It’s a terrifying thought: A sexual predator targets your child, grooms them, assaults them and convinces them to keep it a secret. Short of never letting our kids out of the house again, what can we do to protect children from predators?
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Say experts: It starts with empowering kids to set boundaries for their own bodies. I have a friend who repeats a very simple but powerful phrase to her child, “If someone is no longer having fun, we stop.” My 3-year-old daughter constantly wants to hug her 1-year-old sister, but sometimes, the younger one isn’t having it. I teach my older daughter to always ask first. “If she says ‘no,’ you have to respect that,” I tell her. The same goes, I say, when someone wants to hug her. I make sure she knows, “You can always say ‘no.’”
Jayneen Sanders is an Australian teacher, mother of three and the author of nine books focused on teaching kids about their bodies, boundaries and consent, including, Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept. We asked for her for her advice on not just boundaries, but the tough stuff, like the grooming that abusers can do, not just to kids, but to us adults as well.
DomesticShelters.org: Why do you think it’s important that parents teach their kids about body safety? And at what age do you think these conversations should begin?
Sanders: Many parents believe that the chances of their child being sexually abused are very slim. However, the research tells us otherwise: 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse. [Child sexual abuse can range from exhibitionism to touching to sex trafficking.]
Therefore, it is very important that parents, caregivers and teachers not only educate children in these skills but educate themselves on grooming, the signs of sexual abuse and what to do if a child discloses. Adults cannot let their fear of this topic place children at risk. We can start to educate kids from birth by simply calling their genitals by their correct names and respecting children’s body boundaries. From 2 ½-onwards, children are ready to learn key body safety skills.
DS: How do you begin this conversation with kids? And should both parents be involved, or does it make it any easier if moms talk to daughters and dads talk to sons?
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Sanders: Beginning the conversation is very easy! Start by always calling the genitals by their correct names and talk to children about their body boundaries—i.e., personal space—from a young age. You can then move on to discussing early warning signs we experience when we feel unsafe—feeling frightened, sweating, shaking or having a rapid heartbeat—and choosing trusted adults we could tell. I recommend coming up with a safety network of five adults a child can trust. You also want to teach that private parts are private, and the difference between secrets and surprises. See this infographic for more details.
Parents of any gender can teach body safety to any gender of child. The skills taught are not gender-specific. In fact, I would encourage dads to be very much involved in educating both their sons and daughters.
DS: Since the majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are related to or know their victims personally, do you feel like it’s especially important to let children know that even people in their family must respect their body and cannot touch them without permission?
Sanders: Absolutely! We know that in approximately 95 percent of cases, sexually abused children will know their perpetrator. Sexual predators are in our homes and in our communities. They target families of any socioeconomic group. And they are very skilled at it. Family members need to be educated to respect a child’s body boundaries and listen to their voice. Children need to learn that their body is their own and all adults, teenagers and other children need to respect that, whether they are a family member or not.
DS: You say that sexual predators groom both children and adults. What does the grooming process look like for adults?
Sanders: Adults should be aware of …
- … any person who wishes to spend a great deal of time with your child, seeking out their company and offering to take care of them at any time. For example, an abuser will often ‘help out’ the targeted family at short notice, appearing as a reliable and trustworthy friend. This is the persona a sexual predator will go to great lengths to establish.
- … any person who pays special attention to your child, making them feel more special than any other child; providing them with special treats, presents, sweets, etc. These ‘treats’ may be provided without your knowledge, and be the first of your child’s secrets they are being groomed to keep.
- … ‘that person’ who spends most of their time with the children at parties, weddings, etc. and loves to play games with the kids preferring the children’s company to that of the adults.
- … any person who spends a large percentage of their out-of-hours recreation time with children and who prefers to be alone with the children.
Sexual predators will target busy parents who are in need of extra help. They will also target the disabled, the vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. In saying the above, of course we want our children to spend quality and loving time with the special adults in their lives. However, it is important we stay alert.
DS: Do you feel like teaching boundaries to kids early on is something that can help them later in life as they enter a relationship, so they know how to both require and ask for consent?
Sanders: Yes! If a child, from an early age, can stand firm and confidently say “NO” to someone entering their body boundary or touching them inappropriately then they will certainly be empowered to do this as a teenager and young adult. Body safety skills will teach a child they have rights, especially in relation to their body, and this knowledge is also helpful in bullying situations. Learning about consent from an early age is crucial to reducing sexual assaults and violence.
Teens should be aware of what consent looks and sounds like. For more info, read, “ Does Your Partner Respect Your ‘No’?”
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