Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When children ask "what's sexual assault?" -- how do you answer?

My response to a discussion on  Parent Hacks:

Protecting children begins with every parent in every home. Two types of safety education work well for parents and children and can easily be added to their family’s safety plans: pre-planned discussions and spontaneous opportunities to teach. The first focuses on a particular issue and reinforces it over a period of time, say over a couple weeks to a month. For example, an appropriate safety lesson for a family with young children (ages five and younger) is to help them memorize key telephone numbers, such as Mom’s cell, the home phone, and grandparents’ or caregivers’ numbers. Without making it obvious that it’s a safety lesson, teaching a child a telephone number can be made into a song or a game and can be easily practiced. There is no magic age to begin safety discussions.

It's always easier to talk about "other people" or strangers but the numbers show that 92% of all sexual exploitation of children is perpetuated by someone whom the victim knows.  That being said, parents need to give kids the vocabulary by having discussions so they know the words to say should they need to disclose.  I have a gizzilion tips on what words/conversations that parents can have.  But the best ones are the ones that naturally flow in regular day life.  For example, while getting a toddler or youngster dressed in for a swim can be a good opportunity to discuss parts of the body that the bathing suit covers and parts that are not covered and why the parts under a bathing suit are "private."

The key to keeping such talks from being scary is for parents to assume that body/personal safety discussions are not scary. Just because we, as adults, have myriad worries, we needn’t convey our fears to our children. However, there are things kids must know before they dive into the world of independent adults. Just start the discussion. It’s never too early to begin to give children information that can help them stay safe. Treat personal safety like any other parenting lesson—find appropriate times, don’t tackle too much at a time, and consider the child’s personal development and understanding. And above all, do not use fear or scare tactics to educate children. This can often backfire. Empowering, not scaring, children is what allows them to handle the situation, while fear tends to make them freeze and may actually disable them if they need to act in an emergency. The only thing that should scare you is not teaching or talking to your children about personal safety.

As trite and overused as the expression seems knowledge truly is power. I am not suggesting that parents need to tell kids about the gruesome details of every case in the news or drill their kids with statistics. But youngsters need to have a solid understanding of how they can defend themselves in age-appropriate ways. For example, children should know whom to approach if lost in a store (another mommy) or what to scream if someone is trying to abduct them (“You are not my dad! Call 911!)

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