5 Important Steps That Will Help Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse
Update: I first wrote this post after a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, was all over the news in 2013. As a mother of now three daughters and no sons, this post focuses on my own personal research of positive steps I can take as a parent when it comes to how to raise a girl who knows that her body is her body. Obviously, parents of sons may need to teach similar lessons, but this post is written from my perspective as a parent with only daughters.
To be clear, this is not what I am talking about: teaching a girl how not to get raped. That’s absolutely ridiculous, and if you read this post you’ll see what I mean. That said, I do want to take action while my daughters are young. The case in 2013 was a wake-up call that I hadn’t had these talks with my oldest daughter yet. And now to the post…
A couple years ago, I avoided reading stories about the Steubenville rape case for quite a while. As the mother of a young girl with another girl on the way, I didn’t think I needed the extra heartache. I consider myself well educated on the issue, so it was hard to see how I would get anything new from hearing yet another sad story.
Then a friend on Facebook posted this: “I haven’t said anything about this yet, but I do think this is a great starting piece.” Then she linked to a post about it.
And it broke my heart.
My thoughts immediately turned to my two girls. One who just turned five, and one not yet born. My mama bear roared.
“I have to protect them,” I told myself.
When One Bathtime Changed Everything
This is the second time my mama bear has roared at the idea of sexual assault in the last few months. The first time came when Abby was four years old. And I was entirely unprepared for it.
One night, I was sitting next to the tub while Abby was in the bath. She was chattering about her day, and to be honest, I was only half listening.
Abby: “…pulled down their* underwear and asked me to pull mine down.”
“Wait, what?” My heart raced. “What did you say?”
Abby repeated herself: “[Anonymous Child] pulled down their underwear and showed me their privates, and then they asked me to pull down my underwear.”
My eyes pricked with hot tears.
Oh, God, I thought. This can’t be possible.
I peppered Abby with follow-up questions until it was clear to me that yes, this was possible. And yes, this did happen to my child. My 4-year-old.
Words spilled out of my mouth, sounding like they were coming from someone else, not me:
“If someone ever asks to see or touch your privates, you tell a parent or a teacher right away.”
And: “Abby is in charge of Abby’s body.”
And: “Nobody should be touching your privates except you or the doctor if you’re in the doctor’s office.”
Then I had to leave the room.
The minute I stepped across the threshold, my chest heaved with quick, heavy breaths. My eyes filled. I had to get away from Abby so she didn’t see my panic.
Later, after I collected myself, I told myself I was lucky that Abby knew enough to say no in that moment, even before my bath-side speech. I told myself that it was good she felt comfortable telling me what happened. And that she didn’t feel ashamed to talk about it.
But still, my mama bear roared.
* I’ve changed pronouns to obscure as many details as possible about the exact situation and those involved.
What I Didn’t Find
Maybe I was an idiot to assume that I wouldn’t have to worry about explaining inappropriate touch to a 4-year-old. We’ve since had several (calmer) conversations about the topic. So much so that Abby’s getting sick of me going over the same concepts again and again. “I know that already,” she says, exasperation in her voice. So I tell her that sometimes we need to talk about important things over and over.
Since I first read about Steubenville a few days ago, I’ve been searching for how you’re supposed to talk to a very young child about this. Yes, ONE DAY, we will have talks about sex and respect and drinking and all that. But how do you lay the groundwork for those later talks, so your teenager will listen to you?
I haven’t yet found practical tips targeted at a mom of a very young child. I did find a letter to a teenage girl, a letter to sons, and even what mothers must do for their sons, no matter how young.
But I will not sit idle, watching the years pass by, and just hope my teenager will listen when the time comes.
Why This Post
I’ve been reflecting on what I can teach Abby now that will serve her well later on in life. My fiance and I have been talking about it off and on since I read that first article.
And I was going to keep it all to myself. It’s a touchy subject, and I’ve now read enough blog posts regarding this case to realize bringing it up is risky. Because you can get some pretty upsetting responses.
But you know what? I think we’ve all had enough silence on this topic.
To be clear, this is not what I am talking about: teaching a girl how not to get raped.
