Sep 092013
 

What message do you give your child about sex?

How do kids learn about sex? More importantly, how do they learn how to learn about sex? Do they feel comfortable coming to you about sex? Really?

Are you sure?

Most of us say, or will say, “You can talk to me about anything.” And we expect our kids to believe us. But, in reality, we give about a million messages that this isn’t true without even realizing it. Especially about sex. Our body language, tone of voice, rhythm of speech, mannerisms and emotional state give a child a strong indication of whether or not a subject matter is safe.

And, right from the start, many of us are giving messages that sex is not a safe topic.

Here are some problematic messages we give and strategies for doing things differently.

 

Problem 1 : Gag Order

We can’t or won’t say the names of a body part without laughing, giggling, blushing or stuttering. Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Scrotum. Yep, they exist and that is what they are called. End of story.

Strategy: If you feel anxious saying (or even reading) these words, your homework is to go home and say them out loud in front of a mirror until you can do it without flinching. If you want your kids to talk about those parts with you, you absolutely must show them that you can tolerate those words and body parts.

 

Problem 2: Nervous Reactions

We get anxious when we see our children touch their own bodies. We get uncomfortable and worried. We gasp and flutter and stumble around and tell them to stop immediately or say something like, “Put that away!” Our discomfort with this is clear. Visions of angry school marms with rulers or hairy palms or crazy sex starved maniacs in back alleys come to mind, and we just can’t deal. So we tell them to stop. The truth is that none of those things have anything to do with what they are doing, which is simply self-exploration. Kids touch their bodies. Every part of their body. When they are toddlers or preschoolers, they will do it in front of you. When they are older, they will do it behind closed doors. But rest assured. They will do it. And it is normal. No wait… It’s healthy for them to do so. Their bodies are their bodies and those bodies are important and healthy and beautiful. They are figuring them out and, in order to do that, they have to connect with them. And that means touching them. Breathe. Just because your preschooler talks about how his penis is magic doesn’t mean he will be a chronic masturbator. He is just figuring things out.

Strategy: If your child is engaging in self-exploration in an acceptable place (bathroom, bedroom, etc.), let them be. Walk away. You don’t even have to comment. Just let them be. If you are concerned about the location say something like, “You are thinking a lot about your penis right now. We are at the dinner table. So, you can either excuse yourself to the bathroom or wait until after dinner. Which one works for you?” If the child wants to talk about it, for example they say, “But my penis is really interesting/hurting/magic,” you can be open to the communication, even though the behavior isn’t okay at the table. You can say, “We can definitely talk about how your penis is interesting/hurting/magic right now, but if you need to look at it you will need to go to the bathroom.” It is okay to set limits and boundaries for where and when a child can self explore and at the same time encourage them to share their thoughts. Penises are okay dinner table topics of conversation, but penises have to stay inside underwear while we eat. Reasonable.

 

Problem 3: Role Modeling Self Loathing

We say negative things about our own bodies. I’m too fat. I’m not pretty enough. My body is unacceptable. Kids are struggling with so many challenging, exciting and sometimes painful changes to their own bodies. When we spend time and energy criticizing our own bodies, it is hard for them to believe that they can trust us to give non-judgmental feedback on theirs. If we want to teach our children to love, respect and cherish their own bodies, and to come to us when that is hard to do, we first have to model that we are capable of this for ourselves.

Strategy: Deal with your own body issues. Get a therapist, a coach, a self-help book. Whatever helps you come to terms with your own body. It’s really important. Not just because it will make your life better to stop waging war against your body, but it will help your kids develop a healthy relationship with their own body. Short of that, never, ever say anything other than loving things about your body, or anyone else’s body, in front of your children.

 

Problem 4: Not Now, Not Ever. 

We set up times to have “the talk” and give the message that we won’t or can’t tolerate talking about these things at any other time. We say things like, “Come here, sit down, we are going to have a talk.” Cue doom music and you can pretty much feel everyone’s heart rate increase. Exact opposite of comfortable. Have this happen every time sex is the topic of conversation and then expect kids to want to talk to us? Not gonna happen. And if they do venture to bring up something sex-related, and we say something like, “Now is not the time to talk about that” or “You’re too young to be in love” or “Don’t worry about that yet” or “Someday I will explain it to you” or “Go ask your father,” we are putting them off from asking again. Saying “Not Now” repeatedly equates to telling a kid “Not ever”.

And it is important to realize that “sex-related” questions don’t actually have to be specifically about sex. It may be a three-year-old asking if the lady at the grocery store has a penis. It may be a four-year-old saying they want to marry the neighbor lady.  It may be a 6-year-old asking what “French kissing” is after hearing the word on TV. It may be a quiet comment from a 9-year-old about having a girlfriend. It may be an 11-year-old asking for deodorant for the first time. Each of these questions is, in fact, about sex. And how we respond tells our child whether they can in fact come to us. If we dismiss the question or freak out about french kissing, how will we respond if they ask about condoms?

Strategy: Throw the idea of “the talk” out the window. Rather than working on “the talk,” work on “talking.” Respond seriously and genuinely any time your kid asks any question about bodies, relationships or sex. Make talking about bodies as normal around the house as talking about milk or laundry or sports. It’s a part of life. It’s something we talk about. A lot. Whenever. Where ever.

Telling our kids they can come talk to us about sex is pretty irrelevant. They know whether they can or not. We show them whether they can or not thousands of times. It is not our ability to say we are available to talk that counts. We must actually be available, all the time. From day one. So, come on. Say it out loud with me… Penis. Vagina. Vulva. Scrotum. Now, let’s talk.

 Posted by at 8:01 am
Dec 072012
 

***********************Guest Post by Emily Plank of Abundant Life Children*******************

Last week, my children and I were out at a coffee shop.  My daughter caught the eyes of another patron, and asked me, Mom, is that a girl?  I answered that yes, I thought it was a girl.  Under her breath, my daughter uttered, She has a vagina.  She sits down to pee.

I smiled, knowing that my daughter is sorting out the categories as they pertain to male and female bodies.  This learning is crucial as children find a voice to advocate for their own physical needs.

Raising children who are strong self-advocates is one way we help protect them from abuse.  While there is no way to guarantee our children’s safety, prevention goes far beyond protecting our children from others we suspect to be dangerous.

  • Empowering our children with the knowledge that their bodies deserve respect gives them the courage to demand respect when situations cross a comfortable line.
  • Empowering our children with agency over their body helps them develop an internal sense for who can assume control over their bodies. (Hint: without permission – no one!)
  • Empowering children to speak up for themselves in public situations grows their courage to stand up for their needs.

