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Teaching children about body safety often feels daunting and uncomfortable for parents. This topic can feel “too mature,” and knowing how to start these conversations can be difficult.
That’s where we come in.
As a therapist, I’ve worked with many adults who didn’t have parents who talked about their body parts; they never gave them language to say no to unwanted touch, and asking them questions was uncomfortable.
They grew up feeling like they couldn’t turn to their parents with their questions or concerns about their bodies. So, they would struggle in silence, turn to their peers, or search for answers on the internet, where they were often met with misinformation.
If you want your child to come to you with their questions about body safety and consent, they need to learn this information from you first.
This blog covers four practical tools I’ve taught my own daughters, along with easy scripts, tips, and conversation starters to use with your child.
Tool #1: Teach Your Child About Secrets and Surprises
Secrets are an abuser’s best friend. An abuser will use secrets to control their victim and ensure nobody finds out what is happening.
The perpetrator might say things like:
- “If you share this, you’ll get in trouble.”
- “This is your fault. You can’t tell anyone.”
- “Let’s keep this our little secret….”
This is the case for sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and neglect. It’s why abuse can happen right under our noses.
That’s why I teach my children these two things:
The Difference Between Secrets and Surprises
When I talk about this topic, there is often much discussion about teaching our children the difference between secrets and surprises. How do we teach them that it’s okay to not tell someone about a surprise, but we need to tell someone about a secret?
Because these two concepts are so similar, it can be challenging for children to understand the difference. Here are a few points that can help children understand the difference between the two:
- Secrets make us nervous, worried, sad or scared to tell others, while surprises make us feel good, happy and excited.
- Secrets are meant to exclude others, while surprises are something that we will share with others.
- Secrets don’t have an end date – we are told never to tell anybody, while surprises will come out eventually – we will surprise Dad on his birthday.
- “When we get you a special present for your birthday, and we don’t tell you what it is, that is a surprise! It is something you are excited about and that we can share with you.”
Teaching children the difference between secrets and surprises and what to do if anyone ever tells them to keep a secret is one more way that we can begin to protect our children from abuse.
The “No Secrets Rule”
We can use this rule to help our children feel comfortable coming to us with anything – even if someone tells them not to or tells them something bad will happen if they tell us. We want them to understand that no one should ever ask them to keep secrets, even people they know and trust.
We can also share this rule with family and friends who spend time with our children. For example, if a grandparent takes your children out for ice cream, you don’t want them to say, “Don’t tell mommy about this. It will be our little secret.” Even an innocent secret like this tells our children it’s okay if someone they trust asks them to keep a secret. The idea of the “no secrets rule” is that we don’t have any secrets in our family, no matter what anyone tells us.
Here are a few ways you can explain a “No Secrets Rule” to your children:
- “If someone tells you something bad will happen if you tell a secret, you still tell me the secret. Don’t believe them.”
- “If someone tells you that you will get in trouble for telling a secret, you tell me right away. You will NEVER get in trouble for it.”
- “If someone tells you I (or someone else) will be hurt because you told the secret, DON’T believe them, and tell me right away.”
Help Your Child Understand Body Safety and Consent!
Tool #2: Teach Your Child Anatomically Correct Names
I remember teaching my husband about using anatomically correct names with our girls, and when I told him to use the word “vulva,” he looked at me like he couldn’t believe what I had just said.
He sat there for a moment and went through a list of questions…
- “Why would she need to know that?”
- ”Isn’t that word a little too mature for her?”
- ”Is she going to start saying that word in public?”
All of his questions were valid. Many adults don’t even know the anatomically correct names for their body parts and don’t feel comfortable using those names. But it’s a very important element of body safety.
3 Reasons Why You Should Teach Anatomically Correct Names for Body Parts
1. A Protective Factor Against Abuse
Studies show that perpetrators are less likely to abuse a child who has the language to describe what is happening to them.
2. Enables Children to Describe Abuse or Concerns
Using the anatomically correct name helps our children describe what is happening with their bodies. It makes it easier to explain everything from a rash to more serious concerns, such as describing abuse.
3. Ensures Perpetrators Receive Proper Sentencing
If a child is abused, having the correct language can help them describe what happened and ensure the perpetrator gets the proper sentencing.
It’s not a big deal to our kids if we start using this language earlier. The shame we feel is our own internalized view of these words being “dirty.” To children, it will be just as natural as labelling their elbow or leg.
As a child therapist who has taught this information to kids and youth for over a decade, it is incredibly important to me to help kids understand body safety and consent. These small things we do can make a big difference in their life.
Tool #3: Teach Your Child About Safe People
How to Tell if Someone Is Safe
To teach your child the difference between safe and unsafe people, they should know what safe grown-ups will never say or do to them. You can share the following examples with your child.
A safe grown-up would never say:
- “This is our little secret.”
- “You’ll get in trouble if you tell anyone.”
- “You have to let me touch you.”
