You can help reduce the risk of abuse by teaching children about personal safety, emotions, and personal boundaries. Below are some suggestions for beginning these conversations. These tips can be adapted to children’s learning needs. Teaching these concepts is an ongoing process.
- Listen and observe. Listen to what children tell you, especially if they are uncomfortable. Watch for signs of changes in behavior and emotions, or withdrawal.
- Discuss feelings. Common feelings for children are happy, scared, angry, sad, confused. Provide examples of situations when people may have these feelings.
- Touches. Talk about two kinds of touches. Some are okay, like a goodnight kiss from Mom or Dad, high fives with friends, or medical checkups. Some are not, like hitting, pulling hair, or touching another person’s genitals, buttocks, or breasts without permission.
- Safety planning. Discuss possible ways to respond to uncomfortable, hurtful, or dangerous situations. Examples include leaving the situation, ignoring comments (if the situation is not dangerous), yelling for help, telling the person to stop, saying “No!”, and telling trusted adults. Talk to children about telling you or someone else they trust if anybody does something that makes them uncomfortable or is not okay.
- Rights. Every human being has rights. We all have the right to be safe, to make choices, and to let other people know what we think or feel. Talk to children about their rights, including the right to be safe. Explain that parents, teachers, and other adults make many choices for children, but children get to make choices too. Then provide opportunities every day for children to make choices. This practice will make them more independent adults. Be willing to negotiate sometimes if children want to do something different than you had planned. Keep in mind that compliant children are easy targets for abuse.
- Secrets. Talk about fun and special secrets. A surprise birthday party is a fun secret and it is okay not to tell. It is a nice surprise and nobody is getting hurt. But some special secrets are not okay, like if an adult or older child hurts them or does something they don't like, and tells them not to tell anybody. Let children know to tell a trusted adult if someone asks them to keep a special secret that nobody else can know, or if a person ever says they will hurt them or hurt someone they love if they tell.
- Personal care. If children need personal assistance with using the toilet or changing at school, check to see if the changing or bathroom area provides privacy. Make sure children are comfortable with staff responsible for their hygiene. Before helping children use the toilet or before changing their diaper, let them know what you are going to do and ask permission. This small courtesy can let children know that they have a say in what happens to their bodies.
- Internet. When children use the Internet, have ongoing conversations about what information is safe to share and what is not, and why. Learn more about cyber safety and share what you learned.
- Support. If a child has been abused, learn about counseling options for both the child and family through:
- a local, trauma-informed therapist
- a local domestic violence agency
- a local sexual assault center
- a Children’s Advocacy Center
This may help the child and family heal from the trauma.
- Communication. If children use a communication device or communication board, work with the family or speech therapist to include words or symbols for communicating about personal safety. Common words and symbols include male and female genitalia, breasts, and buttocks; and words or symbols for hitting, punching, pushing, spanking, or touching. Other possibilities include a switch with a pre-recorded message, whistle, or other personal alarm device for signaling emergencies.
- Modeling. Be a role model by using positive discipline and using alternatives to shaming or making children feel badly about themselves.
- Suspicion/disclosure of abuse. If a child tells you about abuse, believe them. Call 9-1-1 if there is current danger. Report any suspicion of abuse, neglect, or exploitation to the statewide child abuse intake line 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-800-252-5400.
(Adapted from SAFE and Chicago Children's Advocacy Center.)