Early, often, and ongoing. These three words can make a world of difference in a child’s life. According to Kelly Ace Ph.D., J.D., Program Director at Family Support Line of Delaware County in Media, “There’s a reality about perceptions, about talking about sensitive issues… I think if we approach this [conversation about safety] not from a scare perspective but think about what we really want to instill in kids in the sense of healthy boundaries and healthy relationships, and then safety kind of comes with that.”
With many schools transitioning back to the classroom after more than 18 months of virtual learning, children’s safety is a top priority. But it can be an uncomfortable topic for many families and communities. “Many times, people have talked about a sex talk as like this one-time, sit-down thing sort of like the 1950s TV show talk about ‘the birds and the bees’ and all that is a safety concern, but somehow many people are hesitant to talk about sexual abuse,” said Ace. These kinds of open-minded conversations are fundamental to helping kids stay safe. The conversations you have should be ongoing, but they don’t always have to be about your child.
Try some hypothetical examples when you’re watching TV with your kids, maybe the character on the show made some poor decisions or decided to partake in risky behaviors. Talk openly with your kids about why you think that’s a bad idea and encourage your kids to talk about what decisions they would have made in the same situation. This helps your kids build and strengthen their problem solving mentally. It also lets them know that they can talk to you. According to Ace, “it does get to be tricky when kids break rules and put themselves in real danger… people have feelings and react to things, there’s no question about that, but helping children understand ‘yeah we can talk about this, even if I get upset at first, then I’ll take a couple of breaths and then we can calm down and then let’s about this because I want you to know you can come to me.’”
In addition to talking with your kids, we all need to listen to children when they talk to us. “I think, especially not just parents, but everybody over the age of 18 needs to be a lot more sensitive to kids as individuals and not make assumptions about them, because [nothing] can shut somebody down faster than being treated like you’re not a person, you’re just part of a generation,” said Ace. These relationships are a critical part of the safety net as they help build trust. Whether you are a friend, family member, or parent, make sure you are providing a safe, open space for the kids in your life to come talk to you.
Another thing Ace recommends is teaching your kids the proper name for their body parts. According to Ace, “cutesy names are problematic because sometimes then kids say something to any [one] of us and we don’t understand. We think we understand, but we don’t. And then they think we understand and don’t care if we don’t do something.”
So, what can you do if you suspect that your child might be in danger? Ace gets asked this question a lot, especially when discussing sexual abuse cases. She thinks it’s important to not focus in too much on what are the symptoms of sexual abuse, but rather what are some indicators that something has gone wrong in a child’s life. There are very few absolute physical indicators of sexual abuse. She recommends that you pay strong attention to your child’s behavior. Has something changed recently? Are they potty trained, but now wetting the bed? Are they clingy and don’t want to sleep alone? Is there someone in their life that they used to love being around, but now they are avoiding? Your children are always trying to communication with you, whether verbally or physically.