That said, I do believe that I can lay some groundwork with my girl so that she respects herself and her body. So that she demands respect. So that God forbid, if she ends up in that 20% of women who is sexually assaulted, she will know in her heart that what happened was wrong, and it wasn’t her fault, and she needs to tell someone.
5 Tips for How to Raise a Child to Know That Her Body Is Hers
Throughout, I say “your child” but I wrote this for anyone who has a young child they care about in their lives. The truth is that sometimes parents can’t get through to kids in the way a favorite aunt or uncle or cousin or family friend can.
1. Talk About Personal Boundaries
When you find yourself in a situation with your child where your someone oversteps your personal boundaries or your child’s, call attention to it.
A couple weeks ago, Abby and I were standing in an aisle at the grocery store. I was comparing the labels of a couple prenatal vitamins, and Abby was looking at the display of baby toys behind me.
A man walked into the aisle and upon seeing that we were in his way, he put his hand on Abby’s head and steered her out of his way.
He didn’t say “excuse me.” He didn’t say anything. He just put his hand on Abby’s head and treated her like a thing in his way. Would he have done that to an adult woman? At first, I doubted it.
But Abby and I talked about how he shouldn’t have touched her without her permission. That wasn’t okay. She felt the wrongness of it even before I brought it up, which is a good sign. Then I realized that I have sometimes been in that situation, where a man—stranger or acquaintance or co-worker—will put his hand on my back or my shoulder to move me if it’s crowded and I’m in his way. It’s subtle, and it doesn’t happen every week, but our conversation made me remember.
So later that week, when I was waiting in a line and a man was standing very close to me—so close he was bumping into me every few minutes—I was more conscious of it. I turned around, looked him in the eye, and said “excuse me,” with a look on my face that translated as “back the eff off.” Which he did.
2. Honor Her Desire for Privacy
She gets to decide who sees her body. So if she wants the door shut while she’s changing clothes or taking a bath, honor that.
If you’re a parent who’s seen that little body since day one, this may be hard to accept.
But it’s not about you.
If she hasn’t asked for privacy, you can start pointing out situations where you need privacy and explain that’s why you close the door. Like when you go to the bathroom, take a shower, or get dressed. She needs to know it’s okay to set boundaries for who sees your body and when.
3. Never Force Her to Show Physical Affection
When it comes to showing physical affection, it’s your child’s job to decide what she’s comfortable with. Don’t force or coerce or guilt her into being physically affectionate with anyone, including yourself.
As parents, we do this often with family members. When we visit the grandparents, we might say: “Now go give Grandma and Grandpa a hug and a kiss.”
Instead, lean down and say quietly so others can’t overhear: “Do you want to give Grandma and Grandpa a hug and a kiss?”
If she doesn’t feel comfortable with that, that’s her choice. Don’t let the fear of people thinking your kids are rude push you to force physical affection in the moment.
Later, you can talk about it and explore why she didn’t. Maybe she needed to warm up to them after not seeing them for a while. Maybe she just isn’t close enough to them yet. Maybe old people creep her out.
Bottom line? Her body, her choice.
Related: The Best Solution for When Kids Refuse Hugs
4. Be Proactive on the Topic of Inappropriate Touch
This is the one that caught me off guard. Who expects to have to talk to a 4-year-old about this?
I’m lucky that Abby said no to the child who asked to see her privates, but I wish I had talked to her before it ever happened. What if she hadn’t said no? What if the scenario was then repeated again and again? What if it escalated from there?
With my next girl, I won’t wait til something happens before we talk about it.
Related: How to Raise a Feminist Son: 5 Simple But Powerful Steps
5. Listen When She Says No
If you’re tickling your child or showing physical affection and she pulls away or says “no, stop” or “I don’t like that”—listen.
It may hurt your feelings a little in the moment, but remember what matters more.
She needs to know that when she says don’t touch my body, the people who respect her—the people who deserve her love—will listen.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
Here’s a positive solution to that uncomfortable situation where we might tend to force our kids into showing physical affection: The Best Solution for When Kids Refuse Hugs.
