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News, Child Health | 18 days ago

Empowering Children: How to Teach Them about Boundaries and Unwanted Touch

While it can be difficult to discuss personal safety and unwanted touch with your child, doing so can give them the knowledge and confidence to set boundaries and speak up if they’re in an unsafe situation.

Discussing unwanted touch, boundaries and safety with your child can feel like a daunting task for any parent. However, the key to sexual abuse awareness and prevention lies in these crucial conversations.

“Empowering children with knowledge and confidence begins with starting these discussions early and revisiting them often,” says Courtney Swain, a family advocate at Jeff Gordon Children’s Center Child Advocacy Center, a facility of Atrium Health Cabarrus. “As new summer schedules are on the horizon and summer camp season approaches, now is the perfect time to have these important conversations with your children.”

Talking to your child about sexual abuse, unwanted touch and boundaries is essential: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in three females and one in 20 males will experience sexual abuse or sexual assault before age 17.

Here are seven tips every parent should know.

  1. Start the conversation early

Teaching young children (starting in their preschool years) about their bodies and boundaries is crucial for empowering them to recognize and respond to inappropriate situations. By incorporating these lessons into your everyday conversations, you can give your child the language and tools they need to speak up when something doesn't feel right.

Using age-appropriate language, teach your child that no one should touch their mouth or look at or touch any area covered by their bathing suit. Additionally, no one should show them their private parts. If someone does any of these things, they should tell them no, leave and tell a parent or teacher.

This is also a good time to bring up safe touch, such as a wanted hug from a family member, when you help them take a bath or when their pediatrician checks them during a well-child visit.

  1. Talk to your child about their body

 “Some parts of the body are private, and it's essential to communicate this to your child in a clear and age-appropriate manner,” says Swain. “It is also important to teach children the proper names for their body parts.”

If you give nicknames for body parts like the vagina, penis, buttocks and breasts, you could give your child the impression that these parts are “bad” or need to be kept a secret. In the very unfortunate instance that your child is in a situation or hears a threat of sexual abuse, knowing the correct words to use for their body parts helps your child communicate exactly what happened.

Encourage them to ask questions and be supportive in your reactions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell them you’ll find out. Your child’s pediatrician can be an excellent resource.

  1. Reinforce body autonomy

 Teach your child that their body is their own and they don’t have to show affection to others if they don’t want to. Don’t force your child to hug or kiss anyone, including yourself or your relatives. Instead, they may prefer to give someone a high-five, fist-bump or thumbs-up.

  1. Talk to children about secrets and surprises

It's important for children to understand the difference between secrets and surprises. While surprises are meant to be shared eventually, secrets should never be kept from safe adults.

“Perpetrators often use secret-keeping to manipulate children, so it's crucial to reassure your child that they can always talk to you, especially if they've been told to keep a secret,” she says.

  1. Create a safe environment

Children may fear getting in trouble or upsetting their parents by asking questions or sharing their experiences. Encourage them to name trusted adults they can confide in if someone touches them inappropriately.

“As a parent, it's important to be a safe place for your child to confide in,” says Swain. “Reassure them that they won't get in trouble for sharing information and make time to listen attentively if they come to you with their concerns.”

  1. Know the signs of child sexual abuse

As a parent, it’s crucial to be aware of possible signs of child sexual abuse. Signs of abuse can vary depending on the age of the child and other factors, but Swain says common indicators include:

  • Sudden changes in behavior or mood
  • Unexplained fear or anxiety
  • Withdrawal from activities or social interactions
  • Regression to earlier behaviors such as bedwetting
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • Sudden reluctance to be alone with certain individuals
  • Inappropriate knowledge or behavior related to sex
  • Physical symptoms such as unexplained bruises, bleeding or pain in the genital area

“It’s important for caregivers to be vigilant and to create a safe environment where children feel comfortable expressing any concerns they may have,” she says.

If you suspect a child is being sexually abused, seek help from authorities or professionals trained in handling such situations, such by calling or texting the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453.

  1. Revisit safety talks

“Children learn through repetition, so it's essential to revisit safety conversations often,” says Swain. “Just like reminding them to look both ways before crossing the street, regular discussions about body safety are crucial for empowering your child to navigate the world safely.”

While the prospect of talking to your child about unwanted touch and sexual abuse can be intimidating, it’s crucial to empower them with the knowledge and confidence to know what to do if they’re in an unsafe situation. If you have questions about starting a conversation, consult your child’s pediatrician for guidance. Find an Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatrician near you.