There has been an onslaught of articles in the media in recent weeks that have left me feeling shaken, disturbed, and preoccupied. I’m talking about the coverage of George Pell and Michael Jackson, and then more recently – and closer to home – a 20-year-old swimming instructor in Mosman who “just looks like a normal kid” (a comment on facebook) and has been accused of sexually abusing two sisters aged only 8 and 6.
What each of these men have done is abhorrent, but this is not where I want to focus my energy. In hearing such stories, I have felt a powerful driving force to ensure my own children are protected from such horrifying scenarios. And I am certain that I am not alone in this. Safeguarding our children to stay safe and call out anything that makes them feel uncomfortable is something that all parents need to instil in their children. So how and when can we best do this?
When children are very little, they will start to learn about their body. No one is bashful in teaching their toddler where their ears, head, or tummy is…. but when it comes to “private parts” many parents may feel unsure about how to approach this. However using the correct terminology when children start to learn their body parts helps children to feel more confident and more comfortable with their sexuality. It also means that should they ever need to disclose any abuse, there will be no misunderstanding what they mean. This article actually gives 8 reasons why this is so important.
In addition to talking about body parts, talking generally about feelings is also important. Families often share times they feel happy, proud, or want to celebrate an achievement. It is also important to talk about times we feel fearful, uncertain, or sad. Helping children to recognise the physical signs that alert them when they are feeling uncomfortable or unsafe is another important element of these conversations. When children are aware of these signs, it means they are more able to recognise – and hopefully stop – something that they do feel uncomfortable with.
Throughout childhood parents can have conversations about who is allowed to see or touch different parts of a child’s body. A simple way to define these “private parts” is to teach your child that the parts of their body covered by a swimming costume are private. In addition, your mouth is also a private body part – no one should touch your mouth or put anything in it; it is therefore also private. I have had several variations of this conversation over time about who is allowed to see or touch your body with my own two children. I can recall one of them asking me, “Mummy, do you take Grannie to the doctor with you if the doctor needs to see your private parts?” The innocent question from my 5- or 6-year-old gave me a little smile and made me pleased she was taking it so seriously. There are some other good tips for things to teach your children here.
As children grow older, they will gradually show increased desire for privacy – so there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those of you whose toddlers won’t let you go to the toilet on your own! – and it is important to grant them this privacy. Along with this comes increased desire for independence and this is where the work in the early years is also important. Children will want to go on playdates, sleepovers, outings with friends, maybe even holidays away with other families. If you and your children are comfortable in talking about feelings and body parts and generally sharing what they do when they are away from you, they will be more likely to share with you any concerns or worries or times they may have felt uncomfortable. This is a great article that gives very clear examples of how to talk to your child when they have spent time away from you if you want to get meaningful feedback about how they felt when they were away.
Sometimes it may feel confronting or uncomfortable to have these kinds of conversations, but over time if it becomes ‘the norm’ it will protect your children and ensure they stay safe.