- “You have to look at these pictures.”
- “Don’t tell anyone what we did today.”
A safe grown-up will never:
- Call you mean names.
- Try to embarrass you on purpose.
- Hurt you with their words or body.
- Ignore you when you say, “Stop!”
- Ask you to keep a secret.
You also want to make sure your child feels safe going to you if any of those things ever happen to them. Let your child know that they should always tell you and that they will never get in trouble for sharing with you.
If you teach them about things that safe grown-ups will never say or do and let them know that they should always come to you if something happens, you are equipping them with the knowledge and confidence to understand an unsafe situation if it happens.
Create a Safety Team
Your child’s safety team will include grown-ups that you, as your child’s caregiver, have chosen; these are grownups you know and trust intimately. When your child has a group of people they know they can trust, they know they’ll always have somebody to talk to. This is especially helpful if they’re too nervous to tell a parent.
Your child’s safety team might include parents, a grandparent, an aunt, and a school staff member.
Use our Body Safety Toolkit, filled with fun games, worksheets, and colouring, to help your child learn anatomically correct names, how to say no to unwanted touch, the difference between secrets and surprises, and so much more that will help keep them safe! All in an age-appropriate, engaging way! Check out The Body Safety Toolkit here →
Tool #4: Teach Your Child How to Respond To Unwanted Touch
We can teach kids how to keep their bodies safe by telling them what to say when they don’t want to be touched and showing them what to do when they receive unwanted touch.
What They Can Say
We can’t expect kids to assert boundaries and protect themselves if they don’t have the language and permission to keep their bodies safe. Telling kids what to say when they don’t want to be touched can help them build awareness and confidence when they’re being approached by friends, relatives, or strangers who want to touch them.
Here are examples of what you can tell your child to say when they don’t want to be touched:
- “I don’t want to be touched.”
For younger children, simply teaching them to say “no” or shake their head to signal that they don’t want to be touched. It can help to use their favorite toys to play out the situation.
Example 1: “I asked your doll if she wanted a hug, and she shook her head to tell me “no!”
Example 2: “The elephant stuffy is asking the cheetah stuffy, but the cheetah stuffy doesn’t want a hug. What can the cheetah say to the elephant?”
What They Can Do
There may be situations where your child says no or isn’t asked for consent and is receiving unwanted touch. To help prepare and protect kids for these situations, it’s important to show them what they can do in response.
Here are examples of what you can tell your child to do when they don’t want to be touched:
- Hold up your hands
- Step aside or turn away
- Walk or run away
At the moment, children can say or do any of these options to avoid unwanted touching, but it’s also important that they know to tell a safe person (another reason why teaching them about safe people and establishing a safety team is key!)
It can help young kids to role-play different scenarios with their toys to model these responses or narrate situations at home as opportunities to practice these skills.
Here’s what it can sound like to use toys to play out body safety boundaries:
“The dump truck is bumping into the tractor, but the tractor doesn’t want to be touched, so he’s going to move away from the dump truck.”
Or, narrating a situation at home:
“I see your brother is hugging you, even though you said no. You can step aside or walk away!”
Why These Tools Are So Important
These tools are so important because our kids aren’t going to be in our care 100% of the time. Sometimes, they’ll be in the care of others, approached by new people, and possibly find themselves in tricky situations.
The sad truth is that the most common perpetrators of child abuse are people your child knows. It’s crucial for you to equip your child with the confidence to come to you or someone on their safety team in any situation where they feel uncomfortable, nervous, or scared.
This is not to instill fear in parents, but to educate so we can protect our children!
When you teach your child body safety tools, you want to make sure they understand the tools apply to situations with anyone – adults they know, adults they don’t know, and their peers.
Remember, by having these difficult conversations with your child, you are protecting them and teaching them how to keep their body safe.
If you’re feeling nervous or uncomfortable about having these conversations or want to teach your child in an engaging way, use our Body Safety Toolkit! The printable toolkit will help you start these conversations and teach your child how to keep their bodies safe and love themselves through colouring, storytelling, and more engaging activities.
- Teach your child about the difference between secrets and surprises: Make sure your child understands that secrets often make one feel uncomfortable or nervous, while surprises are positive and temporary. Establishing a “No Secrets Rule” within your family is crucial.
- Use anatomically correct names for body parts: These names can help children more accurately report inappropriate touch and are beneficial for their overall understanding of their own bodies.
- Discuss safe and unsafe people: Educating children on behaviors that safe people will never exhibit is important. Defining a safe individual also creates an understanding about what constitutes inappropriate behavior.
- Create a ‘Safety Team’: The safety team should include trusted adults who can be approached by the child in case they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This ensures that children have a support system even if they are unable to approach their parents.
- Equip your child with responses to unwanted touch: Teaching children to firmly express their discomfort and assert their personal boundaries can safeguard them against potential abuse.
- Role-play various situations: This helps children to better understand and implement what they have learned about body safety.