How can we lay this groundwork with young kids? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.
Note: All information on this site is for educational purposes only. Happy You, Happy Family does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician.
really good post. thanks for sharing! :)
granted that i’m not child psychologist or a clinical expert on child behavior, but 4 year-olds playing “show-me-yours-i’ll-show-you-mine” isn’t that uncommon, and is generally not in the realm of “inappropriate touch” or other scary scenarios. kids at that age are still discovering their bodies, and so long that it’s not overtly sexual or in any way coercive there’s probably little to worry about until they get older or seem overly fixated on such things.
having said that, it starts to get weird and inappropriate when kids hit age 7 or so, and definitely any time that the age range between participants is significant. and of course, any time it becomes coercive (when “no” or “go away, poopyhead!” isn’t accepted) is a big red flag (but again, at that age it may not be in the realm of “inappropriate touch” – it could just be the child instigator has social boundary issues).
also, regarding the notion of not forcing physical affection: sometimes a refusal to show affection (such as the “give grandma a hug” scenario) is more about the child attempting to assert control over a social situation, rather than any kind of protection of boundaries. of course, it’s best to identify when to let it go, but sometimes it’s okay to let them know that saying no to a hug isn’t acceptable. and of course, trust your instincts in any given situation.
finally, be careful how readily your subconscious goes from small child behavior to things like Steubenville. they’re on different ends of the spectrum, and you can give yourself ulcers if you don’t recognize the gulf that lies between the two. you’re doing the right thing in introducing notions of respect and physical boundaries, and of course listening to your child is key.
Great post! Thanks for sharing my two letters up there. Sounds like we’ve both really been struggling with the whole thing. It scares me half to death to send my children out there into that world, but I’m with you. I’m not going to waste my time or energy being made that I have to teach my daughter how not to be raped. No, I’m going to be pragmatic and honest and help her stay out of those situations as best she can. As for my son? He’d best toe the line. Blessedly, from what I know of him so far, I really think he will. Our best bet as parents, I think, is to model the proper behavior. I know I’m flawed as a mother, and I sometimes worry there aren’t enough good men like my husband to go around.
Some abusers target children between ages 2-4 because they assume the children will not be able to recognize/articulate what happened to them.
My Body is Private or
Your Body Belongs to You
http://www.amazon.com/Your-Belongs-Cornelia-Maude-Spelman/dp/0807594733/ref=pd_sim_b_1 are a great way to teach young children about their rights to their bodies.
Also, consider supporting Erin Merryn, who is working hard to pass laws requiring education about this subject starting in preschool in all 50 states.
Great post, Kelly! I’d add too, we teach these same things to our son. If he has his feelings and body respected, he will expect to give the same respect as well. :) Robin
I’m new to this post and this blog, but I’m loving all of it so far. I have a young niece and nephew and am working on adopting one of my own. I’m not a psychologist or even a “real” mom yet, but I personally can’t stand it when kids are forced into showing physical affection. Hugs and kisses are very intimate and making a child participate against their will, even with a relative, teaches them that they have to submit and allow almost anyone to handle them. I try to give my niece a choice – when we say goodbye to people she can choose to hug, high-five, or just wave goodbye. She gets to determine the level of intimacy she is comfortable with, and she can be polite and happy while doing it. You don’t see this level of physical affection being forced on adults, so why do we demand it of our kids? If I left a business meeting and gave all my coworkers, let alone my boss, a big hug and a sloppy kiss goodbye, I would be brought up on sexual harassment charges, not told I was cute and affectionate.
Mai, I’m so glad to hear this post resonated with you. I feel it’s so important, like you said, not to force kids into showing physical affection. I love how you give choices to the kids in your life. That’s a great idea.
And your metaphor for the workplace…SPOT ON. It seems so ridiculous when put in that perspective!
