Do thoughts of protecting your children against online grooming keep you up at night? Do you feel passionately about preventing child abuse but aren’t sure what to do to help? Do you read stories about sex trafficking on Facebook and feel helpless? Do you worry that your teens are viewing pornography and aren’t sure how to put filters on your computer? Are you trying to figure out when the right time is to talk about sexting and consent with your teens?
Like most parents, I’ve spent a fair amount of time doing all of the above. Sexual violence, healthy sexuality, pornography, and many other interconnected topics have continually been on my mind since having children a decade ago. Over the years of worrying and studying sexual exploitation, I’ve concluded that one of the best things we can do is strengthen our own families, and the data backs that up. We know from years of research that strong families equals strong communities which in turn are better able to help the marginalized and vulnerable.
Sexual exploitation is a large-scale problem. There are warriors out there trying to take down the pornography industry, fight against human trafficking, teach child abuse prevention in our schools, fight against the objectification, sexualization, and exploitation of women, and so much more. But despite the scale of the problems surrounding sexual exploitation, there are some simple things we can do as parents right in our own homes and neighborhoods that make a huge difference.
Teaching our children some basic concepts can build a strong foundation as they grow. We can begin by teaching our children at a young age the anatomically correct names for body parts. Giving cute or silly names to private parts can send the message that you’re uncomfortable around sexuality, whether its pornography, healthy sexuality, body image, etc. Kids need a safe person to talk to about confusing or upsetting sexual messages. Furthermore, research suggests that sexual offenders are less likely to target knowledgeable children. Finally, teaching children correct names for body parts also gives children the proper words to clearly report any abuse attempts.
It’s important to teach children that their body belongs to them, and they are allowed to refuse unwanted touches. Sure, we probably don’t want to hurt grandpa or grandma’s feelings, but if our child doesn’t want to hug someone or be hugged it’s important that we respect their choice and bodily autonomy. It is crucial for us as parents to empower children (in ways that are age-appropriate) with the knowledge that their body belongs to them, and that no one is allowed to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, sad, scared, or confused. In terms of what’s age-appropriate, when kids get to age 4-8, we can discuss that no one should ever touch their private body parts except to keep them healthy or clean. Teach children to pay attention to their feelings, like butterflies in their stomach, letting them know that they might not be in a safe situation. When kids get to be between the ages of 9-10, we can go into more detail, educating them that no one should ever ask for photos of their private parts or show them photos of private parts in person or online.
One of the best things we can do is strengthen our own families, and the data backs that up. Strong families equals strong communities.
Even from a very young age, children should understand that they are allowed to say “no” to adults in certain situations. This concept can be complex, and it can take lots of little conversations to help children understand the intricacy of what is appropriate and what isn’t. I want my children to be respectful and kind to others, but I also want them to have strong boundaries. Because of how tricky this can be, it helps to give examples of when it’s appropriate to say “no” to an adult compared to times where it is not appropriate. For example, it’s probably not appropriate to yell “no” to a parent who is asking their child to do a chore that benefits the household or to a doctor that needs to use a stethoscope to check their heartbeat. But if an adult was touching their body in a way they didn’t like, they are allowed to say no.
Another simple, yet important concept to teach our young children is to not keep secrets, especially bad secrets, or secrets about touching. Try to help your child understand the difference between good and bad secrets. Good secrets are more like surprises and will eventually be told. For example, a Christmas present might be kept a secret until December 25th. Surprises and good secrets make us feel happy or excited. Bad secrets make us feel scared, sad, uncomfortable, upset, nervous, or confused.
The great thing about these basic concepts is they can be taught at age 2 till they are 16. These concepts aren’t a one-time conversation. These are continual conversations that we should be having at every stage as they grow. At each phase of life, we can go into more detail and keep the conversation age appropriate.
We as parents and caregivers want to protect our child from any sort of sexual exploitation. Childhood abuse and trauma impact a person’s lifespan. The truth is that try as we might, we can’t protect our children from everything. However, there is always a rainbow after a storm and there is hope for children who have experienced abuse or trauma. Recent research has been done about mitigating ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence, unstable home environment, etc.) with Counter-ACES, or Positive Childhood Experiences. Positive Childhood Experiences are things such as having good friends and neighbors, bonding with adults who care, having a home routine, and having opportunities to have fun, among others. Research has found that perhaps even more important than the lack of ACEs is the presence of Positive Childhood Experiences. Getting support from safe adults, connecting with a teacher, or having a stable home environment might be more impactful and important for their future than the adverse childhood experiences they may experience. We can greatly impact a child who has experienced abuse and trauma in their life with positive connection.
So, one last tip for parents: love and connect. Not only with your own children, but all the children in your sphere because it takes a village.
Submitted for UPLIFT FAMILIES by Prevention Specialist Natalie Heiner
Study on Counter ACES