 

1. Body Knowledge = Body Respect.  When we know about our bodies, we learn to respect our bodies.  We teach this concept as we interact with children’s bodies from birth in several ways.

 Terminology.  “Genital slang” serves to deflect our own discomfort and ignorance about physical bodies, but using colloquialisms communicates shame and disrespect.  Children wonder, why do my genitals need special, silly words? We clam up at the sound of terms that children need to own their physical bodies, but we would do our children a great service to just get over it.

If it helps, practice saying the words over and over.  The more practice you get, the less awkward it feels!  Everyone now: penis, vulva, scrotum, and vagina.

Function.  For preschoolers, body functions comprise the sum total of their humorous arsenal.  Nothing gets the giggles going like mention of pee, poop, boogers, or (dare I say it?) gas.

Laughing about a body function should be reserved for children.  No doubt, gas is hilarious, but when we laugh at children for the natural processes of their bodies, we can plant seeds of self-questioning and fear.  Laughing at our own farts every now and then can model a light-hearted approach towards our bodies or it can undermine appreciation for the complexity of our bodies – it really depends on the age of the children and the circumstances.

While joking can be hazardous, squashing the spontaneous laughter of a group of children over jokes involving body functions does nothing except create a taboo subject that increases in allure.  I tend to abide by the rule that jokes are fine as long as they aren’t done at another child’s expense.

Likewise, the way we respond to body functions can communicate honor and respect or shame.  Infants’ diapers might be described as “full” rather than “messy” or “strong-smelling” rather than “stinky.”  Toilet accidents are simply accidents, handled without shaming and as privately as possible.  Language is important, and what we say to children communicates that their body processes are normal, healthy, and worth respecting.

2. A Sense of Agency: Children Control their Bodies “I am in charge of my body. No one can do anything to my body without asking.”  This message is one of the most critical messages for children to internalize during their early years, yet so much of what we do can interrupt this idea. 

We model appropriate physical contact with children when we ask for permission before getting into their space.

From infancy, when we need to pick them up to change their diaper, we ask. I see you need a new diaper.  Can I pick you up?  (wait for a response)  Okay. I’m going to pick you up now. 

 As toddlers, when we need to wipe a runny nose, we askI see boogers.  Would you like help wiping your nose, or would you like to do it yourself?

When a child is hurt, and we think they might like a hug, we askYou fell and bumped your knee.  Would a hug be helpful? 

 When our preschool students arrive in the morning, before shaking hands, hi-fiving, or hugging, we ask.  It’s so nice to see you this morning. I have a good morning hug I’d like to give you.  Would you like to have it?

3. “I can ask for my own ketchup.”  Having a voice to speak for themselves is a crucial part of self advocacy. My mom raised my brothers and I to be self-advocates from an early age.  One of the ways she did it was through direct teaching in public situations.  She tells of times when we needed something small at a restaurant (ketchup, napkins, a drink refill), and she gave us the language and the courage to ask for it ourselves.  Or times when we needed to know the location of a book at the library, and she gave us the language to ask the librarian.  And still times when we needed to borrow a cup of sugar, and she sent us next door, armed with a measuring cup and the right vocabulary to be successful.

Children need lots of practice talking to strangers.  The reality is that strangers are statistically not the problem when it comes to childhood abuse.    Success in social interactions comes from a set of specific tools: speaking loudly, making eye contact, and asking for attention before speaking, and children only acquire those tools through practice.  Finding small ways to give children the power to talk to adults and get what they need equips them with lifelong skills for self-advocacy.

Consider a child who feels threatened.  That child needs to seek an adult ally and get help. Through practice in low-stakes situations, our children will have the tools to manage when the stakes get higher.

At the end of the day, the only person responsible for abusing a child is the abuser. And it would be great, if we lived in a world where all people, of all shapes and sizes, respected each other’s bodies and boundaries. But in the meantime, we can give our children as much power and protection against abuse as we possibly can. To this end, our strongest ally in the quest to protect children from abuse is empowerment, because the skills children learn through these types of interactions apply widely, and are applicable when our kids are out of our immediate view.  Fostering skills of self-advocacy in children extends from small daily choices we make as educators and parents, and carries the potential to create true transformation for our children. And just as importantly, when we empower children to protect, honor and respect their own bodies, we are creating a generation of future adults who are more likely to protect, honor and respect the bodies of others. And that’s when the world really does become a safer place.

 

Emily Plank is a play-enthusiast, expert block-tower-builder, skilled problem-solver, and accomplished storyteller. She loves putting early childhood education research to the test with her crew at Abundant Life Child Development Home and offers her current real-life experience and anecdotes in her writings. Emily serves as a mentor to other child development home providers in her county and spends evenings and weekends training other early childhood educators across the United States through her own original workshops and trainings. An avid writer, Emily blogs for the families of children in her care and the early childhood community at large at abundantlifechildren.com. She lives in Iowa with her husband and three very spirited young children. 

 

 

 

Thank you so much to Emily for adding her voice to our collection of posts about prevention abuse!  Want to contribute? Please contact us! We would love to add your story.

 Posted by at 10:01 am
Nov 272012
 

Sexual abuse prevention is an issue close to my heart and something I have worked with for many years in various capacities. I have written about protecting our children from sexual abuse numerous times, and while these posts are not usually popular,  several things occurred over the past few weeks that told me it was time to write again anyway. First, local news coverage in Portland, Oregon, has focused on the location of a sex offender treatment program (see coverage here). Families and businesses in the vicinity are alarmed that offenders are being treated in their neighborhood—close to a preschool, a Boys and Girls Club and their homes. This reaction is not uncommon and is, in fact, easily understood. The treatment center is currently searching for a new location. Second, in another part of the country, Janet Lansbury, who many know and trust as an early childhood expert, reposted a blog about her experience of finding out that someone she knew and trusted turned out to be a child molester (see the post here). While she originally wrote the blog post several years ago, the post is just as relevant today.

While these two scenarios are quite different, at the heart of both of them is a false sense of security. We avoid dealing with the real issues of child abuse by telling ourselves three lies:

 

1)      Sexual abusers are usually strangers.

 

2)      I can tell a sex abuser when I see one.

 

3)      My child would definitely tell me if anything was wrong.