Spot on! I have 2 girls age 8 and 10. I’ve always tried to stress to them that hugs and kisses are their choice to give. Their dad uses the “but you’ll hurt so-and-so’s feelings if you don’t hug them.” I say, “you don’t have to hug someone to show you love them or care about them. Your body is yours and it’s your choice.” I also teach them that whether or not another kid wants a hug from them that it’s that kid’s choice. They’re at the age where they want and are capable of picking up smaller kids and hugging on them. Teaching them that if they want to give a hug, the other person has the right to say no. I feel like it reinforces their right too.
I wasn’t aware of anything at Steubenville. Are you referring to the attack on the girl at Stanford where the guy only got 6 months of jail time and no prison? Either way, the message works and I enjoyed your post.
Teri, thank you for your comment. I first wrote this in 2013 when it was a different rape case all over the news – that time in Steubenville. I linked to a news story at the start of this post, but here’s the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steubenville_High_School_rape_case
I recently was rattled by a story I had read that had told me about a girls sister being sexually abused by another boy her age at the young age of 4. As a daycare worker I then became predominantly ansy about our shared open concept bathrooms and would struggle with giving our preschoolers thier privacy while still wanting to keep a watchful eye. This post has calmed me down a bit and got me thinking about what I can start teaching and giving me a good piece of mind. Because really that also scared me shitless. I could not imagine that happening to a preschooler when they may lack the ability to know what is right or wrong when it comes to thier bodies.
Check out the book Diapers to Dating. Lots of great suggestions by age.
I had a LONG comment and lost it some how. If you received it, let me know so I can finish.
I’m in the process of teaching my 6 year old daughter the importance of privacy and not showing her body off. I know there is a fine line between being confident in our own skin and having a sense of self-respect and that is what I’m attempting to accomplish. This is a wonderful example of how and why we should teach our girls these lessons. Great article Kelly!
Love this post! I am a health teacher, and the standards for Kindergartners actually include teaching them appropriate and inappropriate touch. Unfortunately health education isn’t that important to schools and is only taught in some states and not every school at that. That leaves it up to us as parents to not only teach it (which I personally think parents should do no matter what), but to also re-teach and reinforce throughout our kids’ lives with little to no help from our schools. Hopefully this will change, but in the meantime, starting to have these conversations early and in developmentally appropriate ways is so important! Thanks for sharing some ideas of how to go about that.
I had a recent conversation with my mum about how at 10 years old I said I wanted my dad to stop coming into the bathroom while I was in the shower etc. My mum recalls it as the day I “lost my innocence” and I recall it as the day I got to express my independance. I was never abused or made to feel uncomfortable in my skin but my mother thought at 10 I was still too young to view my body as my own. I am glad I found your article and can feel confident in teaching my own kids that their body is theirs, even now.
Tho This is deeply personal, I’m writing this comment because of the even more likely scenarios our daughters and sons can face. I’m not sure of the exact % as I write this, tho my recollection is somewhere around 85% more likely sexual abuse would happen in a child’s own home, with a TRUSTED family member or friend, but especially in homes of a single mother with a boyfriend or step father. There are way too many women with children, single, going through a divorce, or who are living with, engaged or re-married and in here lies the greatest threat to our children! This is a factually based statistic! We as women are drawn into our relationships with men in hopes of having a loving and stable home for ourselves Zi’s for our children. We put our hearts and souls on the line in our pending new relationship , but also the well being of our sons and daughters. Predator’s don’t look nor do they act like they could of would harm your children, nor you, in fact the polar opposite, and they are very good at hiding truth and deceit, at least if they’re any good at it and wit much practice, they are able to prove themselves very well to not only us, but friends and family alike, and have quickly earned our trust and the love of our children! In fact they are often very charming, loving and kind on their exterior and mostly very likable! They do and say and look like exactly what is expected in their blooming relationships. We have all heard how the grooming process goes, but in these cases it is through our needs as women, wether it be loved, wined, dined, sex or stability of marriage we seek, these charmers are there for us, our knights, filling our hearts with love and desire. Of course the end game for them is exactly that to gain our love and trust that goes along. Before we know it our home is once again full of love and