The “Me Too” movement got my mental wheels churning, as it has for so many. I began wondering, “What can we, as parents, do to prevent our own children’s ‘Me too’?” I recalled when a former uncle cornered me when I was a small, shy child. I remember feeling trapped, in danger, and freezing in my fright. My Mom immediately swooped in to prevent an abusive event. She got between him and I and told him in no uncertain terms that he was being inappropriate and to stop it now. I was too young to know what to do. I am so grateful to my Mom for intervening. And I think her modeling the courage to shut down an attempt at abuse helped stove up my courage for future events.
Particularly if we have been through harassment and felt that pain and vulnerability, we may fear for our kids. But unless we turn that fear into constructive action, it will not assist us in empowering them with the knowledge and skills to keep them safe. Because harassment or abuse can often go unreported, it’s impossible to truly understand the scope of the problem. But there are some facts we can know and understand.
- 82% of all juvenile victims (reported to authorities) are female.1
- An estimated 60% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the child but are not family members, e.g., family friends, babysitters, child care providers,
- About 30% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are family members.1
- Only about 10% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are strangers to the child.1
- Not all perpetrators are adults—an estimated 23% of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the age of 18.3
- There has been a decline in child physical and sexual abuse since the 1990s, as reported to National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) but it remains a problem.4
We certainly can play the role of strong advocates as my Mom did for me to prevent abuse. Thoroughly checking references on babysitters and doing our own gut checks on care providers are a few ways we can take charge of the situation. But it’s just as important to empower our children. There are numerous ways we can prepare our kids so that when we are not there to intervene, they know how to act and react to stay safe. Let’s look at how we can prepare our children.
Ways to Teach Our Children to Stay Safe
Teach and Reinforce the Words “Stop” and “No” as Sacred.
Though this may seem obvious, adults often will keep tickling or pushing a child on a swing even after an earnest “No” or “Stop” has been uttered. It’s a critical habit change we need to make if we are to model and reinforce that “No” should be respected. Voices need not get louder. Crying need not ensue. Use a family dinner time to discuss the issue. Create a new policy. And help remind one another that between siblings, between parent and child, among friends in the neighborhood, when the words “No” or “Stop” are used, they are to be respected.
With young children, draw a stop sign together. Hold out your hand when you say “Stop!” Practice stopping with the traffic light game and when the red light is called, be certain that all words, sounds and actions freeze.
Do Gut Checks.
Since children are learning about their feelings and developing a language to express them, they may more readily be able to identify physical signs of discomfort first. Their tummy may feel nauseous. Practice doing gut checks. If you see an image in the media that is disturbing, ask how their tummy feels. Make the connection between that icky feeling not only as a sign of discomfort but as a sign of danger and to get out of the situation. If children are taught to trust that feeling, they will become more likely to leave a high-risk circumstance.
Trust your Feelings.
Yes, if you have Star Wars fans in your household as I do in mine, invoke Obi-Wan’s wise saying! Practicing using feeling words in your family will help your child become comfortable with articulating his/her emotions. This is an important asset for multiple reasons but in this case, your child needs to not only identify that she/he is uncomfortable and scared but also, that she can trust those feelings enough to act on them and possibly disappoint or anger the adult or older individual who is attempting to exert power over her.
Find the Closest Caring Ally.
In an abusive circumstance or any situation in which your child is in danger, they require a caring ally. If five-year-old Addison gets lost at the grocery store, she needs to know that she can find a store clerk or a caring Mom to help guide her to safety and find her family. That same principle is true for abusive situations. Children need to learn to “look for the helpers,” as Mr. Rogers wisely advised. Abuse usually takes place when two are alone together. Though a perpetrator can and often does rationalize his behavior, there is also a clear sense that it’s not acceptable to others. So if your child knows to find a trusted, caring adult to help, they can remove themselves from the dangerous situation. This teaching is in opposition to the old “stranger danger” counsel kids used to be taught. Instead, work on finding a helper. Can you find a helper when you are at the store together? Ask your child, “Who would you go to?” Talk about it with your child when you encounter another lost child, witness a fire, or see any kind of dangerous situation. If you feel scared, look for a helper! If the person you are with is scaring you, look for a helper!
Promote Assertive Communication Skills.
Yes, being assertive is a learned skill. Kids need to be able to not only articulate their hurt, anger or fear but also, tie that feeling to what they know and can articulate is acceptable and unacceptable to them. As with any skill, kids require practice. So as your young child develops the ability to say what she’s feeling, ask, “Okay, so you’re feeling hurt. What do you need to tell others to protect yourself or what action do you need to take to help yourself?”
Then, when our kids do assert themselves, we need to listen and take them seriously. It can be tempting to dismiss a child’s upset because there’s not time for it or we think they are exaggerating. But rest assured, children are upset for a reason. They need to learn to trust their own feelings and that has to come first from our trust in their feelings. So be certain, if you are tempted to shut them down and move on, that you stop yourself and really listen.
Also, offer practice when you are out in public. Instead of talking for your child, allow her to order off the menu for herself or ask the cashier a question. If there’s a problem with her teacher, coach her with some ideas so that she can approach her teacher herself. These small opportunities will offer her valuable practice in talking with adults in a way in which she can assert her boundaries and needs.
