April is Child Abuse Prevention month. To prepare for that, I would like to welcome this post from a guest blogger and author.
Guest Post by: Jill Starishevsky
Keeping your children safe from child predators sounds like a scary proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. We used to teach children about “stranger danger”, but studies have shown that most sexual abuse occurs at the hands of someone known to the child. He might seem like the friendliest teacher, neighbor, uncle or coach. Unfortunately, this person, who is always showing an interest in your child and working to develop trust, can sometimes be a child predator. The way to prevent child sexual abuse is to educate children about their bodies and encourage them to inform a trusted adult if someone touches them inappropriately.
Just as we teach children about the dangers associated with crossing the street or going near a hot oven, we must talk to them about how to keep their bodies safe. As a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City, I am all too aware of the importance of having this discussion with children at a young age. To that end, I have written a children’s book called My Body Belongs to Me to help facilitate this dialogue.
Here are some practical suggestions for parents and educators:
1. No secrets. Period.
Encourage your children to tell you about things that happen to them that make them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to something suspicious before it becomes a problem.
If someone, even a grandparent, were to say something to your child such as “I’ll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret”, firmly, but politely say “We don’t do secrets in our family.” Then turn to your child and say “Right? We don’t do secrets. We can tell each other everything.” Secrecy is the most powerful weapon in a child abuser’s arsenal.
2. Don’t dress children in clothing or accessories with their name on it.
Customized clothing breeds familiarity, which can create a false sense of trust. If a stranger comes up to your child and says “Jenny, your Mom told me to bring you home so you can have dinner”, your child may be more inclined to go along because this person knows their name. Keep in mind, 93% of all child sexual abuse happens at the hands of someone in the child’s inner circle. Lessons in “stranger danger” should therefore not be your primary focus.
3. Teach your child the correct terms for their body parts.
This will make them more at ease if they need to tell you about a touch that made them feel uncomfortable. Teaching children only the nicknames for their private parts can delay a disclosure. An 11-year-old who only knows the term hoo hoo for her vagina may be embarrassed to tell someone if she is touched there. If a 5-year-old tells her busy kindergarten teacher that the janitor licked her cookie, the teacher might give the child another cookie, not realizing she just missed a disclosure.
4. Practice “what if” scenarios.
Say to your child, “What would you do if someone offered you a treat or a gift when I wasn’t there?” Help your child arrive at the right answer, which is to say no, and ask you first. Many parents also encourage children to walk or run away in this situation if the person is a stranger. Parents should note that giving a child a gift and asking them to keep it a secret is a very common step in the process of grooming a child for sexual abuse.
5. Teach children to respect the privacy of others.
Children should learn to knock on doors that are shut before opening them and close the door to the bathroom when they are using it. If they learn to respect the privacy of others, they may be more likely to recognize that an invasion of their privacy could be a red flag meaning danger.
6. Prepare a child with what to do if they get lost:
Teach your child to find a safe person if they become lost: a police officer or a mother with children. Start teaching children at an early age their name, address and phone number by turning them into rhyming songs. When young children are separated from their parents, even for a short time, they are potential targets for child predators. Children should also be taught to stay in the general area where they last saw you so you can find them when you retrace your steps.
Install a safety browser on your computer so that you can make the decisions about which websites are appropriate for your children to view. Teach your child never to give out their last name, address, or phone number to a person on the Internet and never to meet Internet friends in person without a parent’s supervision and consent. Parents should help children choose a screen name that does not disclose information about their location. Teach children not to post pictures with identifying information such as a school uniform. Ideally, children should not post pictures on the Internet at all. Always keep your computer in a public area of your house – not in a child’s bedroom. If multiple computers for multiple children are necessary, consider laptops with wireless Internet.
[Admin note: If you do not have a safety browser install on your child’s internet, take a few moments to check their search history. Are you comfortable with the things they are searching for? Are the sites they are going to appropriate? Don’t be naive! If the computer screen is not where you can see it at ALL times, your curious child will either search for things or stumble upon things you would rather them not see.]
8. Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection.
Children should not be forced to hug or kiss if they are uncomfortable. Even if they are your favorite aunt, uncle or cousin, your child should not be forced to be demonstrative in their affection. This will empower your child to say no to inappropriate touching.
9. Teach your child that adults do not need to ask children for help.
Predators use tricks to lure children, for example, asking them to help find a lost pet, give directions, or help carry something. When you are sitting down talking to your child, use these examples as part of your “what if” scenarios to reinforce the lessons about safety.
10. Teach children that No means No.
Teach children that it is OK to say No to an adult. Without permission from you, many children may be reluctant to do so even if the adult is doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Teach children that all of these lessons apply to children as well. If another child is touching your child in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable, teach your child to say No, get away and tell someone. When someone tickles a child, if the child says No, all tickling should cease. Children need to know that their words have power and No means No.
Young children respond well to these tips and they should be revisited often. We can teach our children about water safety and not make them fearful of the water. We need to do the same when it comes to keeping their body safe. Encourage your child to come you if they have questions about anything. Avoid looking shocked or embarrassed by the question. Children who sense their parents’ discomfort will be less inclined to approach the parent next time he or she has a question. If a child does disclose any type of abuse, it is important to take the disclosure seriously and report it to the appropriate authorities promptly.
By doing these things, together we can help break the cycle of child sexual abuse.
Jill Starishevsky is a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City and the mother of three. Jill is also the author of My Body Belongs to Me, a children’s book intended to prevent child sexual abuse by teaching children that their bodies are their own. http://www.MyBodyBelongstoMe.com
Other similar books you may wish to consider are:
Some other posts on The Education Café that you might be interested in are:
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