Teach Your Kids This About Body Safety And Abuse Awareness
Protecting your child and ensuring that they are growing up as aware individuals is necessary in today’s world. Teach them about inappropriate touches, sexual abuse, and non-verbal sexual signs. Reema Ahmed, the author of Unparenting: Sharing Awkward Truths With Curious Kids, takes us through steps on how to talk to your child about sex, consent, sexual abuse and body parts.
The extract below is printed with permission from “Unparenting: Sharing Awkward Truths With Curious Kids” by Reema Ahmed published by Penguin Random House India Publication.
We become better parents when we learn to look beyond what has been taught to us as absolute. By the time my son was three, I had taught him to identify and name his body parts, including his private parts. My mother would be scandalized at loud demonstrations of everything that looked like a penis to Imaad. A banana was a ‘giant penis’, a groundnut was a ‘dry penis’ and every animal within the reach of his chubby hands was examined for the existence or lack of a penis.
…I learned to be okay (despite the acute discomfort of my ex-in-laws) with loud pronouncements of ‘penis’ and ‘vagee-ena’ in supermarkets and other people’s drawing rooms because my embarrassment was less important than my son not knowing which body part could not be touched by anyone else except for washing (with permission) and by a doctor (in the presence of a parent). As he grew older, we established rules about not discussing everything in public and a forewarning when a particularly ‘private’ query was about to be shot at me. By the time Imaad was six, he had developed a very strong sense of ownership over his body. I had to compromise control over what he chose to wear, or if he wanted to apply lotion or not, because it would be hypocritical of me to be repeatedly saying ‘your body belongs to you’ all the time and not demonstrating, by my respect of the boundaries, beyond which even I could not venture, that it did indeed belong to him. Forcing him to hug or kiss aunts and uncles whom he didn’t feel particularly inclined to hug or kiss, had to go out the window. How could I expect him to recognize and report uncomfortable physical experiences if I forced him to touch, when he didn’t want to touch or be touched? I learned to let comments like ‘Your son is ill mannered’ not bother me.
…In my experience as a Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) trainer, I have learnt that many young adults and adolescents end up hurting younger children because they have no awareness of their growing sexuality or respecting other people’s bodily privacy. And one cannot argue that this happens only in lower-income-group families. It happens in wealthy families too. There is no conversation around bodily curiosity in most families. While some may tell their children to report unsafe touch, they may skip telling them how not to touch someone else.
…When it comes to body safety and abuse awareness, most parents baulk at the thought of describing that kind of violence to innocent children. It doesn’t have to be this way. Teaching body safety does not mean controlling our children or limiting the way they interact with people by using fear as a tool to keep them safe. That will only diminish their sense of trust in the world around them. Strong terms like ‘good and bad’ touch can further limit the way children perceive touch and take away the natural warmth that this essential human connection can impart any interaction. I prefer using terms like ‘safe and unsafe’ where safe touches are loving and respectful but are also described as touches that may feel unpleasant sometimes—like a dentist treating a cavity, or a strong grasp while crossing the road—but are essential for a child’s safety. And unsafe touches are described as touches that can cause hurt or harm—like touching a hot iron, picking up broken glass and anyone touching a child’s private parts or body in a way that hurts or causes discomfort, especially if that touch is accompanied by threats and bribes. To be a parent is to learn to love unconditionally, despite everything that pushes us to not be kind or tender; it is to learn to control our anger and ignore our frustration. To be a parent is also to learn to accept fear as a natural companion to that love—fear for your child’s safety, fear that the horrors of the world will constrict your child’s freedom and joy.
Here’s a small list of things that can help you navigate that fear better. They have helped me.
Naming Private Parts
From the time your children learn to speak and identify body parts, include teaching them how to name their body parts properly. Using names like wee-wee and shame-shame or chi-chi, somehow transfers the idea that private parts are a thing of shame. What you can say is things like, ‘Your body belongs to you and the parts that are under your bathing suit are your personal, private body parts that no one else should touch. Only mummy and daddy can change or shower you and even then, we need to ask. Or a doctor can see you if it’s needed but never alone.’ Creating a sense of normalcy around our bodies goes a long way in helping children build confidence about how they look and feel while also making it easy to talk about anyone touching them.