 

 

In reality, none of these statements are absolutely true. Here are some true facts:

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services’ 2010 report on Child Maltreatment,  81% of children who are abused (all types of abuse including sexual abuse) are victimized by a parent, 6.1% by another relative, 4.4% by an unmarried partner, 5.7% by another caretaker (including a child care worker, foster parent, legal guardian, babysitter, etc). Only 2.8% are abused by someone unknown to the child.

Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 20% of women and 10% of men experienced sexual abuse as children. Some statistics suggest the rates are higher. Look around your preschool or playgroup or neighborhood. One in four or five girls will be victimized. That is a hard fact to swallow. There are no demographics that are left unaffected. Now look closer: Most sexual abuse is committed by men (90%) and by persons known to the child (70–90%), with family members constituting the large majority of offenders. A child is much more likely to be abused by someone they know and trust than a stranger. (See more stats here)

Here is another important fact. Only a small percentage of convicted sex offenders go on to be arrested for new sexual crimes (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2003). Most people who are sexually abused are abused by someone who has never been caught. These offenders are not registered sex offenders and they will not show up on background searches. Who are they? They are our friends, neighbors, family members. They are people we know from school or church or work. Our kids trust them, we trust them. They do not have a label or a sign or clearly identifiable traits that scream, “Warning, I am a sex offender.”

So what does this all mean?

  • We must let go of the “Stranger Danger” security blanket. Yes, a very small percentage of children are abused by offenders who target children who don’t know them. And yes, these scenarios that make the evening news are terrifying. But, focusing on this allows us to turn a blind eye to the more likely threat to our children. It is harder, scarier and more difficult to talk with our children about sexual abuse that may come from someone they trust. It’s tricky and messy and confusing. We don’t want to think about it ourselves. We know we have to say something to our kids, so we keep it safe and distant: We talk about stranger danger. But, the truth is that this just isn’t enough.

 

  • We have to let go of the myth that children will tell us, clearly and promptly, if something is happening. We would like to think that if we have one discussion with our children about “good touch” and “bad touch,” they will know the difference and be able to tell us when someone crosses their boundaries. But, it’s not always easy for kids to tell. Children who experience abuse often have been “groomed.” Groomed  to be afraid of getting in trouble or getting someone they love and trust in trouble. Groomed  to feel it is their fault. Often the line between good touch and bad touch is very blurry. Often they do say something and we don’t listen, we dismiss or minimize or don’t want to believe it ourselves. Telling is tricky. Responding is tricky. There are layers and layers of issues wrapped up in this process. It isn’t easy or clean cut in any way.

 

  • We have to accept the fact that sexual abuse is everyone’s problem. It isn’t something that happens to “those victims” by “those bad guys.” It is something that is deeply entrenched in our culture. It happens to “our children” by “people we know.” I guarantee that each and every one of us personally knows someone who has sexually assaulted someone. We may not know it, but we do. It’s just a fact.

So, what do we need to do differently? Here are three specific actions we can take:

  • We need to be building families in which dialogue about feelings, thoughts and experiences is not only acceptable, but is the norm. We need our children to know that they can tell us they don’t like or feel good about someone, even if they can’t articulate why. And they need to know that we will respect, honor and protect them. I have written about this in depth in other posts, but in a nutshell, it starts from day one. Never tell a child to hug or kiss or tolerate any kind of touch from anyone if they don’t want it. They have to know that if they don’t want to kiss grandma, they don’t have to, and we will respect that and help them maintain their boundaries. Read more here.

 

  • We need to be helping kids listen to their own instincts and feel comfortable to tell us about them. Oftentimes, sexual abuse starts with touching that isn’t considered “bad touch.” Shoulder rubs, tickling, hugging or snuggling. Games with older children, cousins, neighbors, friends which may start benign and lead in to more abusive behaviors. Boundaries are slowly eroded, so that by the time “bad touch” happens, children often feel like it is “too late” to tell. We can help children develop their ability to listen to their instincts by respecting their boundaries and helping them articulate these boundaries on an ongoing basis. A child doesn’t have to have a reason to not want to be touched. A child doesn’t have to have a reason to not want to play with a certain peer. We can support their boundaries and give them the message that their inner voice is valid. When we validate and support this (every day) we give them the message that they can say when something doesn’t feel right. Helping a child recognize and honor their instincts about a situation will help them stop abuse before it happens to them. It empowers them, and not only with regard to sexual abuse, but with peer pressure as well! Read more here.

 

  • We have to give children a vocabulary to express themselves. Start with the words we use for genitals. Use the correct names. Vagina. Penis. Vulva. Scrotum. Anus. Oh yes, you can. These are body parts to be respected just like all other body parts. Use their correct names. In the same way, give them a vocabulary to express emotions. And not just the big emotions, the subtle ones too. Nervous, uncomfortable, anxious, confused, worried. Often children’s experiences in the early stages of sexual abuse may be more subtle. If their experience doesn’t fit easily into any category, or they don’t have the more subtle words to describe it, they don’t say anything. And, we have to give them the language to be able to change their mind. The other week I noticed two children wrestling. One started crying when it got too rough, and the parent responded saying, “Well, you wanted to wrestle, so I guess you asked for it.” The problem with this message is that it denies the child’s inner limit. “This was fun, and now it isn’t.” We can support their inner instinct that things have shifted. The relationship is no longer fun, the game is no longer working. They can call it off anytime they want. (Read more here)

 

In order to better support our children, we as parents need to open our own dialogue about sexual abuse. We need to be willing to look at our own issues, fears, expectations, beliefs, myths and triggers. We as a society need to talk more openly. We need more posts like Janet Lansbury’s. We need more voices talking about a new way to change the way we help children 1) know and stand up for their own bodies and boundaries and 2) grow into adults who respect the bodies and boundaries of others.

To this aim, Core Parenting will be devoting special space on this blog to collecting voices, stories, articles and posts from others that work towards a goal of raising sexually healthy children. Want to contribute? Contact us!!

 Posted by at 10:50 am
Jul 162012
 

Let’s talk about sex. Again. Yes, I know I have written about it before, but I’m writing about it again. Why? Because just as in real life, we can’t talk about it just once and have it be a done deal. We have to keep talking about it. Talking until it becomes a topic that we are comfortable with. Until it becomes a topic our kids know we are comfortable with.  I know, this goes against the grain of everything we hold dear in our culture when it comes to sex. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Mantras we live by when it comes to sex. We don’t want to or can’t talk about it with our families, our mentors, or our advisers and our society has this weird belief that if we acknowledge sex with real and meaningful discussions, we will turn into sex-crazed zombies. However, we are perfectly comfortable bombarding ourselves with sex in the media and we often see children oversexualized by the media. See this article in the Washington Post, for example. But talk about it? No! Oh, but I digress.