laughter and wedding bells, planning our new lives together is at hand,?and the smiles on or child’s faces says it all! We fail to notice little things, red flags even, we’re already in, hook, line and sinker! This is where the true demons live! This is where the worst of our nightmares exist in reality, especially for our precious children. You don’t see it coming and you don’t see it going and our children cannot or will not tell. You can tell them a hundred times to protect themselves and how to not allow these things out there to happen, all the while what’s happening under our nose and not on Our radar! This is not our fault, it is all set up by design and goes against all our instincts. You may feel underneath it all something seems off, perhaps it’s your own insecurities we blame it on, and these monsters are very good at making it appear as if that’s the case, as they slowly undermine this in you. I’m not tslk Nrg about the terrible cases of a natural mother knowingly accepts the word over their own child? If or when they are told or discover th truth,, in most cases the molestation can occur without an inkling for years. Your child may be most likely an adult before anything that has happened to them is told or known if at all! Less likely with your sons! My daughter was only 3- yrs old and lived through sexual abuse inside the wall and safety of our home until she was 12-yrs old, on a regular basis, and involved her younger brother as well. I did not know, wasn’t on my radar at all! We divorced after a son we had together was a 7-yr old, he did not molest his own child. My daughter finally told in her late 20’s and only when she became aware he was about to marry a woman with 2- young children, a boy and a girls who were of around the same age as when she and her brother were when it began! Later learned the same had happened to not only them, but within several other relationships he was in with young children. No one ever suspected this from him, not one! He did go to prison for a short time and he’s now free to do this again to probably a grandmother of young children! And yes I did warn my children of stranger danger, of. It allowing anyone to touch them in those ways, even if it was someone we know well, family, friends, teachers etc. I believed I well prepared them. Things I know now may have better prepared me to be aware of then, looking back, subtle and red flags I should have been aware of, but how do we prepare ourselves for this let alone our children, when this seems like how could it happen to me or to them. I would know? Right? Well no you wouldn’t, how would you,? Not of course I would! This is something so far from our normalcy, so far from our experience, hopefully, honest to god you would not know! You’re family wouldn’t know and your friends wouldn’t know! They most likely even have encouraged you in this relationship and even love your choice in this man!! Please be diligent! Check out everything and anything! Don’t introduce your children or even have them around them and take time., a lot of time! Be aware in changes in child’s behavior. Bed wetting where there was none before. Don’t leave it to chance in leaving someone you really barely know alone with your children. If the person you are considering as a partner has a track record? Marriages? Live ins? Past or present drug abuse. Pay attention to red flags, how he treats people over time, lies? Willingness to deceive others? Dishonest behaviors, even regarding others? Quickly wants to be with you, moving in soon after, you’re the one he was waiting for? And you’ve known him less than 6-months to a year., how the he’ll would he know this? Or you for that matter! Does he drink too much? Does he slip and get a bit out of line, Dr Jekyll , mr Hyde perhaps. Does he apologize for being a jerk a. It too often. Does he disappear without good reasons too often? Does he treat his mother well? Is he from an unstable childhood, past abuse? Was he abused? Abandoned? Does he have closer ties and relationships? Check out closely his face book pages. My children became sexually active, permiscuous early on. Began drinking and drug abuse, early in life, failed a lot at school, trouble at school, didn’t follow rules or boundaries, in trouble much if the time, one openly, one sneakily, angry outbursts. This all becomes what it is, a bit at a time. You, feeling overwhelmed, sad, depressed. What did I do or didn’t do? The reasons for divorce? Cheating is usually involved. The man who drew you in with his charm now begins treatment disrespect,emotionally abuse is it too hard for you to do one thing use my car you use mine I do everything that you basically I know your life sucks but you know you pretty much taken care of here I ask you to do one thing down you’re always not good enough. Trust your instincts, it may just be the feeling of off, a sinking feeling. They will make you think it’s you, you’re unstable, depressed, bi-polar, on the rag whatever to throw you off the mark. Just please, don’t just look after your kids, look after yourself! Be kind yo yourself, love yourself and don’t take anything from anybody who doesn’t show you respect and loving behaviors arcall times. You need and deserve no less. You may need first to love and respect yourself before you find yourself involved with another relationship. You’re kids will be living in that space too!