Also tell your kids that it’s not okay for anyone to show them their personal parts or show them nude pictures and videos. Sharing pornography or asking children to watch as the offender undresses or bathes are some of the methods that serial abusers use to make their victims feel like it’s okay to do this, to make them feel included in the process. This makes it difficult for children to report abuse later because they are made to feel that they were complicit co-conspirators in the deed and therefore they could be dubbed as guilty.
Especially if it’s someone known to the child and there is established trust or friendship. So, if a child knows that a penis is a penis and a vulva is a vulva, he or she will know what to say to you if someone touches them or flashes them. You could talk about body parts while bathing a child, while labelling body parts on a chart or while reading a board book about bodies.
Teaching Kids To Recognize The Early Warning Signs
Children are very strongly intuitive. They are often the first to notice missing things, people and changes in routine. As much as they rebel against their daily routines, they need those routines and boundaries to feel safe. A predictable pattern makes children comfortable and it is for this reason that they’ll intuitively know if something is amiss.
Our job is simply to make children aware of these natural warning signs that manifest in any difficult situation so that they know that something is amiss and are able to report it even if it doesn’t feel like that at first.
For example, if a known person in a position of trust and power begins to inappropriately touch a child, the child may not feel that something is amiss in the beginning since there’s a sense of connection in place. But as soon as there’s a shift in the adult’s breathing or touching, the child’s body will react with discomfort. If we’re able to teach our children to not ignore this discomfort, even if it’s someone whom the child respects or fears, and teach the child to try to shout, move away or call for help as soon as they feel threatened (in the presence of anyone), we’ll actually be able to prevent serious damage in most situations.
Creating A Safety Net Of Trusted Adults
Much as we may wish that our children always come to us for help or that we’re always present when they happen to need us, it’s not always going to be possible. Sometimes, our children may not want to talk to us, especially in the case of older kids; sometimes they may be away at school or camp when they need to talk about difficult things. And it’s up to us to make sure that our children know who they can go to in a crisis or when they want to share something. To make this possible, sit with your kids and ask them to name five trusted adults who they feel safe and comfortable with. Please resist the urge to suggest names and please don’t feel disappointed if you don’t make the list, although that will hurt. Point out that the names could be of anybody from home, school or neighbourhood and extended family. Someone they can go to or call. Next, make your children write down the names of these five adults on a sheet of paper that says my trusted people or something similar. For younger children, you could use pictures and names to make it easier for them to remember. Once the sheet is ready, playfully talk about why your kids feel safe around those whose names are on it, possibly write what they say on the sheet. This is just to make sure these adults are loved not just because they bring gifts or treats but because they induce a certain feeling in the children who adore them.
Learning to Say No
Will a child who has been taught to put up with bad behaviour by a sibling or a friend know how to walk out of a toxic relationship when he’s older? Will a child who is forced to touch, hug or go to people he does not like going to, be able to report abuse if his physical boundaries are violated? Will a child who has been taught to believe that saying yes to everything is the only way to earn love ever be able to say no?
The answer to all these questions is perhaps, no. We need to teach our children to say no if something makes them very unhappy. And before we can do that, we need to learn to say no ourselves. That party you should go to, but don’t want to because you don’t like being around those present, means that you should just politely decline. That friend who rubs you the wrong way and makes you feel small, tell her it’s best if you don’t meet. Say no to things and people that don’t give you the joy they’re supposed to. Gently, politely, but firmly, say no. Say no so your children can see that it is okay to say no to things that hurt us or cause us discomfort.
This is not merely a question of your children saying no to unwanted touch, but also about developing their ability to extricate themselves from potentially damaging relationships and situations that they may feel obliged to stay in just because they haven’t been taught to value their own needs.
- For younger children, using simple and familiar words that they can use and need to remember, like ‘No’, ‘Stop’, ‘Run’, ‘Scream’, in case someone touches their genitals or comes too close for comfort, will work.
- Tell mummy if someone makes you uncomfortable and safe touches are okay but unsafe touches are not okay’. Pin the sheet where everyone can see it and you just have to gently remind kids to remember these rules if they’re going for a party, picnic or sleepover.
- Teaching body safety doesn’t mean constricting movement or creating fear about strangers and touches. It is all about awareness of what is okay and what is not okay. Some of our most enriching experiences are based on interactions with people we have never met before, or warm exchanges that have come out of the blue.
