I was at a children’s party earlier this year and a parent stated that they were upset because her daughter came home and said that a little boy said the word ‘penis.’ I thought it might have been startling for her, because the kids attend a private Christian school, but when I responded I asked, “How was the boy using the word?” The mother said that he made reference to ‘it’ on their way to the bathroom. I asked the mother if she had taught her daughter the correct anatomical names for her private parts. She answered, “No way, why would I ever do that?” I felt nervous in front of the mothers there, but I said, “So your daughter has agency over her body, feels comfortable and confident about every part of her body, and so she can talk to you about any problems that she has in those areas.” Another mom chimed in, “I’ve taught my children about their private parts as well.” The last mom said, “Yes, my daughter already knows the word penis because I taught her.” Outnumbered, our appalled mother said, “Maybe I should have these talks with my daughter.” We all nodded our heads in the affirmative and continued having fun in the sun. Giving children agency over their body begins with consent, so this week we’re discussing Your Body Belongs to You, a children’s book written by Cornelia Spelman and illustrated by Teri Weidner. This story is an author’s note to children and parents that reminds us all that a child’s body is their own, they have the right to decline touch—no matter how innocent, and that there are boundaries that nobody should cross. Children need to learn early that they are not powerless, any touching that needs to be kept secret is not good touching, and they should talk about any touching that feels bad with a trusted adult. Children with these resources can have an ongoing source of protection from dangers including sexual abuse.
Data from 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse. A majority of child victims were between the ages of 12-17. According to a YWCA report, 93% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser and unfortunately most abusers are often family members. Children who have been abused by a member of the family are more likely to blame themselves for the abuse than those who are abused by someone considered to be outside of the family unit. This is particularly true of older children, who may be aware of the effect that disclosing the abuse will have on other family members because of existing relationships. When children form relationships with adults they become figures who are supposed to protect them from harm, in a child’s mind. When children are abused by adults, their ability to trust and rely on adults may be shattered. Knowing that the abuser is liked—or even loved—by other family members makes it even more difficult for children to tell others about the abuse. The same can be said about close friends of the family. After disclosing an instance or history of abuse, children are often tormented by self doubt, experience self blame, fear of the abuser, and can be distressed over what their disclosure has done to the family. Children may feel pressures to “recant” in order to protect themselves and their abuser from these consequences, so it is of great importance that adults learn to identify signs of sexual abuse occurring between adults and children in order to be effective systems of support to them.
- Physical signs of trauma or the presentation of Sexually Transmitted Infections can indicate instances of sexual abuse.
- Behavioral signs, like excessive talk or knowledge about sexual topics, keeping secrets or not wanting to be left alone with certain people, regressing into behaviors like thumb-sucking or bed wetting, and avoidance or reluctance of removing clothing to change or bathe can be expressions of sexual trauma by child survivors.
- Adults should be cautious of other adults who do not respect a child’s boundaries, like listening when someone tells them “no”, seeks opportunities to be alone with a child outside of their role in the child’s life, encourages secrecy between themselves and the child and seems to restrict a child’s access to other adults. This may be evidence of coercive behaviors, like grooming —manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim and reduce the risk of being caught.
- At times, older or stronger children can be dangers to others.
Education for children
Teaching children to have ownership and agency over their body from a young age is crucial to forming self-esteem and a sense of positive regard towards themselves and others’ boundaries. This is essential ground to cover in conversations with your child at home. If I think back to my conversation with the mothers from the private school, I imagining a lesson going over:
- Knowing and being able to name their private parts.
- Knowing, naming, and understanding who is allowed to touch those parts and why (i.e. doctor to examine, yes…even mommy and daddy to properly clean for no other reason is acceptable).
- C is for Consent!!!
- Giving them agency to say “No, they don’t want to be hugged, kissed, or touched” Explaining this to all family members (My own father gives fist bumps or elbow bumps to my daughter – he does love it when she gives him a quick hug, but it is her decision).
- As a parent backing them up when they say, no thank you. (Trying to get this interview with a woman who works in this area.) When a child sees that you as a parent supports their agency in front of the family, they will feel comfortable knowing that you will handle anyone who abuses them.
- Loads of “surprises” are ruined because of this rule, but in our house there are no secrets.When surprises are interrupted by an excited kiddo, we thank her for telling the secrets because “There are no secrets in our household.” Now at 7, our daughter will let a surprise slip and then say, “Hey, there’s no secrets in our household.” 🙂 We can’t get mad. Reasoning is that secrets get kept between child and abuser.
Protecting your child
Your Body Belongs to You encourages a safe and consensual involvement in children’s lives, equipping them with the agency to build boundaries, and the confidence to respect their feelings. Children should be sure that they can speak-up when they experience behavior they don’t like, and adults should be attentive to the danger of sexual assault in their lives. Choose caregivers carefully. Asking children questions like who they sit with at lunchtime, their after school activities, and whether they are enjoying themselves are ways to get to know the people in your child’s life. Talk about these people openly and ask questions so that your child can feel comfortable doing the same. Additionally, talk about the media covering news or stories of sexual violence. Have conversations about these stories and ask your child questions like, “Have you ever heard of this happening before?” or “What would you do if you were in this situation?” to signal these are important issues that they can talk about with you. Learn more about talking to your kids about sexual assault here.
Teaching children about consent in the classroom
Here are some opportunities to practice asking for consent in interactions with children:
- “Do you want a hug goodbye today? We could also wave or high five.”
- “It’s OK if you don’t want a goodbye hug.”
- “Can I sit beside you while we read this book?”
Model that asking for consent is an ongoing process.
- “Do you need a break from reading, or is reading still okay with you?”
- Teach your child to ask for consent with other children.
- “Do you want to play with the red or the blue car?”
- “Do you want to sit together at lunch?”
We want to encourage children to accept a no answer, but we can also understand the sad or upset feelings that might come along with hearing “no” and help them to deal with those hard feelings in a positive way. You might say something like this:
- “I’m proud of you for respecting your friend’s answer and choosing another seat. That shows that you care about your friend.”
- “It seems like you’re sad, I can understand that. It can be hard to hear a friend or someone we love tell us no.”
- “What do you think you could do with your sad feelings? What would make you feel better?”
Maybe there has been an increase in problems with students taking belongings from others without asking. You might address this behavior in the classroom by having a conversation about consent:
- “In this classroom we show respect and care for each other. When we want to use something that belongs to someone else or someone else is currently using, it’s important to ask for their permission.”
- “If they say no, we need to listen to their answer, even if that makes us feel sad or mad. We should not take it from them without their permission.”
- “You can always come to me if you need help asking for permission.”
Read more about discussing ways to discuss consent with children here
If abuse happens
Instances of abuse can have life-long, devastating consequences on children. If you learn that abuse has happened, be sure to provide:
- A warm and caring spaces to talk
- A clear belief in what the child says
- Clear communication that they are not blamed
- Find support for the child immediately.