With one in five girls and one in eight boys sexually abused before their 18th birthday, and with 90% of children knowing their perpetrator, it’s important that the children in our care know the following crucial and life-changing skills in body safety.
The 10 empowering Body Safety skills below will go a long way in keeping children safe from sexual abuse, and assisting them to grow into assertive and confident teenagers and adults. There is no downside!
Teaching Children About Body Safety
Name body parts correctly.
As soon as your child begins to talk and is aware of their body parts, begin to name them correctly (toes, nose, eyes, etc). Children should also know the correct names for their genitals from a young age. Try not to use ‘pet names’. This way, if a child is touched inappropriately, they can clearly state to you or a trusted adult where they have been touched.
Teach them about the ‘private zones’.
Teach your child that their penis, vagina, bottom, breasts and nipples are called their ‘private parts’ and that these are their body parts that go under their swimsuit. Note: a child’s mouth is also known as a ‘private zone’.
Help them name their safety network.
Teach your child that no-one has the right to touch or ask to see their private parts, and if someone does, they must tell you or a trusted adult straightaway. Reinforce that they must keep on telling until they are believed. (Statistics tell us that a child will need to tell three people before they are believed.) As your child becomes older (3+) help them to identify five trusted adults they could tell. These people are part of their ‘safety network’. Have your child point to each digit on their hand and say the names of the people on their ‘safety network’.
If other people ask you to look or touch …
Teach your child that if someone (i.e. the perpetrator) asks them to touch their own private parts, shows their private parts to the child or shows them images of private parts that this is wrong also, and that they must tell a trusted adult straight away. Reinforce that they must keep on telling until they are believed.
Encourage them to talk about feelings.
At the same time as you are discussing inappropriate touch, talk about feelings. Discuss what it feels like to be happy, sad, angry, excited, etc. Encourage your child in daily activities to talk about their feelings, e.g. ‘I felt really sad when … pushed me over.’ This way your child will be more able to verbalize how they are feeling if some-one does touch them inappropriately.
Talk about ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’.
Talk with your child about feeling ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. Discuss times when your child might feel ‘unsafe’, e.g. being pushed down a steep slide; or ‘safe’, e.g. snuggled up on the couch reading a book with you. Children need to understand the different emotions that come with feeling ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’. For example, when feeling ‘safe’, they may feel happy and have a warm feeling inside; when feeling ‘unsafe’ they may feel scared and have a sick feeling in their tummy.
Discuss early warning signs.
Discuss with your child their ‘Early Warning Signs’ when feeling unsafe, i.e. heart racing, feeling sick in the tummy, sweaty palms, feeling like crying. Let them come up with some ideas of their own. Tell your child that they must tell you if any of their ‘early warning signs’ happen in any situation. Reinforce that you will always believe them and that they can tell you anything.
And about secrets …
As your child grows, try as much as possible to discourage the keeping of secrets. Talk about happy surprises such as not telling Granny about her surprise birthday party and ‘bad’ secrets such as someone touching your private parts. Reinforce that surprise are happy and will always be told. Make sure your child knows that if someone does ask them to keep an inappropriate secret that they must tell you or someone in their ‘safety network’ straightaway.
Discuss with your child when it is appropriate for someone to touch their private parts, e.g. a doctor when they are sick (but making sure they know a person on their Safety Network in the room). Discuss with your child that if someone does touch their private parts (without you there) that they have the right to say: ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’ and outstretch their arm and hand. Children (from a very young age) need to know their body is their body and no-one has the right to touch it inappropriately.
The invisible bubble.
Ensure you child knows their body is their body and they are the boss of it. Reinforce the idea that everyone has an invisible body bubble around us (personal space) and that they do not have to hug or kiss someone if they don’t want to. They can choose to give that person a high five or shake their hand instead.
These simple but empowering skills can make all the difference to a child’s life. So many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse say if only they had known from the first inappropriate touch it was wrong how different their lives would have been. Please educate your child, your community and yourself in Body Safety Education to keep our kids safe.
About the Author: Jayneen Sanders.
Jayneen Sanders (aka Jay Dale) is a teacher, children’s author, mother of three daughters and an active advocate for Body Safety Education and respectful relationships to be taught both in homes and schools.
