The topic of child abuse is uncomfortable. As parents, we want to believe that if we love our children well enough and don't leave them with strangers abuse won't happen. The numbers tell a different story. Every 47 seconds a child is a abused or neglected in the US, and the majority of the time the perpetrator is a trusted friend (60%) or family member (30%).
Education is the most powerful tool in preventing abuse. Educated parents educate their kids. It is common for parents to glance over or avoid conversations altogether about topics that are uncomfortable. But it is your job to educate yourself, so you can prepare your child with the tools to recognize, respond, and speak out about child abuse. The conversations and preparation do not need to be intense or lengthy; there are simple practical ways to educate yourself and your child in order to prevent child abuse.
1) Teach the proper names for body parts
Teach your child the anatomical names for their body. This empowers children and clarifies communication with adults. When body parts are not taboo or secret, children are more confident in developing boundaries around their body. Anatomical names also mean clear communication with adults. A caregiver can easily misunderstand "underwear" or "my flower" in a child's attempt to speak out about abuse.
2) Talk about body safety
It is your body and you have the right to say no. Your child needs to learn they have the right to decide what touch they want or don't want. Even if it may seem like 'safe' touch to you, the right to choose is a practicing ground for determining unsafe touch. Change "Give Grandma a kiss." to "Do you want to give Grandma a kiss?" and give your child the power to learn what is safe to them and keep their body safe.
3) Talk about safety principles
Just like a conversation about safety crossing the street or riding a bike, have conversations with your child about keeping themselves safe from abuse. The two key components are teaching about unsafe people and unsafe touch. Also discuss the practical components such as who should be watching them, what to do, self defense, and how to tell an adult.
These conversations can fit into everyday life, for example, going to the doctor. Talk about why the doctor is a safe or unsafe person, what is safe and unsafe touch, and how that could be different at the doctor, but they still have the power to say no.
4) Listen to your kids
Educate yourself about your child's life. Only 38% survivors of child abuse ever tell anyone. While there are several reasons this is the case, the biggest deterrent to secrecy is open, attentive conversation. It is easy to miss the subtleties of communication while creating a grocery list in your head and stirring dinner on the stove. But if you are really listening, your child knows it and is motivated to share their life. So put the spoon down, look your child in the eyes, repeat back what you hear them saying, and really listen.
5) Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered 'yes' or 'no' and require elaboration. In conjunction with listening, open-ended questions give you a glimpse into your child's world. Let your child educate you on what experiences they have or risky situations they encounter.
Erin is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate with Counseling at the Green House. She is specializes in seeing couples, children, cross-cultural couples, and intercultural transitions.