Saying No To Secrets
Children love secrets, they get excited about secrets, but some secrets can be very harmful. When you begin talking about body safety with your children, teach them to differentiate between secrets and surprises. Surprises, like a birthday party or a gift or a trip, are okay because they are eventually disclosed and also because they are joyful. Secrets are meant to be hidden and anything that needs to be kept hidden from parents could be unsafe. Creating secrets around touching is often a ploy used by serial abusers to involve children in a ‘game’ and that sense of secrecy can prevent a child from reporting abuse later. So, anything that someone asks to keep a secret should be a no-go zone for your children. Gently remind your children that you will never be angry at them for talking about anything that a friend or an adult asked to keep secret.
Paying Attention To Unusual Behaviour
It’s so easy to get swept up in our daily routines and miss out on warning signs that something is not right with our children. And sometimes, we’re aware of this nagging feeling in the back of our minds that there’s something going on but we still miss talking about it, exploring it. Maybe because we’re terrified of what we’ll find out if we dig deeper. Confronting our anxiety and fears is better than a lifetime of guilt.
- If you observe any uncharacteristic changes in your child’s behaviour like fits of anger, or low-level anxiety, inability to focus, difficulty sleeping, bed wetting, fear of going out or reacting anxiously in the presence of someone in particular, please ask your child what is bothering them.
- Be gentle, be patient and above all, keep telling them that no matter what happens they will be loved and protected. Of course, some changes can be explained by growth phases or other stresses but it’s helpful to rule out abuse so that it can be prevented from happening again and your child can get the help they need.
- In very young children and toddlers, redness or swelling around the genitals, crying and screaming every time diapers are changed, refusing to leave you, or refusing to go to a particular person, can all be signs of abuse. It’s important to pay attention to who cares for your children in your absences, who is allowed access to your house, and if your older children are clear about who is allowed into their bedrooms and who is not.
Responding With Attention And Care
Despite all our awareness and homework, when it comes to an actual incident that has affected our children, our hearts simply cave and we may not remember to respond the way our children need us to respond. Our own fears, anguish and pain comes to the centre stage and we forget, we simply forget, that our focus must only be on the child who has been hurt. Everything else can come later. If your child ever tells you that someone hurt them sexually, believe them. Children don’t make up stories like that.
They are wary of upsetting family situations and if they name someone they have known and trusted, please understand that the child has already suffered in the process of coming to you because he has pushed aside his fear and shame. Tell them you believe them and that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. But do remember to not promise more than you can actually do. In situations where the abuser is a family member, it is difficult to keep abusers away although that is exactly what you should do. Make sure your child is physically taken care of and that you contact a medical professional if you think that necessary. Every family’s circumstances will determine the course of action they take in terms of legal issues, but what your child needs from you is to be believed and to be heard. Don’t ask leading questions. Let the child find their comfort in telling you; simply be present, listen and keep telling them—‘it’s not your fault’. No matter what the circumstances, abuse is never a child’s fault. Our responses in the event of abuse can make or break a child’s recovery. The child should never know about your struggle to address the issue or hear from you what you had to do later. It’s not her fault just as it wasn’t yours. All that matters is that your child feels safe now.
Practise Active Listening
I often say this in my workshops, ‘Our relationship with our children is their best means of protection,’ and I mean it. In the decade since I have had Imaad teach me, test me and love me like no one else had done before, I have become absolutely sure of one thing—as long as I listen to his crazy alien stories, awful poop jokes and anxious questions about bullying, with attention, patience and love, he will tell me everything. If I listen to the small stuff with presence and without judgement, I trust he will tell me the big stuff too. I ask you to trust in that too.
About the author: Reema Ahmed
Beginning her career as a child sexual abuse awareness educator, Reema Ahmad is a neurolinguistic programming life coach and mental space psychologist. She has co-edited an anthology of women’s work, Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts with Semeen Ali in 2022. As a poet, she has also written for online publications such as Scroll, Vice, DailyO and LiveMint. She is the co-founder of Candidly, a forum dedicated to exploring gender, sexuality and media.
Ahmad’s searingly honest and trailblazing novel tears through many misconceptions of parenting. In her book, Ahmad challenges the preset notions of parenting competencies. ‘Unparenting’ covers a gamut of topics such as body acceptance, bullying, impact of generational trauma, loss, divorce, sexuality and other important issues that many parents tend to sweep under the rug, simply because they don’t have the vocabulary or feel uncomfortable with it themselves.
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