Nobody likes to talk about it or even think about it, but child abuse is real, and could be a real threat to your children. No matter how much you supervise and spend time with your children, there will be times when they’re on their own—playing outside, attending classes, or staying the night with a friend. You don’t have to turn into a helicopter parent or constantly monitor your child with technology. Doing so could be problematic, and may only decrease the risk of abuse marginally. But there are some strategies you can use to equip your child with the skills they need to prevent, and if necessary, report child abuse.
Skills to Teach Your Child
These skills and lessons can keep your child safe, and make them feel comfortable reporting abuse if it ever occurs:
- Talk about body parts. First, talk to your child about their anatomy early. You don’t have to get into any specifics about sexuality, but it’s important for your child to have an understanding of what their body parts are, and that some body parts should be kept private. Ignorance can be easily manipulated by an unscrupulous party.
- Talk about privacy. It’s also a good idea to talk to your child about the importance of privacy. Teach them that while nudity and private parts aren’t something to be ashamed of, they shouldn’t be openly displayed in most situations, and people (especially grownups) shouldn’t be asking to see it. Help them establish a sense of bodily autonomy, and understand the difference in privacy between, say, their genitals and a public body part like their ears.
- Teach your child that some secrets aren’t okay. Children tend to inherently trust grownups, so if a grownup tells them to keep a secret, they may be inclined to do so. Let them know that some secrets aren’t okay, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to speak up about something that bothers them, even if they promised to keep a secret.
- Teach your child the dangers of talking to strangers. Whether you like it or not, eventually, your child will be unattended—for example, they may wander off in a store, or lag behind during a field trip. If this happens, they should know to be careful when talking to strangers, and never go to another location with a stranger.
- Teach your child that even trustworthy people can do bad things. Strangers aren’t the only threat; in fact, they’re not even the biggest threat. It’s unfortunate, but many instances of child abuse are reported after occurring in daycare centers, churches, preschools, and community organizations. Help your child understand that even people they know and trust can sometimes do inappropriate things.
- Empower your child to say no. You may not always enjoy your child saying “no” when you’re trying to get them to eat their vegetables or brush their teeth, but “no” can be extremely powerful in the right situation. Make them feel comfortable saying no to a grownup if they’re asked to do something abnormal.
- Help your child understand how to get out of a dangerous situation. It’s also a good idea to give your child skills to escape a potentially dangerous situation; for example, you may teach them it’s okay to kick and scream if someone they don’t know attempts to grab them. You can also teach them to yell for help, or scream specific words and phrases to attract attention.
- Create a code word. Code words can keep your children safe. Establish a code word that signals your child can trust someone. That way, you can send someone to pick up your child, and your child can verify their identity first. You can also use a code word to signal a dangerous situation.
- Make your child feel safe talking to you. If your child is ever the victim of abuse, you need them to feel comfortable reporting it to you. You can do this by creating a safe, open environment for your children, and rewarding them when they tell you about things that concern them.
- Help your child understand these rules are universal. This step can be tricky, but try to explain to your children that these rules are universal, and apply to any situation. If someone is in a trusted position, like a teacher or priest, they aren’t exempt from these rules. If they notice a friend in a dangerous or abusive situation, they need to mention it to you.
Balancing Safety and Freedom
It’s tempting to keep your child safe at all costs, limiting their freedom and keeping them home as often as possible, but it’s also important for their mental, emotional, and physical development to explore their surroundings and be given some degree of independence. It’s up to you as a parent to decide how to balance these aspects of parenthood, and use the lessons above to enable your child to better protect themselves, in any situation.