Keep an Open Dialogue about Physical, Sexual Development and Talk about Physical Boundaries.
Though we tend to shy away from the conversation, it’s critical to keep an ongoing dialogue and educational agenda related to your child’s physical and sexual development and health. It’s as important as learning to brush teeth and bath regularly. In preschool years beginning around age three, you can start to talk about body parts using their proper scientific names. You can also begin discussing which parts are okay for others to touch. Bathing suit areas are off limits to anyone but your doctor. Teach that others touching you is only okay in areas other than bathing suit areas if you want it. If you feel uncomfortable, say “no.” I teach my son, “You are the boss of your own body!” There are a number of children’s books that can assist you with these conversations. See my favorites list below.
Keeping a discussion open about your child’s developing body and sexuality is important so that your child a.) knows the facts and understands what changes are taking place emotionally and physically, b.) can relate to other children appropriately understanding the boundaries they need to respect, and c.) creates a trusting connection for parent and child so that if there are ever questions or problems, he will be much more likely to come and talk to you.
Talk about What Love, Partnership and Being in a Healthy Relationship Means. Do you discuss what it takes to work at and grow a committed relationship? Do you talk about what love means to you? Ironically, in the logistics of our days, we miss out on discussing some of the most important parts of our lives with our kids. They need to learn what love means to you. They need to learn about what a healthy relationship is. To jumpstart your conversation, talk about and take the Family Fighting Fair Pledge to set healthy boundaries for your arguments. Also, check out how parents can promote Healthy Relationships.
Question your Family Power Dynamics! How is power shared in your family? Are there times when one individual dominates over another? Is communication aggressive, passive-aggressive or assertive? Your child is learning about the appropriate and inappropriate uses of power through your family dynamic. If you are not certain, ask yourself if there are times you feel powerless? And do you think there are times your child feels powerless? How can you learn about new strategies to share power in your family. Hint: there are thousands of ideas for empowering your children with skills in this blog. Here are a couple of articles to get started: Responsible Decision-making and 50 Constructive Alternatives to Detention and Punishment.
Be Open to Questioning Authority and Explain Reasons Behind Your Boundaries.
Though as a parent, you need to set clear boundaries for your children, it’s also important to recognize that children will question the rules. And as they do, they begin to better formulate their sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. You want them to be able to say “No” to an abusive adult so when they say “No” to you, though it can be frustrating, it’s important for children to learn the reasoning behind your “No.” “We set this rule because there is a major safety risk for you. Here’s why…”
There are a number of steps we can take to act as strong advocates for our children. We can:
- do our own gut checks and trust it when our icky feeling arises to tell us a person feels unsafe;
- do our due diligence calling on references and getting to know all caregivers to ensure they can be trusted;
- don’t hesitate to intervene or say “no” to social events or obligations when we feel our child is unsafe;
- never leave a child alone with other children or adults that feel unsafe; and
- channel any anger or fear we have from past experiences into constructive action while having self-compassion for our hurts from the past.
As we work on the multiple ways of preventing our children’s “Me Too,” we also need to remember that our own fear while preparing them can work against our hopes and goals of prevention. Fear, after all, can be paralyzing. And we want to build skills and empower our children to speak up and take action toward safety. So become self-aware. Take some deep breaths and prepare yourself for calm if you need to prior to practices or conversations. Use this as an opportunity to face and overcome your fears by giving your child the skills you may not have had at your disposal. Or if it’s too challenging for you and you are too fearful to advance your child’s learning in a particular area, enlist a trusted partner to regularly engage in these conversations. Focus on the areas of preparation where you’ll feel confident you can help prepare your child to keep safe!
A child who is knowledgeable, who can assert herself and her needs, who has open communication with her parents and doesn’t feel she needs to hide her feelings and experiences is far less likely to be taken advantage of and less vulnerable. Confident parents have a critical role in responding to their own “Me Too”s by investing in their children’s emotional well-being and keeping all safe!
Resources for Healthy Physical and Sexual Development Education:
For Adults in Preparation for Discussing with Kids:
Talk Sex Today; What Kids Need to Know and How Adults Can Teach Them by Saleema Noon and Meg Hickling (2016).
Who Has What? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies by Robie H. Harris (2011).
Amazing You! Getting Smart about your Private Parts by Dr. Gail Saltz (2005).
It’s Not the Stork; A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies Families and Friends by Robie H. Harris (2006).
School Age - 7 years old and up:
It’s So Amazing! A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley (2014).
10 years old and up:
It’s Perfectly Normal. Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley (2014).
1.“Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics,” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000.
2. “Child Maltreatment 2012,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau.
3. Kilpatrick, D., R. Acierno, B. Saunders, H. Resnick, C. Best, and P. Schnurr, “National Survey of Adolescents,” Charleston, SC: Medical University of South Carolina, National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1998.
4. The U.S. Department of Justice. Raising Awareness about Sexual Abuse. Facts and Statistics, https://www.nsopw.gov/en-US/Education/FactsStatistics
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