So we know we need to talk to our kids about sex, and we know we need to do it differently than we have been doing it. And we need to do it now. But how? Why are we so resistant? The message isn’t new. For years, experts have been saying that the current way our culture deals with sexuality is failing our youth.  In October 1984, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote an article called “The Failure of Sex Education.”  In it, she talks about the fact that parents, culture and the education system fail children with regard to their sexuality. She points out how we miss the boat by believing that sexual development happens only during certain ages (6-12), or that it is limited to certain behaviors (masturbation and intercourse), or that information should come from only one source (parents). The article states:

First, children are “sexual from birth.” Like many sex educators, Wilson rejects the classic notion that a latency period occurs between the ages of about six and twelve, when children are sexually quiescent. “Ever since I’ve gotten into this field, the opponents have used that argument to frighten policymakers,” she says. “But there is a body of developmental knowledge that says this is not true.” And, according to Wilson, it is not simply that children are born sexual or that their sexuality is constantly unfolding. It is also that sexuality is much broader than most imagine: “You are not just being sexual by having intercourse. You are being sexual when you throw your arms around your grandpa and give him a hug.”

This is not a message that we are comfortable with. It is not a message that we embrace. When we tell the parents of a toddler that their child is sexually developing as we speak, the parents are likely to cringe and wave their hands in dismay. Often, even parents of teenagers will say, “Oh, not my child. He doesn’t think about it at all. He probably never will.” Right. We are fooling ourselves into not seeing what is right in front of us. And when we fool ourselves, we fail our children.  Unfortunately, failing our children in this arena has dramatic consequences. We make them more vulnerable to sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. And even if they escape all that, we fail them by leaving them alone to navigate scary, lonely and uncharted territory.

But we can’t put all the blame on the parents. Every time I see a new parenting book on the market, I quickly scan the table of contents. Nine times out of ten, the terms “sex,” “sexual development,” “masturbation,” “sexual health,” etc. do not even appear in the index. I get a surge of excitement when I find it and am often disappointed when the sum total of the discussion is a single sentence that equates to this: “Parents should be open to talking to their children about sex.”  It’s slowly changing, but in the meantime, what is a parent to do? Here are four simple things to get you started:

1)       We need to do a check-in with ourselves. Okay, maybe this one isn’t so easy, but it’s the most important. I talk about how our own issues interfere with our parenting here and sex is no different. Talking about sex is so difficult, because it brings up an overwhelming emotional response. Anxiety, fear, anger, shame.  These types of feelings are devastatingly common reactions to sex.  Very few of us come into parenthood without wounds from our past and, unfortunately, these wounds often revolve around sex. From sexual abuse to sexual stigma to sexually repression to painful messages regarding our sexuality, these experiences can make it difficult for us to respond in a healthy way when our children begin to explore their own sexuality.  And even if we haven’t had any particularly traumatic or negative experiences, few of us grew up in households, churches or schools systems that encouraged healthy dialogue about sex. We just don’t have the models or experience to guide us in what we know we should be doing now.  We are like deer in the headlights.

 

2)      Adopt a new mantra about sex. Andy Warhol said, “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time.”  Sex is and always will be a part of life. We need to get over it. If we can stop making it such a big deal, maybe we can deal with it!

 

3)      Realize that sexual development means more than simply learning about how to make babies. Thinking about a preschooler’s sexual development does not equate to teaching him about intercourse. Sexual development and sexual health include: learning to respect our own bodies, learning to respect other people’s bodies, and learning about bodily functions, hormonal changes, relationships, gender identity, social identity, boundaries….I could go on and on.

 

4)      Change your goal regarding sex education.  The purpose of talking to our kids about sex is to lay a foundation so that they will talk to us about sex!  Whitehead wrote:

In the beginning, before there is sex, there is sex literacy. Just as boys and girls learn their number facts in the first grade, they acquire the basic sex vocabulary, starting with the proper names for genitalia and progressing toward an understanding of masturbation, intercourse, and contraception. As they gain fluency and ease in talking about sexual matters, students become more comfortable with their own sexuality and more skillful in communicating their feelings and desires. Boys and girls can chat with one another about sex, and children can confide in adults without embarrassment.

Parents often ask what information they should give their kids and when.  I don’t think there is one specific answer to this. Rather, if our goal in early childhood is to create a culture in which kids acquire the language, ease and fluency in talking about sexual matters, the result will be that they are able to ask for information when they need it and we will feel comfortable and open enough to give it to them!

Let’s talk about it! I would love to hear from all of you on this topic. Post here or on our Facebook page to share your thoughts!

 Posted by at 10:24 am
Jul 122012
 

******Guest post By Sarah MacLaughlin, Excerpted and adapted from her Award-winning Amazon bestseller What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children*******

 

American culture is loaded with hang-ups about bodies—how they look, what we put in them, and their sexual functions. These often warped messages produce untold numbers of mixed-up and unhappy adults whose feelings influence children. What parents and caregivers say to young children about looks and food and sex is vitally important. Just as kids need help with emotional and intellectual growth, they also need guidance in developing a healthy attitude toward their bodies. The process starts with newborns as they learn about anatomy by exploring all their own fascinating parts. As children grow, they gather important messages from the adults in their lives and from the larger world.

 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Our social environment is obsessed with looks—we are constantly bombarded with media images of “preferred” facial and body types. Unless kids grow up in total isolation, they soon learn which types to aspire to. They also pay attention to how adults talk about appearance, including their own. Do you say things like, “She’s big as a cow,” “It’s too bad about his nose,” or “I hate my thighs”? Children tend to mimic not only your language but your attitude—comments like these imply that putting down others and one’s self is normal and accepted.

 

Talking to a child about his appearance can be a minefield. Many youngsters are overly concerned about how they look, so if you do mention a child’s looks, don’t overdo it.

 

Occasionally commenting on a child’s special features is fine: “You have such beautiful shiny hair” or, “I see those bright blue eyes.” But rather than emphasize appearance, appreciate and acknowledge a child’s special talents and interests as well. Something such as, “You run so fast! What strong legs you have.”

 

Children and Food

As kids develop their relationships with food, adults are key players—grocery shoppers, cooks, and role models. With the alarming rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes among children, parents and caregivers need to seriously consider their part in these sad health trends. Do we pay lip service to the idea of healthy food but take the family to fast food places several times a week?