Jayneen specializes in writing empowering books for children in the topic areas of Body Safety: ‘Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept’, ‘My Body! What I Say Goes!’, consent: ‘No Means No!’ and gender equality and respectful relationships: ‘No Difference Between Us’ and ‘Pearl Fairweather, Pirate Captain’. Jayneen’s website has many resources for parents including the parents’ and educators’ guide ‘Body Safety Education’ and other free resources to help empower and educate children.
For more information on this topic and to purchase Jayneen’s books for those in Australia go to e2epublishing.info
All Jayneen’s books are now available on Amazon.
Thank you so much Jayneen for sharing this article. I have been sexually violated as a child and young adult into my late 20’s and there was never anyone to tell as the people closest to me abused me too in other ways. I learned to cry quietly, in bed at night. I learned to be safe alone – which I always loved my own company anyway. And it always seemed that whenever I connected genuinely and safely with anyone, they never stayed. Death, travel or disconnecting somehow. Now at 36, I have a 2 year old girl and she is the sweetest and I trust NO ONE.. siblings included – whom I no longer communicate with. She is loving and affectionate and still quite cautious and I allow the space for her expression but in the community/society we live in, it is common behaviour to want sympathy for knowing better but insisting on acting ignorantly about the way we handle people generally and children, much worst. I am her safety network and my own. This helps with reinforcing and support for my desire to care for my daughter in a way that I know is healthy and not this “everyone is doing it” type nonsense which I have already gotten curled lips, eye rolls and attitudes from so called siblings when she was only months because I was creating an atmosphere of “you have a choice and you get to choose”. Thanks again.. and I appreciate you!
I’m so sorry you were abused as a child. That legacy is such a heavy weight to carry. I hope your healing journey continues and I’m sure you daughter will be incredibly safe with you as her mum. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Best Jayneen x
My 3 yr old son is terrified of going to my brothers house and has insisted that Iif we go there I must not leave him. He in particular has been very distressed when my nephew (18) shows up or is home. When he is not there he seems fine. My other siblings have told me to stop being so ridiculous and pandering to the silly whims of a three yr old. I on the other hand continue to listen to him but was told by the rest of my family to convince my son that my nephew isn’t a bad guy. I felt caught in a quandary because I feel what if he has done something that has made my son feel this way and then I am convincing him that he’s an ok person when perhaps he’s not. I have to say my sons reaction is very convincing he was extremely traumatised by my nephews presence. Even if he’s at the house but can’t be seen. How do I deal with my family, brothers family and nephew and child. It has caused a rift between my brother and I.
Jane I completely understand your conflict here, but your son has to come first. 3 year olds don’t ‘make up’ their responses to people. For some reason, your son feels distressed when your nephew is present, and this is all that matters. There may be many reasons for this, not necessarily because of a sexual assault, but until you know what has happened, it’s so important that you support him on this. At 3 years old, your son might have difficulty articulating the reason, but it sounds as though he is very clear on what he needs (not to be left alone at your brother’s house) and also how he feels about your nephew. For whatever reason, your son feels unsafe in your nephew’s presence. His needs at this point are more important than anyone else’s because he isn’t able to feel safe on his own. He needs your support for that.
There are many things that adults can do that cause children to feel scared of them. Some of these can be done unintentionally and some of them will cause breakage if the child isn’t supported in response to them. It may be that whatever is upsetting your son about your nephew isn’t because of anything sexually abusive, but because of something he saw, something he heard, or something else he experienced in relation to your nephew. It sounds as though it’s very unclear what has made him feel this way, but what is clear as that he is frightened and distressed when your nephew is around. If your son feels unsafe, it’s important you do whatever it takes to help him feel safe and acknowledged. He needs to know that you are with him on this.
Let your son know that do what he needs you to do to feel safe. If you can, try to ask your son to draw or talk about what it was that has made him feel this way. Of course it’s very important not to ask any questions that might lead him in a particular direction. Until you have a clearer idea about what has happened to create these feelings in your son, it’s important to do what you need to do to help your son feel safe. I understand this is difficult for the rest of your family, but your son’s response and distress are very real, and it’s important that he is put first.
Perhaps your nephew isn’t a bad guy, and perhaps this has been a misunderstanding. Let your family know you are open to that, but until this can be confirmed, your son’s needs have to come first. It’s important that you do what you need to do to help your son feel safe and protected. If that means not leaving your son alone with your nephew, or only seeing your family when your nephew isn’t there, then that’s what needs to happen, at least until it can be made absolutely clear that your son hasn’t been harmed by your nephew.