Category: Sexual Abuse

My Body is a Gift Discussions: Pages 24-27

These pages are a key part of this book.  All children are exposed to things.  Many children have things happen to them.  Most children don’t talk to their parents.  Why?  They feel fear, shame, and have no idea how the conversation is going to go.   These pages tell children exactly how that safe conversation is going to go and set it all up ahead of time so children know exactly what to expect.  This is done by simultaneously teaching both children and parents what to do.  Children then know how to approach their parents, and their parents know how to respond in a way that will invite safety and reduce shame and fear.  Because the point of the book is to initiate and continue conversations about healthy sexuality, creating a safe space to have those discussions is paramount and that takes work on both sides of the relationship.

  • Have I ever reacted in a way that was not like this?  Yes?  I was pretty sure I had.  (This may be a reaction to a completely unrelated topic that inadvertently made your child feel like they couldn’t always share).  Remember how the book said that making mistakes and fixing them is a part of figuring things out?  Did you know that parents still make mistakes too?  I’m sorry for reacting in a way that made you feel like you didn’t want to share hard things.  I’m learning how to be better while I’m reading this book with you, and I’m going to try to be like the book says all the time, so you can always feel like you can share with me.  I do always love you, even when you make mistakes.  And do you know what?  You can help me out.  If I ever react in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable, or makes you feel bad, will you tell me?  Then I can change right in that moment and be the way you need me to be.  (In full disclosure, I’ve also needed to have these discussions with my kids, so we are all imperfect and feeling this out.  And from personal experience, this invitation will quickly cover many more areas than discussions of healthy sexuality, so be prepared to be called on unhealthy parenting reactions across the board!)
  • When you have something hard to talk to me about, will you be brave and talk to me anyway?  What will you do to get up your courage and be brave?
  • Did you know that I love you no matter what?  Did you know that one of the times I love you the most is when you come talk to me when you’ve made a mistake?  It’s because you have to make mistakes to learn and grow, and I’m proud of you for learning and growing up!
  • Did you know that I love you no matter what? Did you know that one of the times I love you the most is when you come talk to me when you’re nervous or uncomfortable.  It makes my heart so happy to see what a big boy/girl you are when you choose to be brave.
  • It makes me feel so close to you when you come to me so that I can help you figure things out.  How do you feel when we figure things out together as a team?
  • You may have a discussion with your child about a specific phrase or word they could say that could alert you to a conversation they want to have that they feel uncomfortable about, or nervous about your reaction toward.  This can alert you to putting yourself in a safety-creating frame of mind, and help you if you need to reschedule the conversation for any reason (you’re late to get your preschooler, or your teenager just backed the car into the mailbox, your boss is chewing you out on the phone, etc).  You can reschedule, prioritize, and have the conversation in a way that helps your child know they are loved and will be heard.  Normally I encourage parents not to associate talks about healthy sexuality with a special set aside time (sending the message instead that these topics can be discussed at any time), but uncomfortable disclosures often need to feel safe and private, so some of these phrases reflect that space.  Phrases/words can be whatever the two of you come up with:
    • I’m having a hard time.
    • Can we have a chat?
    • Will you love me no matter what? (This invites the safe space)
    • Can we have a special time?

 

Things you may choose to say to your child when they come to you:

  • Thank you so much for coming to me to talk about this.  It makes me feel good that you love and trust me with your questions/worries/concerns.
  • Do you feel nervous or worried?  Wow—I’m so proud of you for being brave and talking to me anyway.
  • You are being a rockstar at learning and growing up right now.
  • Did you make a mistake?  Sounds like you’re learning and growing up—that means you’re half-way there!  Now all we need to do is figure out the fixing it part.  We can work on that together.  What do you think would be best?
  • I love that you talk to me!
  • We are a good team.  I’m glad you picked me to be on your team with you.
  • How did [the situation] make you feel?  (Feelings and intuition are a great protection.  Teach your child not to discount their feelings.  Sharing your own feelings can be helpful.  Remember they might have felt “good” and also shame/fear, etc. Help them pull those feelings apart and identify why they felt each.  Additionally, if a difficult situation has occurred, remember that children often share information little by little as they feel safe.)

