Don’t Parent with Fear, Protect Your Child with Empowerment
Do you have a parenting worry list? I do….even with adult children I still have a list of things that I “worry” about. Everything from “Are they working too hard and getting enough sleep?”, “Are they safe when they travel?” to “Are they really happy?” is on that list! I really believe that you never really exit that parenting role completely, so maybe there will always be a few items on my worry list. There are few things that bring more anxiety to a parent than their worry about the safety of their child. At the top of many parents’ worry list is the fear of their child being abducted or sexually abused. The statistics can cause most of us to lose sleep….in general most studies show that about 20% of adult females and about 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual abuse incident. The U.S. Department of Justice states that 90% of the victims know their perpetrator in some way. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in 2020 91% of missing children were runaways, 5% were family abductions, 1% were lost children, 3% were young adults between age 18 and 20 and less than 1% were nonfamily abductions.
With this knowledge, we as parents may need to change the education we are giving our children. Maybe the traditional Stranger Danger is not the most valuable approach to keeping our children safe. Let’s start empowering our children, not teaching by fear. Let’s move to teaching our children that they own their body; they are the “boss” of their body and they must keep it safe and healthy.
So how do we start?
Respect our children’s feelings.
Beginning at age 5 to 6 months, many infants experience stranger anxiety and between 18 months and 2 years most toddlers experience separation anxiety. These are normal developmental stages, but we need to respect those feelings of anxiety. Introduce “strangers” or new faces slowly, don’t force your child to go to someone he or she is unsure of or sneak away if you are leaving your child with a babysitter. Sit down, slowly introduce, help your child feel comfortable and if you are leaving, say good-bye. This is the first opportunity to say to your child, “I am listening, I understand you are scared or uncomfortable.” This respect of their feelings builds trust allowing your child to share these feelings verbally later. This builds a trusting relationship between adult/parent and child.
Don’t force a child to hug or kiss anyone even a family member.
Help a child determine what is appropriate touch for the people around them, forcing sends an unsafe message of the child not being “the boss of their body”. Give choices to help them determine what is socially appropriate and comfortable for them.
“Say high to Aunt Susie, give her a hug or high five.”
“Say good-bye to Grandma, give her a kiss, hug or high five.”
“Say thanks to the lady at the bakery, give her a high five or thumbs up for the cookie.”
“Thank the librarian for helping you find the book about dinosaurs.”
These prompts help a child learn the when and with whom hugs and kisses are socially appropriate and comfortable for them. This allows your child to feel ownership of their body. There are many reasons why a child might be uncomfortable or shy with new people or family members. It is fine for them to decide between a kiss, hug, high five, fist bump, thumbs up, or a simple thank you is most comfortable for them.
Call your child’s body parts the correct name.
Cute nicknames for private body parts teaches children that those body parts are embarrassing or uncomfortable. When children are uncomfortable talking about their body, they are less likely to share about their body. We don’t want to increase secrecy or uncomfortableness about a child’s body or sexuality. Call it what it is….and don’t react with anger when the “potty humor” begins with a toddler or preschooler. Ignore this and it will soon pass!
Begin talking about “private body parts” at about age 2.
Potty training is the perfect opportunity to introduce a concrete way for children to understand where their “private parts” are. Tell your child that their private parts are where their bathing suit covers. Explain that no one but Mommy or Daddy, or a doctor or nurse when Mommy or Daddy is there, should look at or touch their bathing suit area. Casually speak of their private parts when bathing, changing for the pool, or using the bathroom.
Introduce the concept of “Good Touch/Bad Touch” around age 2 or 3.
Remember this should include that a good touch makes you feel good and a bad touch hurts or makes you feel bad or uncomfortable. Bad touch is not only in the bathing suit area, this can include hitting, shoving or even stroking an arm or back that just doesn’t feel right. Give your child permission to say “stop hitting me”, “don’t shove me in line”, “I don’t like being tickled”, and even expand this to hurtful words, “When you called me that, it hurt my feelings.”
Tell your child “you are the boss of your body”.
