Marybeth Dwyer iMarybeth Dwyer is a Child Sexual Abuse Prevention consultant for the Children’s Trust, and has over twenty years of experience in the family support field. She has one grown son and three grandchildren.
At what age should parents start talking to their child about safe touches? What are some age-appropriate ways to talk to children about child personal safety and body boundaries?
Marybeth Dwyer: Parents can be anxious about speaking to their child about abuse prevention, and when a situation arises within their community, parents sometimes rush to discuss safety with their child. I recommend these discussions begin much sooner.
For infants and toddlers, begin to teach your child the correct words for body parts. It is easy and believe it or not, can even be fun to do! Children like to play that game where they are asked to find their ears, eyes and nose so why stop there. It’s important for children to know the correct terms for their body parts so they can communicate if something happens to them. Use words that a doctor would use like penis for a boy and breasts and vagina for girls. Don’t worry about being perfect, your children will appreciate all the skills and knowledge you give them. This kind of discussion also opens up the door to further communication with your child about other things.
For preschoolers and kindergartners you may want to introduce the genital areas as private parts of their body. To help them remember, you can say that those parts are usually covered by a swimsuit. By now, your child has probably learned some basic rules. This is a good age to begin to teach them the “Touching Rule.” Parents talk to children all the time about general safety like fire safety or why they need to wear a seat belt while riding in a car. Introduce the “Touching Rule” as another safety lesson. Explain that the “Touching Rule” means that no one should touch their private body parts except to keep them clean and healthy. Then ask your child who keeps them clean and healthy and add a doctor and nurse to the list you hear from your child. You can tell your child that there are just a few people who are responsible for keeping them clean and healthy. Teach your child that if someone breaks the “Touching Rule” they need to tell you right way. Also, instruct them never to keep secrets about touching. I would recommend that parents also tell their child that it is never too late to tell someone about a situation that may have bothered them. At this age, it is good practice for families to develop their own list of safety rules and post those rules in an obvious place in the home like on the refrigerator. This helps children remember the family safety rules and can be introduced to those who are visiting. It’s also good idea to let babysitters know that you have family safety rules and show them where they are posted. Plan to include the “Touching Rule” with all your family rules.
Will teaching my child about safe touches introduce them to sexual activity?
Marybeth: Children are curious about their body so they may pose a few questions while you are having these talks. I recommend that parents answer their questions openly and honestly. If a child wants to know more, they will continue to ask. Parents do not need to teach their child about human anatomy but parents can, and should, provide the correct anatomical terms for the private parts of their body. It’s a good practice to tell children that the reason parents share this important information is to help provide children with the skills to help keep them safe from dangerous or abusive situations and not to scare them.
How should parents and caregivers model healthy boundaries? What are some everyday actions that parents can do to keep their children safe?
Marybeth: Parents can model good boundaries in everyday life, like when they are in the carpool, sports field, at the market or at home. Children learn by watching others, so parents should remember that what they say and what they do can be repeated down the road by their child. Other ways parents can model healthy boundaries is by teaching their child to inform them where they will be at all times. One way parents can model this behavior is to always inform their children and others about their plans and activities so a child can begin to do likewise. Parents want the best for their child so modeling positive and healthy boundaries will provide their children with a good structure and foundation about safety practices and about relationships.
What are some policies, procedures and reporting protocols parents should look for in youth serving agencies to ensure the safety of their children? How can parents find out if youth serving agencies and programs have the proper policies, procedures and reporting protocol? How can parents/caregivers encourage child personal safety training for professionals and volunteers working with their children?
Marybeth: Parents should begin by asking if the youth serving organization has a set of policies about safety and how current are those policies? Parents can ask to visibly see a copy of those policies and ask if the agency has had to make any report concerning staff and how was that situation resolved? For childcare settings, parents can contact the overseeing agency such as the Department of Early Education and Care to ask about a particular agency and their history. I also recommend that parents ask for two to three references of parents who have enrolled their child in the agency and then call them all and ask about their feedback regarding the agency. Parents can ask an agency about their internal controls regarding situations and ask when parents are notified of a situation.
Once your child is enrolled in an agency, periodically ask your child what they like and don’t like about the program. Pay attention to your child if they share with you that they don’t want to be around a certain person and ask them why. In addition, parents may wish to speak with agency supervisors regularly to help them know what is happening in their child’s youth serving organization.
What should parents/caregivers do if they suspect sexual abuse or see something that makes them feel uncomfortable? What steps should parents take if their child discloses or if they suspect that another adult has had inappropriate interactions with their child?
Marybeth: If parents suspect abuse, I recommend—first and foremost—remaining calm and having a conversation with their child. Begin by asking your child what happened and then listen very carefully. Ask appropriate questions to better understand the situation and thank your child for coming to tell you and then tell them you want to help them. Parents may wish to contact their state’s child protective service (in Massachusetts that would be the Dept. of Children and Families) and ask the social worker on duty what they should do. Most states have a social worker on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The social worker may suggest you call your local law enforcement or suggest that you seek professional help for your child. It may be a good idea for parents to receive help for themselves too. Any situation where abuse is suspected can be very difficult for a family. Seeking help for the child and parents can help a family begin to heal from the circumstance. While parents can’t promise children things will get better right away, they can promise to always be there to listen to their child’s concerns. Make sure that your child knows you will be there to talk to about anything and to listen to all of their concerns.
Mandated reporters are individuals when in their professional role are required by state law to report if they suspect a child under the age of 18 is being abuse and/or neglected, the list of Massachusetts mandated reporters can be found at the Department of Health and Human Services.. Since there are mandated reporters, a sex offender registry, and also CORI checks in Massachusetts, isn’t that enough to keep children safe?
Marybeth: While we would all like to believe that because we have strict laws surrounding mandated reporting policies and procedures in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there would be no need for worry, but I write this to tell parents that, unfortunately, abuse can and does happen in all communities. All too often, we hear on the news about another case of suspected child abuse and when interviewed, neighbors are usually surprised to learn of the suspect since they seemed so caring and maybe were an outstanding teacher or youth worker. And, it is not all that uncommon to learn that a perpetrator has had multiple victims before they are stopped. I recommend that parents be proactive and teach their children safety rules and give them permission to tell an adult if something has happened to them or if they experienced what they believed was an unsafe or dangerous situation. Just like teaching our children how to cross the street safely and buckle up their seat belt before a car is put in drive, parents can and should teach their children safety skills for those confusing and rarely spoken about situations that involve unsafe touches.
For more information on preventing child sexual abuse, check out the next article in our keeping kids safe series.