My Body is a Gift Discussions: Pages 20-23

The one area of sexual abuse that is not covered by this book is parent on child abuse.  While this could be considered a flaw, the purpose of this book is to develop a pattern of healthy conversations between parents and children around sexuality.  After much deliberation trying to cover everything, it was important to stick with the intent of the book.  In some instances children told simply to tell “a trusted adult,” did so, and because of the dismissive or shaming attitude of that adult, the child chose not to tell a parent and the parents could not take necessary steps to protect their child, or help them through the healing process.  Further, it is less likely that parents choosing to engage in parent-child abuse will be interested in this book and its purpose, and any spouse or grandparent can always clarify in those sections (as in all sections) what they want the child to take-away: come tell ME, or add “a trusted adult” and give examples or ask for examples from the child.  This helpful follow-up discussion question is found in the back of the book:

  • Who are other trusted adults you can talk to when you have questions,feel uncomfortable, or need help?  While the purpose of this book is to connect parents and children, having a predetermined network of support and safety for your child is very valuable.  You can then consider giving those trusted adults this book, or having discussions with them on how to respond in healthy ways to any disclosure or reaching out from your child.

The one area of healthy sexuality that is not addressed specifically in this book is is the names of body parts.  This is an important aspect of healthy sexuality that parents have the opportunity to introduce separately from the text of this book.  If you have not already done so, these pages are a good place to introduce the various sexual organs of the body including penis, testicles, breasts, and vulva (not vagina, as that is not a visible part of the female body, although if you want to explain where the vagina is inside that is fine).  If you feel uncomfortable saying these words, practice ahead of time so you can be comfortable and send appropriate non-verbal messages about body parts.    (Appropriate non-verbal messages are that these parts of the body are just like other body parts.  They exist.  And they are pretty amazing in their function just like any other part of the body.  As you speak about them, treat them as you would an arm or toe). Children should be able to correctly identify their body parts without shame or confusion.  This is an important conversation to have before discussions of sexual abuse.

Once you have addressed and are comfortable with names of sexual body parts, you can have more detailed and accurate discussions of sexual abuse.  Some of those discussion options are listed below:

  • Discuss the situations where they might be undressed in front of others (doctor, siblings sharing a room or a bath, etc.).  Tell them why it is okay: you are there, it is for a specific purpose to make sure you are growing properly, siblings of the same gender can dress together, etc.
  • Views of what is appropriate and not will vary between families, be sure to communicate your views, and in more advanced discussions you can talk about what to do when they are with other people who do not share those views (for example if in your family you don’t change in front of others at all, but they are at a friend’s house and they are fine changing with those of the same gender, how could they handle that?  What are the specific words they can say?—example: we do things a little differently in our family.  I prefer to change in the bathroom.  When you’re done changing, come out of the room so I know you’re done.  If they practice saying it matter-of-factly it will be less likely to offend someone.  (Although it is a very important discussion to have that even if someone else is offended, annoyed or upest, it is still completely acceptable to keep yourself emotionally and physically safe.)
  • What if someone tries to do something, or show you something that is not modest?  What should you do?  Walk them through a plan, and emphasize telling you as soon as possible.
  • How do you think mom or dad will react if you come to us?  Explain that you will protect them, that you will work to keep them safe, that you won’t be upset because what other people do is not their fault.
  • When was the last time someone tried to touch your body in a way that was not modest, or asked you to touch their body in a way that was not modest?  Emphasize that if this ever happens, they should tell you immediately, especially if others tell them not to.  Be reassuring and calm no matter the response.  This provides security and keeps important lines of communication open.  Teach them they are not responsible for others’ behaviors.

Has anyone asked you to show them your, or has shown you their [penis, vulva, breasts, etc.]?  Get the whole story, a little bit at a time, as they’re ready to talk and feel comfortable.  Often children will share small amounts to see your reaction, so if you sense something more, gently probe for more details, even if it is over time.

My Body is a Gift Discussions: Page 17

Just as the initial pages of this book about body appreciation and body care are the foundation for healthy sexuality, this page teaches the foundational principle around prevention of sexual coercion.  The concept that my body is my own and I have a right to determine how others interact physically with me is key to standing up for oneself and not being victimized.  This may end up making changes in your family dynamics around physical affection.  It certainly did in my family when I realized the subtle messages that were, or could be, sent to my children.  Some of the messages in these examples may initially feel extreme, but is is the consistent subtle messages that give children the underlying foundation for how they live their lives.  Every message counts.

  • Give your sister a hug.  I know you’re mad but just make up.  (The message: Others get to decide what I do with my body, not me).
  • Grandma/Other Adult: Give me a kiss.  Oh come on, it’ll make me feel bad if you don’t.  (The message: Other people’s feelings are more important than yours, and if they’ll feel bad if you don’t do something physical that you don’t want to do, you better just do it.  The especially dangerous part of this is the family/well known component—not many of us would try to convince our child to hug/kiss a stranger—since most sexual abuse is perpetrated by family or someone well known to the child.)
  • Girls chasing a boy on the playground trying to kiss him.  “Oh, it’s fine, they’re just playing.”  (The message: It’s okay to sexually assault someone if it is billed as “fun and games.”)
  • Boys chasing girls on the playground to pull their pigtails.  “Boys will be boys.”  (The message: By virtue of being male it is acceptable to physically assault others. This is important in teaching healthy sexuality because if a boy learns always to respect others’ bodies he will not ever get in a space to be sexually coercive.  He will also have learned to reject out of hand the vast majority of pornography because of its violent nature.)