 

Young children who get whatever they want to eat are primed for not only gaining excess weight but other health problems down the road. Parents need to be in charge of what foods are ordered in restaurants and what is offered at home. The adults in a child’s life can do a lot to offset poor eating habits and influences. Besides taking obvious steps like preparing healthy, well balanced meals, we can educate ourselves on nutrition and talk to kids about it. For example, “These beans have lots of protein, which helps your body grow.” “We don’t buy that snack because it has something called trans fat that is bad for our bodies.” Even young children can be interested in how various kinds of food affect the growth of their bodies.

 

Private Parts

The first principle in talking to children about body parts and their functions—though awkward for some of us—is using anatomically correct language. While many adults use the common terms for elimination, “pee” and “poop,” euphemisms for private parts should be avoided. What kind of feelings does a child have about his genitals if they are kept shrouded in mystery or made to seem dirty?

 

Boys have not only a penis, but a foreskin (sometimes), testicles, and scrotum. Girls have a vulva, labia, a clitoris, and a vagina. As a teacher, I heard the inevitable discussion during bathroom breaks about who was using the “right” term. I learned to keep a straight face while explaining to young ones that “weenie” and “pecker” are words that people sometimes use instead of penis, the correct term. Along with the proper words, youngsters should learn how to wash and wipe their own private areas as soon as they are able.

 

Adults can easily sabotage a child’s positive connection to his sexual self with their own discomfort. Try to respond calmly to a child’s very normal sexual curiosity rather than evoke shame by acting shocked.

 

Doctors Mary Calderone and James Ramey, in Talking With Your Child About Sex, (http://www.amazon.com/Talking-Your-Child-About-Sex/dp/0345313798/) offer some sound insight: “Deliberate adult avoidance of the area between the waist and the knees can hardly go unnoticed by the child, especially when other body parts are freely mentioned. Since the child already knows that this is an important pleasure center of the body, such avoidance can cause confusion and lay the groundwork for later problems.” If you are confused about how to talk with kids about sexuality, reproduction, and self-protection, there are many good books on these topics. Additionally, Darci and Julie here  at Core Parenting have some excellent resources here (http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/raising-sexually-resilient-children/) and here (http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/its-time-for-the-talk/).

 

Another advantage for children who are comfortable with their bodies and know the correct terms is they are less likely to be sexually abused. This knowledge empowers them with a sense of ownership over their bodies. Encourage kids to stand up for themselves by saying “No!” in any situation that makes them anxious.

 

A pushover child is an easy target for exploitation. Since children are more likely to be molested by someone they know, make sure that kids understand that they don’t have to do something just because a grown-up—even a family friend—or an older child says so. Teach a child who feels uncomfortable about a situation to say, “That part of my body is private” or simply, “Don’t touch me.” A guideline children can understand is that the body parts their bathing suits cover are restricted areas, to be touched only by the child and certain other people. Even those people—parents, caregivers, and doctors—should honor a child’s feelings about being touched. Adults with their rules, habits, and issues greatly impact a child’s feelings about his sexuality—and about his looks and food. Pay attention to the messages you send.

 

We’d love to know what you think about this topic! Please comment below!

 

Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about talking to your children about the body. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway — to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you’re the winner!

 

Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah’s blog here: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html.

 

Also, you can enter at Sarah’s site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Go here to enter: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html

 

About The Author

Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site: http://www.saramaclaughlin.com/ and her blog: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com.

 Posted by at 10:37 am
Jun 052012
 

Recently, through blogs, communication with other parents and discussion with my own family, I have heard myself talk about helping a child to learn to trust herself. I have become aware that for me this issue is at the heart of raising healthy, resilient children. A child who trusts herself is able to experience the world through her own eyes and heart rather than relying on an adult’s interpretation of things for her. A child who trusts herself can confidently take risks and try new things and also know when she needs a helping hand. A child who trusts herself knows when something doesn’t feel right and can ask for help. On the other hand, she can fully enjoy when something is right and feel empowered, taking ownership over her experience.

I have come to realize that so many of the childhood, adolescent and even adult issues that our children face boil down to trusting and knowing themselves. Three specific topics come directly to mind.

1)      Sexual Health. – In order to be sexually resilient, stand up to abuse and make sexual decisions that are healthy for them, children need to be able to trust their inner instincts. So often abusers use grooming techniques to blur the lines and confuse the child so that the line between fun and abuse is cloudy, grey and easily missed. Sometimes, the only thing that may signal that a playful behavior has turned abusive is an internal red flag. A child has to be able to trust that tiny voice in the back of their head that says, “I don’t like this.” And often, it means saying something bad about someone who is respected within the family. What a huge burden! In order to do this, the child has to trust that tiny voice, they have to trust themself, and they have to know that we trust them.

2)      Food. – Eating disorders and food issues are rampant in our society. We want our children to have a healthy relationship with food and a healthy relationship with their own body. In order to do this, in the face of overwhelming media and peer messages about food and bodies, our children have to trust themselves. They have to know when they are hungry and when they are not. They have to trust that when they feel hungry they really are and that food is a nurturing part of life.

3)      Bullying. – In order for our children to resist bullying (either being a bully or being bullied) and stand up for others and for themselves, they have to trust their own feelings about themselves and others. They need to have confidence that they are powerful, healthy, strong individuals and that others are as well. They need to have confidence in their own feelings and empathy for the feelings of others. But how can we expect them to understand or even consider what others are feeling if they don’t know or trust their own feelings?

I could go on and on. But you get the point. If I could only give my children one thing, it would be this: Trust in themselves.

Of course we all want this. We want our children to have a deep and profound understanding and connection to themselves. It is easy to see how verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse would undermine and destroy children’s ability to trust themselves. But it may be harder to recognize the subtle and tiny ways that we, with all the best intentions, whittle away at children’s ability to trust themselves. How often do we tell a child how they feel or don’t feel. Most of us have responded like this on at least one occasion:

“My leg hurts.” “I don’t see anything, you’re okay.

Or, “I’m done eating.” “Take one more bite, I know you’re still hungry.”

Or, “I don’t want to kiss grandma.” “Go on, kiss her, you love her so much!”

In each of these scenarios, our best intentions give an unintended, yet pretty clear, message: “You don’t know how you feel. I do.

