For many parents, the thought of having "the talk" with their children is a source of dread and nervousness. Many of us have unpleasant or even comical memories of our parents sitting us down at the kitchen table to talk about "The Birds and The Bees." There can be a stigma to talking to children about sex and sexuality, which may cause many parents to understandably want to skip that conversation with their children. After all--schools provide sex education, right?
Having said that--the fact remains that talking to children about their bodies, sex and boundaries is vitally important for many reasons. One important reason is that talking to children about sex and safety makes them less vulnerable to abuse and more likely to tell if someone is making them feel uncomfortable. When we properly educate children, we are taking protective action to lower the risk of child abuse. As a parent, you want to be the "go to" person when it comes to questions of sex and physical boundaries, which means that we have to be proactive in starting the conversation with children. "Talking about personal safety and sex creates a protective bond between parent and child, increases confidence for both, and instills knowledge that makes children and teens much less vulnerable" (Darkness To Light-Stewards of Children® training).
Here comes the good news...having a conversation with children does not have to be an awkward experience. Here are some tips to help get you started:
- Start early and talk often: Talking about safety and boundaries should start early and continue as children grow and develop. Start with teaching children about body parts. Explain that the places your bathing suit covers are private and only for you. Begin conversations organically rather than planning an official talk. There are plenty of real life scenarios to help you initiate the conversation. For example, when your child has his/her first sleepover, you could discuss proper boundaries and talk about safety. When a family member or friend is pregnant you can use that opportunity to answer any questions your child has about where babies come from. Opening the lines of communication at an early age helps both you and the child feel confident talking about the topic and eliminates any awkwardness.
- Use proper names for body parts: Using cute terms such as "wee-wee" and "coo-coo" for private parts may make you feel more comfortable, but we should teach children proper terms from the beginning. Using proper names for body parts helps a child learn there is no shame or negative feeling when it comes to his or her body. In addition we want to provide children with the language and skills to tell us if someone is hurting them or making them feel unsafe.
- Talk safety: Teaching children to stay away from strangers is certainly a good lesson, but it is not enough. The majority of victims are not abused by strangers but by trusted adults in their lives. We have to teach children that they have the right to say "NO" to anyone, even if that person is a family member, friend or someone they love. Growing up, my parents talked to me about fire safety and we created a plan of action if there was a fire in the home. I knew to run to a specific neighbor, call 9-1-1 and wait for my parents. We need to have these same conversations when it comes to talking about body safety. Provide concrete examples and a clear action plan of what children should do if ANYONE, regardless of who that person is, makes them feel uncomfortable.
- Be consistent: When talking to children about safety, you are teaching them that they are in control of their body and have the right to say "NO" to anyone that makes them feel uncomfortable. Be careful to be consistent and demonstrate that with children. We have likely all observed a scenario where a child meets a family relative or close family friend and is asked to give this adult a hug or kiss. The child clearly feels uncomfortable, but is forced to give affection so as not to appear rude. This sends a confusing message to a child. We teach children that they have the right to set boundaries and say no, but they still have to hug/kiss someone to be polite. Instead, this would be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate setting boundaries. You could say. "It looks like Johnny does not want to hug today" and move on with other pleasantries.
- Know you are not alone: If the idea of broaching the subject of sex and safety with your child still seems like a daunting task--know you are not alone. There are numerous resources available to help you in that process. For one, Alliance For Children offers a training program called Stewards of Children® that empowers adults with proactive steps to better protect children from sexual abuse. To learn more or sign up for a class, click here.
Reading books with children can also be a wonderful resource to start the conversation. For book resources, click here.
About the Author
Katia Gonzalez works as the Community Outreach Coordinator for Alliance For Children. She educates adults in Tarrant County on how to prevent, recognize signs and responsibly report suspected child abuse. Last year, with Katia spearheading the initiative, Alliance For Children educated over 3,200 Tarrant County adults. Along with this, Katia's passions include reading, baking, traveling and spending time with her husband and dogs.