There are some questions that can put a parent or caregiver on edge when they are raising a child, such as, “where do babies come from?” or “can I get a tattoo?”. But there are other questions that don’t get asked as often as they should, such as “what can I do if someone touches me or says something that makes me feel uncomfortable?” or “I think my friend is getting hurt, what can I do?”. While the first set of questions is important and deserves your full attention and to be discussed, we must start having more and more conversations around the second kind of questions. Having these important, and yes, sometimes difficult conversations with children and teens help to build a strong bond between you and your child and is one of the strongest protective factors against child abuse.
“But what do I talk about?! What topics are important?”
Short answer: Anything that deals with their safety.
Longer answer: There are certain topics that are useful to introduce when children are at a younger age and others more appropriate for when they’re older. Below are lists of critical messages to talk about with your children.
- Talking about body parts. Normalizing the names of private body parts such as penis, vagina, breasts, and bottom helps to reduce the shame and confusion surrounding those specific parts. This also creates the opportune time to talk about what body parts are considered private and why. Be sure to include discussions about how the mouth can be considered a private body part.
- Discuss body boundaries and demonstrate good examples. Explain that one boundary is that no one should ever touch your private parts nor should they have you touch theirs. Let children know that they get to decide who touches them. This includes setting boundaries with family members and friends. Allow them to determine whether they want to receive or give a hug. They can easily give a high five, fist bump, or a wave instead. And have them start asking for permission to give hugs to other people. Consent goes both ways.
- Know the best way to talk about different types of touches. We have often been taught that there is “good touch” and “bad touch.” But what we have learned is that often sexual abuse does not physically feel bad. So, this can be confusing for children when they are only told to tell an adult about a touch that feels bad. We want to talk about touch with terms such as, “comfortable vs. uncomfortable” or “appropriate vs. inappropriate.” This can help encompass touches like a lingering hug or hand on the shoulder that makes the child feel uncomfortable.
- Discuss secrets. Often offenders will tell children to keep the manipulation and/or abuse a secret for one reason or another. Talking to children about secrets and how they shouldn’t be kept especially if they are about someone making them feel scared, uncomfortable, or are about someone else being made to feel those feelings, gives children permission to feel that they can break the confidence in order to keep themselves or their friends safe.
- Believe them. Children often fear getting into trouble or upsetting the family if they were to tell about a situation or even to ask questions. Be the safe place for them to seek answers and refuge.
- Identify safe and trusted adults. Children need to have healthy relationships with adults both inside and outside the family. Help your child identify safe and trusted adults outside the family so that they have someone to talk to and go to for support if you are not with them.
- Never too old. Teens are never too old to have conversations about the topics listed above. Start or continue to have conversations with teens to make sure they feel that even as they mature and experience different types of situations, you are still present and available to talk.
- Use media to make it relevant. Youth and teens are connected to media at a whole other level than the generations before. Use the media, whether it is social media, a tv show, movie, to ask them their opinions on a subject. Empowering them to share their opinions demonstrates that you care what they think and how they approach situations.
- Consider sharing your own stories. Sharing experiences can be vulnerable, but what an example you could set for your teen and how relevant you could be when having discussions about body safety. Always check to make sure you are in a place where you feel comfortable to share.
- It’s also for their friends. Having conversations with your teen isn’t just for their safety, but for the safety of those they hang out with. Teaching teens about potential red flags or about how to handle it when one of their friends confides in them can be instrumental. Let them know that they never have to carry that burden of disclosure on their own. They can always bring those situations to you and ask for help. Be ready and willing to make a report to help protect a teen’s friend.
- Online safety is vital. With children and youth being home for an extended period, it is crucial to have talks about their online lives and safety. One of the biggest conversations to have that covers many different areas of online interaction is privacy. Discussing with your teen why privacy is so important can help mitigate different situations. Privacy settings and being aware of what you have posted online about yourself is one way to safeguard your teen as they engage online.
The recommendation is that open and honest dialogue start early on with children, but even if you haven’t had these types of conversations and you have a teenager on your hands, you still can discuss important topics like abuse, body safety, and how to stay safe online. You can also use scenario-based worksheets, like these from the Safer, Smarter Teens curriculum, to help guide your conversations. If you have questions about how to navigate a particular question or topic, you can always reach out to KIDS Center by calling 541-383-5958 or by emailing our Prevention Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.