I was a victim of sexual abuse twice as a child, and as my daughter is now becoming a girl and moving into the world with school, I feel obligated to come up with some kind of plan to prepare her to protect herself. The biggest message that was lost on me as a young child and then pre-teen is that any form of sexual interaction that is unwanted is not ok and should be reported immediately to a trustworthy adult. Also, some adults that should be trustworthy (like a school counselor, or even a parent) fail to follow through and intervene. Keep telling adults until someone helps you!
Fellow SMC and adoptive mom Leah Campbell recently posted a link to Why We Don’t Keep Secrets in Our House, which features a great list of rules to start children understanding the “no touch” rules and prevent child molestation. It’s a great start, but I believe we have to go even farther and cast a net even wider to prevent more subtle forms of sexual abuse, like exploitation, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. It is easy to forget that many perpetrators expose themselves to children, or expose children to porn or sexual material as a means of abuse. Using subtle and hard-to-pin down tactics makes it harder for a child to report the behavior, because the child doesn’t yet have the maturity or the words to explain why something was wrong. For example, as an 11-year-old I completely understood that someone touching my privates was wrong, and reported it. Unfortunately, I did not understand that the same rules applied to being exposed to porn, emails of sexual natures, or exposure to male genitalia frequently under the guise of it being “an accident”. No one wants to go into great detail about the hundreds of ways they could be abused with a child, nor is it very appropriate to do so, so what do we do instead?
The article does make a great point with its “no secrets” house rule, which is that parents should make it clear to their children that openness and honesty will be rewarded, not punished, and that being asked or expected to keep a secret from the rest of the family is never ok. There is no secret, ultimately, that you should have to keep from your parents, although there is a clear difference between privacy (using the bathroom and showering, keeping a diary) and secrecy. Setting up this type of open communication with your children is absolutely necessary in preventing forms of sexual abuse, as abusers depend on it completely to continue their behavior. A child should be in the habit of discussing anything that makes her feel uncomfortable with her parent, and knowing that she will not be dismissed, ridiculed, or shamed.
I also think that from the start you should encourage your child to trust her own intuition, and never force her to hug or kiss or be held by someone when she doesn’t want to. I struggle with this when family is visiting from out of town, or friends at get togethers want a hug from my daughter. I feel strongly that she should be taught from the start that she is under no obligation to share her body in any way with anyone if she doesn’t want to. She should never be pressured into bodily contact, and her preferences for touch (when, who, and why) should always be respected. Often family members are hurt when the baby who loved sitting on their lap six months ago now refuses to, or friends demand a hug after buying her something. But really, what’s more important? Giving in to their ego’s wanting a hug, or preserving my daughter’s healthy set of boundaries?
So, my goal from this point forward, as summer draws near and visitors become more frequent, is to cheerily but firmly tell people who want a hug (or to hold or kiss or otherwise touch) from my daughter, and she is not interested, that I am teaching my daughter that her body is her body, and this is one of the many ways I will be raising my child in order to prevent sexual abuse from occurring to her. Because let’s face it, we will never be able to be with our children 100% of the time. Scary, but true.
In fact, I think I am going to create a facebook post reminding everyone I know to respect her choice not to be touched if that is how she is feeling. I want family and friends to know not to take it personally, and better yet, to be on board with it!