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Being a parent can be downright scary. With a 24-hour news cycle and the media’s love of the scare tactic (“To Catch a Predator,” anyone?), we are constantly bombarded with messages of fear and helplessness when it comes to the safety of our kids.
When I present to parents and community members about preventing and identifying child sexual abuse (CSA), the number one question I receive is: “What can I do RIGHT NOW to help keep my young child safe?”
Fortunately, there are tools every parent can use to help preschoolers empower themselves and become less likely targets for predators. While no method is full-proof, every child can benefit from the simple strategies below.
1) Teach preschoolers the correct names of their body parts.
When a parent calls a body part by a silly pet name (wee wee, pee pee, etc), that body part’s importance is minimalized. Using the right name allows children to own their body parts, speak about them properly, and draw appropriate boundaries with other kids and adults without shame. Not only does this help protect against abuse, but it also helps on trips to the doctor, playground accidents, and the all-important sex talk in 10 years.
This is simple: Tell your child that secrets are bad and there is nothing so awful that he or she can’t tell Mommy and Daddy. CSA is a crime of shame and secrecy. If you take away the power of the secret, suddenly the predator has one less tool of manipulation. Don’t forget to differentiate between secrets (which are bad) and surprises (like birthday presents).
The bathtub is a good time to teach this lesson. Tell children that no one is to touch their private body parts and they are to never touch anyone else’s. Tell them that no one is to take pictures of them when they have no clothes on. Don’t use a tone of fear in the discussion – If you approach this the same way as you approach the rules of crossing the street or sharing toys, your child will not be scared or threatened.
4) Do not force your child to hug or kiss anyone
Children who are forced to hug or kiss adults when they do not want to lose power over their body and personal boundaries. Let your child politely say no. If children learn that their space and body are respected, they are far more likely to understand and appreciate proper boundaries with all adults.
If you give preschoolers the proper strategies to respect themselves and the bodies, you give them tools they can use the rest of their lives. By opening up communication with your child and taking the power away from secrets, parents can become proactive in protecting their childre in an open, honest way that does not rely upon fear or scare tactics.
Remember parents: You are not helpless, and your children are their own best defense.