The examples are endless. Statements like, “There is no reason to be scared.” “Don’t be angry at me, this is a natural consequence.” “I know you have to pee.” “She is your friend, you like playing with her.” “This is your favorite color.” “Stop crying, this is not something to cry about” all send the same message. “You don’t know how you feel. I do.” A child who hears this message repeatedly learns that they can’t really trust their own emotional or physical sensations, they don’t know how to interpret internal cues, they can’t communicate these internal cues to others and if they do, someone will tell them they are wrong.

Of course none of us actually wish to transmit this message to our children. Rather, we respond this way for a variety of reasons:

1)      We don’t know what to do. – Children often have unexplained emotions. They have aches and pains and heartaches and struggles and frustrations that we can’t see and can’t fix. When a child is complaining that his leg hurts, and there’s no blood or scratch or bruise, we can’t diagnosis it. Maybe he is having growing pains. Maybe he needs a hug and doesn’t know how to ask. Maybe he needs an adult to come close because he feels anxious. Maybe he saw a sibling with a hurt leg and is expressing sympathy. Who knows! It can be overwhelming and frustrating to a parent, so we respond with, “It doesn’t hurt. There is nothing there.”

2)      We think it’s in the child’s best interest. – Parents worry that their child isn’t eating enough. Parents worry that their child will be cold. Parents worry that their child isn’t playing well with other children. So we tell them to do something because we feel it is best for them. “Eat all your food.” “I know you’re cold, put on a jacket.” “You like Jane, play nice with her.” But the problem is that we are negating and overriding a child’s experience of their own body or feelings. It doesn’t actually help them in the end.

3)      We think we are teaching them something. – Mind your manners. Be polite. Say hi to the stranger. Kiss Grandma. Don’t embarrass me. What we are actually teaching them is how to comply with parental or adult demands to make us happy and ignore their own internal cues. That’s great if we are training show dogs. Not so great if we are trying to raise emotionally intelligent and resilient adults.

Rather, our goal should be to help our children identify their own emotional states and trust that they can get their needs met by communicating this in some way. In order to do this, we have to be willing to let them own their own feelings, experience the world in their own way and explore possible outcomes. We also need to let them know that we trust them to do this.

Rather than directing or telling a child how they feel or what they should do about it, we can strive to support a child through their own process. We can do this by reflecting, sharing and asking.

Reflect what you see: We can help a child understand social context and cues by reflecting back to him what is happening.

Share how you feel: Reflecting our own feelings models a pattern of communication which is genuine and trusting.

Ask what they think: Asking them what they think or feel tells them that you trust and value their thoughts and feelings.

Through doing this, we can help them negotiate the outcome, rather than dictating one. Let them know that you are there to support them through it and that you will be there to help. Finding realistic and healthy solutions is part of the process. So instead of, “I don’t see anything, your leg is okay,” it may sound like this:

 

I notice you are very sad and hurt right now. You’re really holding onto your leg. (Parent reflects what is happening in the moment.)

I feel really worried and confused because I can’t see the owie, I don’t know how to help you! (Parent shares how they feel.)

What does it feel like? What do you think you need? (Parent asks what the child thinks and feels.)

It feels pokey and I think I need to go to Disneyland! (Child identifies a feeling and a solution.)

Oh, I love Disneyland, and I wish we could go there, too! That would probably distract you from the pokey feeling. But since we can’t, is there anything else I can do for you? (Parent validates child’s feeling. And asks to problem solve.)

 A kiss. (Child is empowered to find his own solution.)

Absolutely. (Parent sends message that they are there to support their child.)  

 

Reflect, Share and Ask. It works for any situation. What if a child refuses dinner?

-I notice you didn’t eat any dinner. And I’m worried that you’re going to be really hungry later. What do you think? How does your tummy feel?

– My tummy feels bubbly and I don’t want to eat.

– Is there anything else you need?

-Ice cream.

-Oh man, ice cream is yummy, but it isn’t available for dinner. Anything else?

-No, I’m just not hungry.

-Okay, snack will be ready at 7 if you’re hungry then.

 

This process encourages a child to self-identify and communicate emotions. It sets a stage for a pattern of communication in which each person is responsible for their own emotions and is part of the solution. It tells children that they can be responsible for themselves and ask for what they need. All of these are things that many of us struggle with as adults. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we learned how to do it when we were toddlers? When we encourage a child to explore their emotions and physical sensations, and we believe and support them when they do tell us, we are giving the message that we trust them. And if we trust them, they can trust themselves. And if they trust themselves, they can experience the world on their own, instead of needing others to do it for them. And that is the basis for authentic genuine living.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm
May 292012
 

I recently watched “Let’s Talk About Sex,” a documentary by James Houston about how American attitudes towards sex, and more specifically towards talking about sex, impact adolescent sexuality. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you are the parent of a teenager in America you should watch it, especially if you are the parent who says, “Oh, my kid tells me everything” (and, let’s face it, we are ALL that parent). If you are the parent of a pre-teen, you should watch it. If you are the parent of a preschooler or a toddler or an infant. If you are thinking of having children. If you work with children. If you know children or know someone who knows children, you should watch it.

Despite the fact that I feel passionately about this topic, think about it a lot and feel driven to try to change the way we interact with children around the issue of sexuality, I am always blown away by the facts:

  • The United States’ teen pregnancy rate is the highest in the developed world. (Almost three times that of Germany and France and over four times that of the Netherlands.)
  • The United States’ teen birth rate is nearly eight times higher than that of the Netherlands, over five times higher that of France and over four times higher than that of Germany.
  • The percentage of the United States’ adult population that has been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS is six times greater than that of Germany, three times greater than that of the Netherlands and one-and-a-half times greater than that of France.

Combine these statistics with the fact that there is no research or evidence available suggesting that US teens have more sex than teens in any other developed nation. So the same amount of teen sex results in staggeringly higher rates of STDs and pregnancy. After trying unsuccessfully to convince my husband that the only way to ensure our children don’t become teen parents is to move to the Netherlands, I realized that there is actually a solution. We can change the way we think about and talk about and react to our children’s sexuality. And not just our adolescents’ sexuality, but our children at any age. We need to talk about it. And I don’t mean “Have The Talk.” I mean talk about it. With our partners, our schools, our churches and most importantly with our children.

Need more proof that we need to do something differently?

  • Everyday, 10,000 (yes, ten thousand) American teens catch a STD.
  • Everyday, 2,400 American teens become pregnant.
  • Every two minutes, someone in America is sexually assaulted.
  • In the United States, approximately 1 out of every 4 girls and 1 out of every 6 boys is sexually abused.
  • Approximately 30% of sexual abusers are family members, such as fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles or cousins.
  • Approximately 60% of sexual abusers are known to the child but are not family members, such as family friends, babysitters or neighbors.

