“How do I talk to my kids about sexual abuse?” my friend asked. It isn’t the first time a friend has asked me this question, and as a mother of three, I completely sympathize with the fear and worry that come with discussing such a difficult topic with young children.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I began talking to my children about appropriate touch at a young age. We had many conversations about safe adults, privacy, personal space, and body safety. I emphasized over and over the importance of telling mom or dad about anything that made them uncomfortable. I wanted my kids to know they never had to be embarrassed or afraid to come and speak to me.
After being exposed to pornography at a very young age and battling a secret addiction for over 15 years, my husband began talking to our children about the dangers of pornography and sexualized media content when they were around 10 years old. We put parental controls on any technology we had in the house and withheld access to social media or hand-held devices.
But even with the personal knowledge we both possessed and our efforts to educate and inform our children at a young age, we haven’t been able to protect them completely.
No matter how vigilant you think you’re being, or how many safeguards you put into place, we can’t protect them from everything.
So, when my friend asked for my advice, I didn’t take her request lightly. I don’t have all the answers, but as a victim and as a parent, I’ve learned it’s not enough just to teach our children about inappropriate touch. In today’s media-saturated world, we also must teach them about the dangers of sexual exploitation, online predators, and a non-Biblical view of sex.
Here are my seven tips for educating and protecting your children from sexual violence in an age-appropriate way:
1. As soon as your children are old enough to engage in simple conversation, start talking to them about safe touch and their bodies.
From the time they were toddlers, I told my kids that no one can touch them or talk to them about their bodies unless it’s a parent or a doctor (with a parent’s permission). I also stressed this included anything that made them uncomfortable, not just touch. Sexual predators typically begin by grooming their victims—having inappropriate conversations, showing them pictures, or invading personal space. Let your children know they should tell you about any interaction that makes them uncomfortable. Which leads to . . .
2. Create an open and safe environment for discussing uncomfortable things.
You need to let go of any uneasiness you have with talking about sex, bodies, or sexual violence. Children will sense our discomfort and may misinterpret it as being unhappy with them. It’s also important to create an environment where children are believed, and their truth is honored. Brushing off their feelings about small things may lead to them hiding the big things for fear they won’t be taken seriously.
3. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and ask questions when your children go to a friend’s house.
I used to think it wasn’t my place to ask other parents about their rules around electronics in bedrooms or open internet access. But the truth is, I have a right to ask these questions if my child is going to be under their care. After experiencing some scary and harmful situations, we also made a rule in our house that our children are not allowed to attend group slumber parties unless it is at the home of a family we know very well. Sometimes that means saying no to invites, and it sucks. But my children’s safety comes first.
4. Tell your children about pornography and sexual exploitation in age-appropriate ways.
When they are pre-school age you can start telling your children that any body parts covered by a bathing suit are private, and if they see pictures of private parts to tell you right away. As they get older, you can tell them that movies or pictures of people touching and kissing without clothes on are inappropriate. By the time your children are elementary age, you should be talking to them about social media and the dangers of talking to anyone online they do not personally know. (Even better, install parental control apps like Net Nanny or Qustodio on all devices and don’t let your children have access to social media until they are in high school).
5. Teach your children a Biblical understanding of sex and physical love.
The world will tell them to do whatever feels good and under that definition, the lines between safe and unsafe get blurred quickly. But if you teach them God’s design for sex, they will enter the world with greater discernment and this will help them identify unhealthy and dangerous situations much faster.
6. Create a code-word that only your family knows.
I wish we had thought to do this when my kids were younger and began attending sleepovers. It wasn’t until a few years ago we implemented a code phrase after a couple of scary situations. The kids know that in any circumstance where they feel uncomfortable–for any reason—they can call us and say the code phrase, and we will immediately come and get them, no questions asked. Since our code phrase sounds like normal conversation to anyone listening, this allows our kids to express their discomfort without worrying about what their friends or any other adult will think.
7. Listen to your gut.
Don’t underestimate your parental intuition. If something doesn’t feel right about a situation, ask your child. If you don’t know or feel comfortable around another kid, parent, or family member don’t let your child go to their house.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. Even with all we’ve been through personally, even with our efforts to educate and inform our children at a young age, there are things we overlooked. Things we missed. Things we didn’t think about.
While I know God loves my children and I pray for His protection over them daily, I also know that sin and evil exist in this world, and I will do whatever I can do to equip and strengthen my kids against it. Most importantly, I will make sure they know it’s safe to tell me anything.
Originally published on the author’s blog