kids from getting hung up on their bodies and feeling shame about private parts, sexuality and using the bathroom? Make it ordinary. It’s important not to use shaming language to describe body parts or behavior like “gross,” “yucky” or “disgusting.” You can talk about it in the language of politeness such as, “It’s not polite to show your private parts in public or outside the house or the bathroom.” It’s also fine to say that some of these things are okay to do when you’re older.
Talking To Your Kid Is A Form Of Immunization
Getting close to your kids, being curious about their lives, spending time with them and creating a context in which they want to talk to you can protect your kid from predators–sexual and otherwise. Of course, this isn’t failsafe, but these assholes are often good at telling who is and isn’t really supported by and connected to their family.
In a way, it’s like immunizing our kids. It’s heartening to see when your kid knows what isn’t cool, that their body belongs to them, how to say no and that they can tell mom and dad about everything. It’s one less worry in the world. These conversations aren’t a guarantee of safety, but in many ways, I do see creating this close relationship with your kid around tough issues like sex, consent, bodies and touching as straightforward as that. It’s like an MMR vaccine. Similar to how your kid receives the vaccine and won’t get the mumps, it pretty much works.