Even if they don’t ask, do tell!
Early and open communication on the topics of sex and sexuality is one of the most effective ways to preventing sexual abuse in children.
Some of the earliest messages we send our children concerning sexuality come from
- how we hold them as babies: tenderly, indifferently, or not at all
- the names we give their body parts: penis vs. wee-wee; anus vs. bottom
- the value we ascribe to bodies — theirs and ours.
Also important is what we tell them about how babies are made, masturbation, and touching and being touched by others. How we approach this last topic can either help or hinder later conversations with your child about sex, sexuality and abuse.
Natural Development Stages
Many parents tell me, with noticeable relief in their voices, that their children don’t ask about babies. They intend to wait for the topic to surface on its own. I suggest you don’t. If your eighteen-month-old wasn’t yet walking, or your three-year-old wasn’t talking, you wouldn’t wait — you’d try different things to bring them along. It’s no different with sexuality. Most children eventually come to understand the concept of existence around 4-5 years old. So your child might ask questions like “Where do babies come from?” and “What do you mean I wasn’t alive when Aunt Judy quit school?” Asking those questions is a part of their natural development.
The fact is that some children ask questions about everything – all of the time, and they just don’t stop! Others, however, are less vocal about their questions, and instead try to figure things out for themselves. If your child falls into the latter category where sex and sexuality are concerned, it’s your job to help them along and conquer that developmental milestone. In other words, you should broach the topic yourself.
How to talk sex and sexuality
From day one, try using the correct names for body parts (vulva, uterus, testicles, anus, breasts). Once your child is old enough to understand what they can and can’t touch in general (e.g., “Hands off daddy’s autographed Bon Jovi guitar!”), you can move on to topics of touch and touching specific to the body.
When speaking with your child, try to send positive messages. Avoid leading off with a laundry list of things to avoid, or a set of flashcards depicting dangerous people and situations. Better to begin as follows:
- Talk about body parts, making sure to use their correct anatomical names. You can do this at bath time, when getting dressed, etc.
- Talk about sex and where babies come from. Read It’s Not the Stork for help with what to say.
- Explain that sex is an adult activity. When your child asks why, you can say: “Because sex can involve feelings and possible consequences (e.g., babies) that adults are usually better equipped to handle.
- Speak positively about your child’s body and all the wonderful things it can do!
After you’ve set a positive foundation about sex and sexuality, you can move on to prevention of sexual abuse. I suggest you include the following points, which touch on the importance of boundaries, how touch can be pleasurable (but not always) and when touch is and isn’t appropriate.
Things to say to your child to help prevent sexual abuse
- Touch is an important way to express caring and love.
- It’s good to be aware of how touch feels. Some days a hug or kiss may feel good, but not on other days.
- It’s OK to touch your genitals if it feels good. You should only do that in a private place—either in your room, or in the bathroom. This message can be changed based on your personal values around masturbation; it should, however, remain non-shaming.
- Under no circumstances should someone other than mommy, daddy, (other family member), or a doctor or nurse touch your genitals, and then only to clean you or treat an injury.
- Even if it feels good, no one other than mommy, daddy (other family members) should touch your genitals.
- If someone is touching you and you don’t want to be touched, you should ask whoever’s touching you to stop. If that person doesn’t stop, you should tell an adult right away, and keep telling until the person stops touching you. You should tell an adult even if the person touching you says not to tell, or says that they will do something bad if you do.
- No one should ever ask you to touch or look at another person’s genitals. If someone asks you to touch another person’s genitals, you should tell an adult right away.
During your conversations, be sure to reassure your child that it’s not their fault if someone touches their genitals. And, that it is not your kid’s responsibility if someone touches them in a way that they do not want to be touched. Emphasize that it’s the responsibility of the other person. This is especially important if your child tells you that someone has touched them. Your child needs to know that you love and believe them, and that you will not be angry, no matter what. If your child is being touched inappropriately, or being hurt in some way, they should feel 100% comfortable to tell you about it.
The sample script below can give you a sense for how a conversation might actually go. It can be used with children as young as three years of age.
“So sweetie, you know how sometimes I like to give you big kisses and hugs because I love you so much? You know how sometimes you don’t like that and you push me away? I just want to let you know that that’s OK. You have a right to say who can touch your body and when. If someone touches you in a way that doesn’t feel good, or that you don’t want, you can push them away. You can tell them to stop, even if it’s mommy or grandma or your favorite cousin.
And some body parts, like your vulva, chest and butt, are extra special, and so we want to take special care of them. If anyone tries to touch those parts of your body, you need to let me know right away. Even if it feels good to you, no one should be touching those body parts except you. You should tell them to stop. You can put out your hand and say it in a mean voice if you need to. If they still don’t stop, you should yell until you get someone to help you. And remember: if someone touches you in a way that you don’t want, or in a way that they shouldn’t, it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.
Want to practice? Show me your mean face and say “stop!”
Sometimes a doctor may have to examine your genitals to make sure that these body parts are healthy, or if you get hurt in any of those places. But mommy or daddy will be right there with you in the exam room.
I love you and it’s my job to keep you safe! Now, should we bake some cookies? ” 🙂
Once you’ve established an open line of communication about sexuality, it makes it much easier to check in with your child. You can ask questions such as“Has anyone touched you in a way that made you feel happy (sad, scared, hurt or confused)?” The key is to talk regularly—not only when you suspect something, or after something has already happened. By proactively engaging your child in mini-conversations about both the positive and negative aspects of sexuality, they will get the message that it’s OK to talk to about sex. And they’ll know that it’s cool to talk about it with you.
Want to be an all-star communicator about sexuality? Need a little help? Contact me to learn about one-on-one coaching, or to attend one of Thrive Education’s communication workshops (offered live and online). The first 30-minute consultation is free. Hope to speak with you soon!