It’s that time of year again. You’ve made the rounds to the local big box and office supply stores. You have scoured every children’s clothing section in a 20-mile radius for “fashion-forward”—yet “tastefully modest”—school wear. You have soccer snacks, cleats, football gear, cheer uniforms and a brand new lunch box.
But there is one more thing your child MUST HAVE, and it’s not in any store, hand-me-down box, or school supply bin: Trust in his or her gut.
How your child USES and trusts his or her gut can be the first and best defense against child sexual abuse.
Child predators try to carefully manipulate children using flattery, gifts, lies, and threats (this manipulation is called grooming) so that the child does not follow his or her instincts and becomes a “compliant” victim—a victim who does not fight and won’t report to the police.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that prizes the use of logic over intuition. We value procedure over instinct. We ask our children to tell us how they solve problems, but we don’t allow the answer: It just felt right. And with that, we are doing our children a terrible disservice.
Unfortunately, it’s also how tens of thousands of children become vulnerable to child sexual abuse by people they know and trust—teachers, coaches, relatives, and ministers.
I have worked with approximately 1000 adults who were sexually abused as children. And while there are many unique reasons that each child was vulnerable, there is also one over-arching theme: when their gut told each victim to turn around and walk away, their minds and the predator talked and manipulated them out of it.
Your child does not have to suffer the same fate.
Experts often call the gut the body’s “second brain.” In fact, with 500 million neurons, the gut is an amazing organ—it reacts to stress, mood changes, and millions of potential toxins that come into our bodies through our mouths. Since many scientists believe that the gut is, in fact, our original brain, it’s no wonder that we have coined terms like “gut feelings” and “gut reactions” for our initial (and often correct) reactions to situations. It’s our original survival instinct.
You want your child to follow this survival instinct and react properly when adults blur boundaries, act inappropriately, or groom children for abuse. You want your child to follow her gut and talk to you if she sees, hears about, or has a feeling that a child is being hurt. You don’t want a predator to con your child into being his or her next victim, and your child’s gut is his or her first defense.
So how can you show your child how to use his gut without scaring him or giving her age-inappropriate information about sex abuse? It’s easier than you think.
1) Talk to your child about gut feelings. This is a very easy discussion to start. Whether your child is a kindergartner or a teen, there are dozens of situations every day where your child has to make a decision that is a part of the gut vs. brain paradigm. Explain how the gut reacts to situations—a great example is talking about stomach “butterflies” during times of excitement or stress. You can talk to your kids about peer pressure, and how peers will try to convince them to do things that go against “gut feelings”—gut feelings that later prove to be correct. Encourage your child to make decisions based on thinking and feeling. I’m not talking about basing decisions on emotion, but telling your child that it’s okay to embrace that “inner instinctual pull” they may feel towards a specific decision.
2) Don’t force your child to hug or kiss adults if he or she is uncomfortable doing so. This is especially important for younger children. When we force toddlers to hug adults when they don’t want to, we reinforce two bad behaviors: we are telling our children that we don’t respect their body boundaries; and we are telling them that it’s okay for adults to touch them in ways they don’t like. We are also implicitly telling them to go against their gut feelings about creepy adults, which will lead to trouble later if another adult tries to groom the child for abuse.
3) Don’t dismiss your child when he or she says that an adult is creepy, even if you like the adult. It’s very easy to tell your child Don’t be silly when she comes to you and says that a particular coach, teacher or neighbor is creepy. But don’t do it. Respect your child’s feelings, ask them why he or she thinks that way, and tell them to steer clear of that adult, while remaining respectful.
4) Tell your child that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow. Enforce the fact that you want your child to talk about mistakes, even if they are embarrassing. Your child is going to mess up. You are going to mess up. Your child is going to make mistakes that infuriate you. As a parent, it’s your job to create proper consequences if rules are broken, but it’s also your job to be an ear. The more you reinforce to your child that he or she can come to you and talk about mistakes, ask for help, ask your opinion, or just be an ear, you are telling your child to trust his or her instincts. You are also raising a child who will be more likely to come to you when an adult acts strangely, tries to blur boundaries, or is inappropriate.