This blog post is about helping your young kids discern strangers as ‘safe’ or not, what is public and private, and healthy touch.
I recently had a parent contact me with a request for a Workshop on “Stranger Danger”(Hubbard, 2012). She writes:
“…given the recent news coverage of the Tori Stafford case and as Mama to a 2 year old daughter, this is much on my mind. And I get similar feedback from lots of parents I know: how exactly to set our kids up for safety, without scaring the bejeezus out of them about the world at large? If we teach our kids that all “strangers” are scary, don’t we risk isolating them terribly? What I want, as a mom, is to empower my daughter to reach out to the right strangers for help when she needs it, always. And I think the way I handle this early stuff has the capacity to set her up for a certain attitude towards life in general… It will either be one of confidence in– or fear about, her inherent ability to access support and to build community for herself, wherever she goes.”
This parent is on an important track of thinking: “the way I handle this early stuff has the capacity to set (my child) up for a certain attitude towards life in general” – and she is right. This article is written in response and in support of all parents, such as yourself, who are reflecting on and planning for the social and emotional development of your child(ren). This article touches on ‘stranger danger’, boundaries, and public vs. private touch and behaviour.
When do I start talking about ‘stranger danger’?
Until a child is capable of taking care of her/his own self our main focus is careful supervision at all times. The ability a child has to take care of themselves depends on many factors: age (generally 8 and up), intelligence, memory and other abilities, social strengths and emotional maturity. These all develop with time and effort and you, the parent, will be a good judge of ‘when’.
In the first 5 years, well before a child is able to care for themselves, it is important to talk with and teach them about ‘stranger danger’. This is a complex and sensitive topic area that would benefit from ‘practice’ before it really counts. Thinking about what to say and how to say it, and then practicing talking about it, with even your pre-verbal child, will set a good stage for increasing your comfort and competency in this, or any other, sensitive subject area.
The following tips are to serve as a guide to talking with your child about ‘stranger danger’ and who may be ‘safe people’ to reach when in need:
Talk about ‘Strange Behaviours’:
Predators and/or sexual abusers can tend to act in ways that are outside the norm of what is typical everyday social behavior. Some ways a predator may attempt to engage your child would be to approach them saying they have lost their pet and need help finding it. They may ask your child for help with someone who has been hurt. They may offer them a treat, or a special ride somewhere – especially after finding out from your child what their favorite thing or activity is.
If a person approaches them and wants to engage them, i.e. in the ways described, teach your children to tell them/yell “NO”, to run away and to find a trusted adult immediately. Apply the golden rule/Meme: “Yell, Run, Tell”.
To help this Meme sink in deeper you might put it to a song or, even more powerful, role play with your child(ren).
Talk to your children about how to assess ‘strange behaviour’ from people and how to avoid people demonstrating these behaviours. Some examples are given above but there are many others, such as a single person just hanging out watching children from the shadows, near a park. Teach them to point out this type of behavior and to avoid these types of people.
Speak to them about and show them examples if/when you witness ‘strange behaviour’.
Talk about ‘Safe People’:
Parents also want to teach children who they can trust out of the world of people they don’t know and who to choose as ‘safe people’ to talk to or to go to when they need help.
Safe people can include folks in your community such as store clerks, librarians, office assistants, doctor/dentist offices, and people in uniform. It may help if you chat with people in these positions and then announce to your child that this is the type of community member who is ‘safe’. This can also help to keep the conversation and topic area present in your minds.
Teach your children to go to these people and stay there while they contact you or while waiting for you to find them.
As you enter in to a festival or other large gathering of people remind your child about ‘stranger danger’ and ‘safe people’, pointing out whom to go if they get lost.
When your children are a bit older you may want to discuss scenarios where a person – known or not known – may try to entice them in to doing things or going somewhere, keeping secrets, etc. They may buy gifts or offer treats or promises for fun times. Go to: http://www.missingkids.com for more tips on what to guide older kids to do to keep themselves safe.
All of these tips and warnings sit under the umbrella of boundaries. Boundary education is a whole other topic area but deserves a little attention here.
Boundaries – how and when to say no
As much as we may lament our child’s boundaries – all those steadfast refusals, resistances, negotiations, tantrums and other forms of NO – these are good and healthy expressions that work to keep them safe. As well as helping to build a safety net around your child, having and expressing boundaries helps our children develop their self esteem and social, emotional, and mental maturity. It is critical that we work to respect them as best we can and, at a deeper level, celebrate them for what they are: beneficial and important (Arnall, 2007).
In the realm of ‘Stranger Danger’, healthy boundaries are expressed in the ability of your child to recognize strange behaviours, to react and ‘say no’ and/or “Yell, Run, Tell”. Having and expressing boundaries, using correct and clear terminology, will serve to protect your child in most situations – whether in daycare, preschool, or on a playdate with friends or family.