Everyday. Today. Right now. Our children. My children. Your children.

So our children are being victimized and our teenagers are having unprotected sex. What are we doing about it? What does our culture do about it? Well, as parents we squelch our fear about what we know is happening out there by adopting and clinging to two myths:

1)       My kid is different. (This one is huge and actually consists of numerous overlapping myths including, “My kid tells me everything.” “My kid doesn’t even think about sex.” “My kid would never do anything behind my back.”)

2)       If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.

Meanwhile, as we parents, teachers and mentors make ourselves cozy with our myths, the media takes the other angle by focusing on these two truths:

1)       Your teenager is just like every other teenager. (“They don’t talk to their parents.” “All they think about is sex.” “They will absolutely do it behind their parents back.”)

2)       If we talk about it (i.e., sell sex), they will listen (i.e., buy our product).

Guess who wins?

Unfortunately, we as parents send the message from day one that we are not available to talk about sex. We send the message that our kids should be asexual and if they aren’t we will be heartbroken, disappointed, fearful, etc. We send the message that sex is forbidden and wrong and evil. And all the while, the media, movies, magazines, music, TV and the internet send unrealistic, unobtainable and unreliable messages about sex with one goal: Money.

So then who is going to help children sort out the intriguingly complex connection between love and intimacy and sex? Who is teaching them to protect their bodies and love their bodies and know their bodies? Who can they turn to when those bodies change and grow and betray them? Who will be there for them when they want to say no but their hormones are screaming yes and their hearts have no idea where to turn?

They will look at us, scared and uncomfortable and disappointed.

They will look at the media, sexy and glamorous and scary and overwhelmingly daunting.

And they will turn to their friends. And the blind will lead the blind. (See above listed facts for outcomes.)

Or worse, they will have no one.

So what should we do about it? Well, we start by adopting new truths as parents. We must understand that sexual development is not controlled by an on/off switch. It starts at birth. Toddlers explore their genitals. Preschoolers collect information on girl versus boy body parts. Young children start to play and imitate partnering behaviors (“I’m the mama, you’re the papa, you kiss me goodbye when you go to work”). School-aged children experiment with masturbation and learn that it feels good. It’s happening, folks. You can’t stop it. You might as well tell the waves to stop crashing on the shore. You can build a wall or dig a ditch or yell or threaten, but in the end, the only way to not see the wave crash on the shore is by sticking your head in the sand. By ignoring their sexual development until they are teenagers (and then only acknowledging it with The Talk on one awkwardly painful occasion), we cheat our children. We miss out on helping them:

  • understand and respect their own bodies.
  • develop strong boundaries that can help protect them from abuse.
  • build a vocabulary for talking about their bodies and sex in a healthy manner.
  • develop a safe relationship that allows for open dialogue about sexual matters.
  • learn how to think critically about the sexual information that comes from the media or friends.
  • learn about how to have sexual experiences safely.

So how do we start? Figure out the ways that you may currently be sticking your head in the sand. Do you catch your toddler playing with his penis and swat his hand away? Do you disregard a child’s discomfort with giving a kiss goodbye and tell them to do it anyway (“Go on, kiss your grandpa, don’t make him feel bad”)? Do you minimize a school-aged child’s experience of love (“You’re too young to know what love is”)? Take some time to self-reflect on your own feelings, attitudes, fears, hang-ups and experiences about sex. Notice how you might respond when you get embarrassed or uncomfortable. And then, do it differently.

Be there with your child. Reflect back to your child what is happening and ask them what they think. To a toddler you might say, “You noticed your penis, what do you think about that?” To a school-aged child you may say, “You have a boyfriend now. How does that feel?” Asking a child what they think or feel and then really being available to listen to their answers opens up opportunities for discussions that would never be possible if you said instead, “We don’t do that” or, “You’re too young to have a boyfriend.”

The documentary points out that in the Netherlands, sex is an everyday household topic of conversation. At the dinner table, kids can talk about their homework, the football game and sex. Most of us have a long way to go until we get there. Most of us are likely to feel pretty awkward and uncomfortable as we start to do things differently than our cultural standard. But if our goal is to support our children in becoming healthy, strong, independent and thriving adults, we have to. If our goal is to protect our children from sexual abuse, we have to. If we want to believe that our children will talk to us (and have it be actually true), then we have to take our heads out of the sand and be available. From this point forward.

Everyday. Today. Right now.

Or, we can move to the Netherlands.

Check out the documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex” here http://www.letstalkaboutsexthefilm.com/about.html.

 Posted by at 2:49 pm
Jan 312012
 

True LoveI have spent much of my career working with both sexual abusers and victims of sexual abuse, so it is not surprising that this topic is in the forefront of my mind both as a psychologist and as a parent of young children.  While my mind used to be filled with statistics and numbers and facts, it has now boiled down to one undeniable truth. During their lifetime, too many of our children will be victims of sexual abuse and too many of our children will become abusers. So many times I hear, “How does this happen?” “Why does this happen?” and “How can I keep it from happening in my family?”

We are all searching for the easy fix. The perfect “talk,” the best “class,” the most effective “prevention program.” We wonder if and when schools should offer sex education and we debate the effectiveness of “stranger danger” versus “just say no” types of interventions. I hear my friends and clients and family members wonder when we should have “the talk” with our children, and then we agonize over what we will say and how we will say it. Even my husband and I have discussed when we would start talking to our boys about sex.

But I can’t help but think that all this is missing the boat. What we don’t realize is that we are already teaching our children powerful messages about sex, their bodies, their ability to have boundaries and their ability to make healthy sexual decisions. When did we start giving these messages? Oh…about the time they were born. What we don’t realize is that the things we teach our children about sex without actually talking about sex is way more important than the five- or ten-minute conversation that we agonize over. The messages we give and reinforce about their bodies and other people’s bodies and how those bodies interact are way more salient than any sex education class.