Make a family plan of how to respond when a child doesn’t want to physically engage with someone else.  What should they say?  What should they do?  Can they come find you and talk to you about it if someone is persistent?

Have a family discussion about the culture in your family.  Is there anything you want to change?  We simply started repeating to our children, especially in their interactions with each other, “I get to choose who touches me.”  This reminded them of this concept when they were poking each other to be annoying, wrestling without consent, etc.

I Thought Kindergarten Was Safe…

I’m including this school abuse incident with permission, as there are valuable insights for parents, whether or not their child has experienced this type of situation.

A mom, who attended one of my presentations and who has been reading my book with her children, wrote me (we’ll call her Amy).  She asked her oldest, a kindergartner, about school and her little girl (we’ll call her Bonnie) said a boy in class had pushed her down and touched her “privates,” but Bonnie said it wasn’t a big deal because he didn’t seem dangerous.

Amy was able to stay calm on the outside (while freaking out inside) thanks to what she had learned in my presentation, and gathered information from Bonnie.  Bonnie said she was afraid to tell her teacher or other adults at school because she was afraid they would get mad at her.  What a blessing she had just read My Body Is a Gift From God, which reinforces to children that their parents will never be mad at them for others’ choices.  With my help Amy recognized that while Bonnie had said it “wasn’t a big deal” and she didn’t feel danger, Bonnie really did think it was a big deal because she had been afraid of others’ responses.  She was downplaying her own emotions and own internal voice to avoid others’ judgement.  I pointed her to the last follow-up discussion question in the book where it helps parents explain to their children the importance of feelings and intuition about their body.

Amy was able to use the book to reinforce other concepts with Bonnie as well:

  • She gets to decide who touches, hugs, or kisses her.
  • No one touches the private areas of her body unless her parents are helping her taking care of her body (like parents helping bathe, or a doctor giving a check-up with a parent present).
  • Always telling parents if someone touches her, even if it feels difficult to tell.
  • Her parents will always love her and help keep her safe.  They will never be mad at her, or think it’s her fault.

We also discussed other safeguards and helpful conversations:

  • Formulating a plan and role-playing what Bonnie can do in the future if this type of situation happens again:  Tell the person loudly/firmly to stop and push them away.  Run away, tell a teacher and ask to call mommy right away!  (If your child has not experienced this before, a plan is still very important).
  • Reinforce (because she had downplayed the event and thought others would be mad at her–indicating a potential level of guilt/fault) that she has NOTHING to feel guilty or ashamed of.  It was in no way her fault.  Whether or not a child seems to feel guilt or shame, reinforcing this concept is very important because often children will not express these feelings.
  • Reinforce many times a recognition of her feelings and her own intuition.  Even though Bonnie initially said it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t feel like a dangerous situation, I recommended her mother help her recognize feelings and intuition she had:  “I can see that you didn’t feel it was quite right, because you thought people would be upset with you if you told them.  You knew something was wrong–and you were right!  (Something was wrong with the situation, not you, and it wasn’t your fault).”  Discussing this with Bonnie can help her recognize her instinct and intuition (or God’s spirit communicating with her).  That is an essential part of protection in the future.  When she can recognize that her body, mind, and God were saying it wasn’t right, it will make sense to her to push people away/yell/run as she learned from the book and her parents.  She will recognize that she is standing up for herself and what her body knows is right, and what God was telling her.
  • Get Bonnie into Play Therapy.  Even if she seems fine, children often hold the incident deep inside.  Age-appropriate therapy (play therapy) will help her heal.
  • Email the school and keep records of the exchanges.  “I’m just following up with you about the situation with my daughter.  You may remember I came to you/called/emailed on X day to tell you X.  My daughter said X happened (all details).  You took X action.  Can you confirm this has happened?  Can you send me documentation of the reporting done?  What other actions are required by policy when this type of thing happens?  Have those things happened?  Are there any other precautions you are taking?  Thank-you so much for helping me understand the process of reporting and prevention and of helping to protect the children at the school and getting help for those who need it.”  This is legally admissible evidence, which likely you will not use, but it tells them you are serious and you want them to be diligent in following through with their policies.   And they will.  This helps both the school and you.  And thanking them helps them to realize you’re not loaded for bear and looking for a chance to prosecute–you just want to make sure everything is done to help all of the children involved.

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