Perhaps because it is so difficult to imagine those close to us would act in such a terrible way towards child(ren), it is still a relatively unknown/unaccepted fact that MOST sexual abuse or predatorial situations happen with people we know: family members such as uncles/aunts, close family friends, older siblings, or babysitters. Your safest bet is to ‘be there’ with and for your children until you can thoroughly cuss out how you experience them interacting with any caregiver. This takes time, close observations and intuition. Find out more about ‘signs and signals’ of child sexual abuse here.
Private vs Public
A critic component of sexual health education is about boundaries and safe touch – no matter the age or situation. Giving your child knowledge and understanding about what is private, what touch is safe, by whom, and how to have and express healthy boundaries is protective against abusers and predators. These children know when, why and how to ‘say no’ and if anything happens to them they tend to feel empowered to tell a trusted adult – like you.
From the time your little one(s) are able to reach for and discover their body parts you might notice them lingering on and returning frequently to their genitals. Rest assured this is a natural and healthy behaviour and has more to do with self soothing than self pleasuring or masturbation. (Masturbatory touch usually shifts to a more directed behaviour from ages 4 and up, but your 3 year old may have already figured out how to do this and be doing it regularly.) You may be struggling with your child’s self pleasuring or comforting behaviour and be working to shut it down, especially as you understand that it is inappropriate to do in public (but they don’t care or discern where they do it. Not yet).
It is important to teach children the scientific words for their genitals and other body parts, along with what parts are private (nipples/chest/breasts, genitals, buttocks) and ‘public’ (usually the rest of the body, depending on your cultural and / or religious beliefs and your personal values). If your child understands ‘private parts’ and the appropriate behaviours in regards to theirs and others bodies this will train them about healthy touch and healthy boundaries with themselves and the world around them.
As a general guideline I recommend teaching your children that it is ok to touch their genitals but that they do this in private, i.e. in their bedroom or a bathroom. To build or encourage sexual self esteem it is important not to shame your children for their healthy self exploration, at any age, really. Rather to guide them as to what is appropriate public behaviour within your family / cultural values. While you are having this conversation you can teach them not to touch other people’s private body parts. Depending on your child’s maturity, as well as your personal values, you can include the statement ‘without asking first’ and to teach them to respect others ‘no’s: meaning, [i]when someone says no, they mean no, and the person who says No, leads.
As an example, your 3 year old may be bathing with a friend or family member and is curious to explore or touch their private body parts. Teach them to ask first and if the friend or family says no, to respect that – say OK, change the subject and/or redirect their activity or interest, without the shaming language of ‘that’s bad’ or ‘we don’t do that’. Again, a child is curious about all things in their world, including the people around them, and their body parts. If the friend or family member is fine with this curiosity and exploration, allow a minute or so and then move them on with a generalized statement or question such as “Isn’t that (penis) interesting? Or little boys and men have very different sized genitals don’t they?”, or “You will grow breasts one day too, just like Mummy did”.
The key messages are that it’s ok to be curious, and all questions are good questions.
Remember that compared to how you were probably raised, you are leaps and bounds ahead in providing healthy sexual health education to your children.
This article just touches on four very complex subjects: Stranger Danger, healthy boundaries, safe touch, and public vs. private behaviours. Please be in touch if you have any questions or concerns about the subjects discussed in this article.
Julia Saunders, MEd
Arnall, J. (2007). Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery. Calgary, AB: Professional Parenting Canada.
Hubbard, D. S. (2012). http://www.kidsdr.com/daily-dose. Retrieved April 27, 2012, from http://www.kidsdr.com: http://kidsdr.com/daily-dose/stranger-danger
Being an Approachable Adult: Talking to Your Kids About Body Science, Healthy Sexuality and Safety
What About my Baby? and Oh Wow! Oh Yucky!
If you are a parent of a young baby, toddler, or child up to the age of 8 years, please contact me about a workshop in your community or home. We explore how and why sex ed begins at home (even if you avoid it) and how to prepare for and answer your child’s curiosities as they are primed to learn and very curious, from the beginning!
For parents of children aged 3-8, perhaps you have you been successfully dodging questions… but what has the MEDIA or other peers/siblings been teaching your little ones about what ‘sex’ is? Find out why you are the most important sex educator in your child’s life and when and how to have these sensitive conversations. Help keep your children safe as they navigate the world around them
There are many reasons why you might hesitate to talk about sexuality with your children. You may:
Feel uncomfortable thinking of children as sexual beings.
Think the child is not ready for the information.
Feel embarrassed or lack confidence in answering questions.
Be afraid that talking about sexuality will encourage sexual activities.
Not have thought through or talked about family values and beliefs.
In a 2 hour workshop we will cover topics such as how to help build your child’s empowerment and knowledge of his or her body andcreate and express healthy boundaries.
If you’ve successfully avoided these discussions or your child hasn’t asked questions by age 5, it a good idea to find the space to start the conversations. Join me as I guide you through building your comfort and competency for one of the most important jobs you have as a parent.
Research says: start early as possible….
Be in touch with me~!