I Hear You, Im ListeningOf course I am not minimizing the importance of formal sexual education. I just don’t think that it does much in terms of our goal of raising sexually resilient children. Sexually resilient children are children who have the ability to know and verbalize their boundaries. They feel comfortable talking about their body and concerns they have with at least one person. They trust that their parent (or other caretaker) will support them in saying no to unwanted sexual advances. They respect the bodies of other people, as much as they expect other people to respect their bodies. As parents, we think, “Of course I am teaching my children all these things.” But it is the unstated messages that we give without realizing it that begin to chip away at a child’s personal power. Consider the following:

Accidental message #1: Certain parts of your body are shameful and we give them special names. Using nicknames, no matter how common, gives subtle messages about our bodies. Knowledge is power. Body parts and functions are important, crucial parts of our lives and there is no reason to dumb it down or in any way infantilize them. We don’t make up silly nicknames for our nose, or our ears or our fingers. Why do we do it for our penises and vaginas? The message is that talking about these body parts is embarrassing or somehow wrong.

Healthy message #1: All body parts are created equal. All body parts deserve respect. Use accurate names for body parts. Talk about children’s bodies in an open, respectful and honest manner. Simple, but there isn’t much more to say about this.

Accidental message #2You don’t really have the right to say no to your elders, especially family members. No parent would ever actively try to give this message, especially with regard to sex. But when families set up the expectation that we do what our elders tell us to do, it makes it pretty hard for children to raise their voice in scary or threatening situations. It is important to remember that most children are abused by someone they know. A family member, close friend, coach, teacher, etc. Saying no should always be an option.

Healthy message #2: “No” is a powerful and useful word! This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite passages from a book:

“To hold the word no in my mouth like a gold coin, something valued, something possible. To teach the no to our daughters [and sons]. To value their no more than their compliant yes. To celebrate no. To grasp the word no in your fist and refuse to give it up. To support the boy who says no to violence, the girl who will not be violated, the woman who says no, no, no, I will not. To love the no, to cherish the no, which is so often our first word. No—the means to transformation.” –Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay’s Dance.

Allowing our children to say no, even to us as parents, is not a sign of defeat, but a sign of a healthy, resilient child. Supporting them in using “no” in a respectful and healthy manner allows our children to be powerful and strong.

Accidental message #3: You can make me (your parent) happy by allowing your personal space to be invaded. How many times do we catch ourselves encouraging our children to give a hug or a kiss or even a smile or a wave as they hide behind our legs? Why is it so important for us that our children kiss Aunt Mildred goodbye? Why is it so important for us that they wave and say hi to the stranger in the grocery store? When we say things like, “Why don’t you want to kiss your grandpa? Go on, give your grandpa a hug. There you go! Good job! That was so nice,” we are sending a direct message that this pleases us.

Healthy message #3: Hugging and kissing and saying hello should be something you do with people because it feels good for you at the time. Not something that you do to make me (your parent) or Aunt Mildred or the grocery store clerk happy. Instead of pressuring them to conform and perform, we should be helping them figure out what they are comfortable with. “Well, Grandpa, Sammy doesn’t feel like giving kisses today. Sammy, is there another way you would like to say goodbye to Grandpa?”

Accidental message #4: I (your parent) will not support you when you try to communicate that you’re uncomfortable. Similar to  Message #3, when our child is communicating with us that they do not want their cheeks pinched or their forehead kissed or their body hugged, and we say, “Oh, it’s just your Aunt Mildred, you’re okay,” we are sending them a direct message that we will not support them when they come to us with what they feel are body violations.

Healthy message #4: I (your parent) validate and support what you are telling me, and I will help you if you need help. When they are hiding behind our legs, looking at us with pleading eyes to protect them from the pinching fingers of Aunt Mildred, we need to support them. It’s our job as parents to listen and support and validate. “Oops, Aunt Mildred, I can tell that Janie doesn’t want you to pinch her cheeks today!” We need to model boundary setting for our children if we are going to expect that they will someday be able to do it for themselves.

Accidental message #5: Your instincts about your body space are not valid. From an early age, children are experimenting with their bodies and how those bodies interact in space and time with the bodies of other people. They are learning what feels good, what doesn’t feel good, what kinds of physical connections with others they like and don’t like. As they do this, they are checking in with us to help them define this very complicated pattern. Things like knowing when you have to pee, feeling scared or safe in social interactions, or knowing when a game is no longer fun (tickling is a big one here) are all body space and sensation issues that children have to figure out. Parents often find themselves saying things like, “I know you have to pee.” Or, “Don’t be afraid, just go down the slide.” Or continuing to tickle despite a child’s cry to stop! While each of these may be a small drop in the bucket, those drops add up. When we give message after message that negates a child’s experience of their body, it is harder for them to trust themselves and their instincts.

Healthy message #5: I support you in learning about your body and space and trust your instincts. This is a hard one for parents, and I can already hear the “yeah, buts” in my own head. (What if they are about to fall? What if they don’t go pee and they have an accident….) Ensuring safety is important, but, in essence, children have to fall to learn balance, they have to have accidents to learn bowel control, they have to learn to identify the line between fun and uncomfortable and figure out how to make their voice heard to make uncomfortable things stop. And we have to patiently support them in figuring this out. You may be asking what this has to do with sexual abuse prevention. Everything!  Quite often, sexual abuse happens over a long period of time, with the offender blurring the boundaries between fun and uncomfortable. Resilient kids can listen to their inner instincts about their bodies and know when something isn’t right. They don’t have to depend on someone to tell them.

Accidental message #6:  I (your parent) get uncomfortable or embarrassed about your sexuality. We get embarrassed when we find our toddler exploring their body in the bathtub. We blush and stutter and hem and haw when they start asking us questions. We start sending the message, “That is private and you only do that in your bedroom by yourself.” While this message isn’t necessarily wrong with respect to certain sexual behaviors, it is powerful when the message extends to all things related to body parts, sex or even talking about body parts or sex. It isn’t enough to tell them that they should come to us if someone touches them. They won’t believe that we can handle it if it came to that.

Healthy Message #6: We can handle your questions and concerns and our heads won’t explode. We have to be able to answer questions about penises without blushing or coughing or choking on our coffee. We have to be able to say the word masturbation without making a face that looks like someone just vomited in our Cheerios.

Raising sexually resilient kids means that our children will feel empowered to respect their own bodies, make their own choices, communicate their own boundaries and feel comfortable to come to us when those boundaries have been violated. In order to get there, we have to build a foundation for our kids to stand on. It isn’t about “the talk” or “the class” or the “prevention program.” It’s about what we communicate to our children every day without realizing it. It’s about cultivating their own power and changing the way our families and our culture value children’s boundaries. The “sex talk” will happen anyway, but maybe, if we have given them this foundation, it will actually mean something.

Want to have further discussion about raising sexually resilient children? Want a workshop or discussion group or lecture for a group of parents? Contact Darci to set it up!

 Posted by at 11:47 am