We are thoughtful parents, friends and relatives, but sometimes we say things that inadvertently contribute to a child’s vulnerability. Here are some everyday examples – and suggestions for how to strengthen communication with children with regard to secrets, consent, manners, sex ed and more.
Secrets – “Let’s not tell Mom about the ice cream.”
Sometimes adults ask children to keep “innocent-like” secrets, but are these so-called innocent secrets actually hurting kids?
What happens, for instance, when you say to a child, “Let’s not tell Mom that I let you stay up past your bedtime?” Well, it turns out that asking children to keep secrets like this is both burdensome and confusing. And without even realizing it, innocent secrets at home can make a child more vulnerable. For instance, a child may then think it’s okay to comply with another person’s request to keep “touching” a secret if the person says, “Let’s not tell anyone because this is our special secret.”
Instead, implement a “No secrets” rule in your home. And if you do let your child stay up past their bedtime, and this causes conflict between you and your partner, rather than asking your child to keep it a secret, perhaps say, “I’m letting you stay up past bedtime, and Mom and I will work this out. It’s not your problem.”
Consent – “Give Grandma a hug!”
We all know the story: Grandma comes to visit, the child doesn’t want to kiss her and the parent innocently says, “Give Grandma a kiss; you don’t want to hurt her feelings.” However innocent, this teaches children to manage the feelings of others. A child who does not have permission to resist physical affection in a safe situation may have difficulty resisting touch in an unsafe situation.
Instead, discuss other ways kids can greet relatives: High-fives, air kisses, waving, saying hello. Teach children that people need permission to hug and kiss them and they are allowed to decline if they choose. Likewise, teach children that they need permission from others to hug or kiss them. It’s a two-way street.
Manners: “Be a good girl….”
Stand in any school drop-off line and you’re bound to hear a parent say, “Listen to the teacher and be a good girl.” Or perhaps you’re walking out the door for a dinner date and you innocently say over your shoulder, “Be good with the babysitter. I don’t want to hear about any misbehaving.”
These expressions are not meant to harm, but they can unknowingly increase children’s vulnerability to sexual assault. Imagine this real scenario: What if you tell your child to be good for the teacher and the teacher then says to your child, “Let’s go in the computer room and play a touching game? Your mom said you need to listen to me.”
This is not meant to be alarmist, but comes from decades of experience as a child sexual assault prevention specialist working in schools with children and with parents.
Instead, how about when leaving children in the care of others you say, “Have fun and be safe.” And if you are so inclined to tell children to listen to authority, make sure you give exceptions about the times they no longer have to listen – i.e., if someone breaks any safety rule, requests sexual activity or makes them feel worried or scared in any way. Giving kids exceptions to “obeying” authority is critical to child safety.
Sex Education: “Where does a baby come from?”
As children make sense of their bodies and the world, they ask a million questions, some of which are bound to catch you off guard: “Daddy, is that your tail?” “Why is there blood in the toilet, Mommy?” “How did the baby get into your tummy?”
And it’s not uncommon for parents to want to buy their time, gather their thoughts, or kick the can down the road, which is why parents sometimes say, “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “Go ask your mother.”
But here’s the thing: The more accurate information children have about sexual development, the less vulnerable they are to sexual assault. We know this to be true because some adult sex offenders will target children with little or no information, pouncing on that vulnerability. As you muster your courage to answer questions, ask yourself, “Who do I want to educate my child about sexual development?”
Remember, education starts from day one by using correct terminology for genitals. Many parents delay talking with their children about sexual development because their children haven’t asked questions. Some kids are reluctant to ask and some simply don’t ask a lot of questions and may never ask. So, start early and don’t wait for your child to initiate the conversation or ask you questions. Talk frequently, be honest, and respond positively when children do ask questions. Kids who are properly educated about sexual development are less vulnerable to sexual assault.
Believing children: “Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand?”
It takes so much courage for a child to speak up about a situation in which they felt uncomfortable. Parents, of course, don’t want to imagine their child being hurt and may inadvertently respond in a way that’s dismissive, e.g., “He would never say something like that to you.” Or, “Isn’t is possible that you misunderstood?”
When an adult responds in a way that questions the validity of the child’s experience, 1) The child may think you don’t believe their worry or concern and may choose not to tell you if they are hurt; 2) It sends a loud message to a potential offender that the child is an easy target.
Instead, listening and believing are your two best prevention strategies. In fact, I had an offender tell me once that he purposely chose his victim because he knew that her parents would not believe her. When children truly feel listened to about the small stuff (e.g., “there’s a monster under my bed”), they are more inclined to talk with you about bigger worries. Likewise, when children know they will be believed, they feel safer talking about a range of concerns.
To invite further dialog and show that you do believe, you might say, “Let’s go look at the monster together.” “Tell me more.” “I believe you and want to know.” Be the sounding board to your children so they know they always have a place to be heard – and believed.
Feather Berkower, MSW, is Founder of Parenting Safe Children and a Child Sexual Assault Prevention Educator & Author