Empower your child to keep their body safe and healthy. When you buckle into a car seat or put on a bike helmet, talk about keeping their body safe, when you give them a healthy meal talk about fruits and vegetables keeping their body healthy. Tell your child they are in control of keeping their body safe and healthy. You want your child to value and take care of their body and learn to set healthy boundaries. This belief of “being the boss of their body” can empower them to say no to risky or dangerous activities when they are older.
Role play how to respond when someone hurts them or makes them feel uncomfortable.
“Stop hitting me, that hurts!” “ Stop! Those words hurt my feelings.” “Stop touching me!” Role playing helps your child have a plan. If you see an incident at the park between children, give your child the words to say, don’t immediately “fix” the situation unless it is dangerous.
The more often the topic is addressed the more comfortable your child will be. When you are giving baths, or dressing for the pool, casually mention where your child’s private parts are. When you are on the playground, talk about how to react if a child pushes in front of a line for the slide or says something unkind. Keeping the tone casual keeps the conversation safe and open making it easier for your child to share.
Don’t talk about strangers, talk about “tricky people”.
We all interact with people we don’t know every day. We don’t want children to be raised in fear of everyone they don’t know. We know most abductions are by people a child knows or is at least familiar with. A “tricky person” is someone who is either familiar with your child or has become familiar by speaking with them and gaining their trust. Tricky people don’t feel like a scary stranger but may try to trick a child into a situation that is not safe. Instead of talking about “stranger danger” talk about the feeling of “uh oh”. Teach your child to trust their gut, when something feels uncomfortable teach them to say “no” or “stop” and leave. Tell your child to share with someone they trust when they have that “uh oh” feeling.
Help your child interact with “strangers” when you are with them in a safe situation. Encourage older children to order their dinner at a restaurant, help younger children introduce themselves to a child at the park, help your child say hello to the librarian or store clerk. Point out when a “stranger” was kind or helpful. People we don’t know are a part of everyday life and most are good people who will help your child if needed! Fear is not the solution to keeping your child safe! Teaching your child to listen to that inner voice or “uh oh” feeling is a key to staying safe.
Teach the difference between a secret and a surprise.
Be sure you use the correct terminology and reinforce that families do not have secrets. A birthday gift for Dad is a surprise, not a secret. Children should never be told to keep a secret from their parents.
Have at least 5 adults in your child’s life who they trust.
Help them surround themselves with safe adults who love them. Children need adults other than their parents who will protect them and listen to them. This is especially true as your child enters school. These adults can be grandparents, close friends, an Aunt or Uncle, a teacher, a pastor or minister, there are many trusted adults who care for your chid.
Establish safety rules.
- I will always play where I can see my mom, dad, or responsible adult who is with me.
- I never go anywhere with anyone without checking with my mom or dad or responsible adult who is with me.
- I will never eat any treat without checking with mom, dad or responsible adult with me.
- I am the boss of my body. I can say yes or no to anything about my body.
- Everyone’s bathing suit area is private.
- I don’t keep secrets and no one should tell me to keep a secret from mom and dad.
- If I get lost I can stay in one place and call for mom or dad or go find another mom to help me. (every child knows what a mom looks like, in most situations this is a safe individual for a child to ask for hep)
- Grownups don’t ask kids for help (“Help me find my dog”, “Help me carry this to my car”) If they do, I must ask for permission from my mom, dad or responsible adult with me.
- I listen to my voice inside or the “Uh oh” feeling. If something feels bad or wrong I will stop, yell for help, and tell mom and dad.
Good books to help with your conversations:
I Said No! A kid-to-kid guide to keeping private parts private By Zack and Kimberly King
Miles is the Boss of His Body By Samantha Kurtzman-Counter Abbie Schiller
Do You Have a Secret? (Let’s Talk About It!) By Jennifer Moore-Mallinos
We want our children to grow up confident, safe and happy….empowered that they are able to navigate this world successfully. Living in fear never results in someone who feels confident and happy. Protect your child by empowering them!
Take a breath, enjoy the joyful moments of each day, and remember you don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.