Teaching Your Child About Inappropriate Contact and Building a Positive Body Image
Q: My daughter is in fourth grade. I need to talk to her about inappropriate touching and body awareness. How do I even start?
A: It’s never too early to teach children about sexuality and safety around strangers. The more children understand about their bodies, the less confusing and embarrassing it will be when uncomfortable situations arise. It is important for children to understand they are in control and learn to care for their health in a positive way.
You instill safety messages every day, such as looking both ways before crossing the street, not playing with matches and wearing your seatbelt. Body safety is another important topic to teach your child. Before you begin, develop a plan. These can be stressful and uncomfortable topics. Don’t try to cover everything at once. Start slowly and add additional topics and information as you and your child feel comfortable.
Here are a few ideas to guide you:
Self-esteem: Teach your child that she is special and important. Help your child to feel good about herself and her body. When children feel good about themselves, they are more likely to feel that they have a right to protect themselves. Instilling confidence at a young age helps your daughter understand that you support and believe in her. This builds trust and helps provide protection.
You are in control of your body. Help your daughter understand that her body is special and belongs only to her. Teach your child that she gets to decide when and with whom to “share” or “not share” her body. Begin by encouraging her to say “no” and trust her feelings when situations become uncomfortable.
Teach your child the proper names for body parts. Start with the idea of private as something that belongs only to her. People should ask if they want to touch or use your child’s private things, such as stuffed animals, books or the cubby at school. Then talk about and name the private parts of the body: breasts, vagina, penis and buttocks. Your child needs to understand that these are important parts of the body. By naming the private parts, you let her know that it is OK to talk about them. If your child is ever abused or assaulted, she will be able to explain what happened.
Define “safe” touch. Break the touching into different types of touch, such as “OK touch,” “confusing touch” and “not OK touch.” Sometimes a “good touch” from one person may not feel “good” from another person, such as a hug from someone a child knows versus a hug from someone a child doesn’t. While sexual abuse is a “bad touch,” a child may feel like it is a “confusing touch,” especially if he or she is touched in this way by someone he or she knows and trusts. Help your daughter understand the difference.
No secrets. Secrecy is a main tactic of sexual abusers. It is important to teach the difference between “good” and “bad” secrets and create a climate of confidence. Taking the time and being willing to talk with your child about anything helps her feel confident in talking about those things that makes her anxious or afraid, such as a “bad” secret.
Use books as a resource. There are many children books geared to good and bad touch, the human body, etc. They provide excellent age-appropriate answers while explaining a tough subject.
These are sensitive and difficult topics. Yet they are so important. Put aside your doubts and inhibitions, and start the conversation as soon as possible. You are your daughter’s best hope in being able to handle any odd situation or person coming her way.
Hannah Coble is a licensed clinical social worker at The Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital with a background in behavioral health and outpatient therapy. Send questions for Is My Kid OK to firstname.lastname@example.org.