From the time we become parents (or, more accurately, from the time we realize we’re going to become parents), all we can think of is how we’re going to keep our babies safe. What will we tell them, what will we teach them, how will we protect them? Once those babies arrive, the concern about keeping them safe only grows. We’re constantly one step ahead of them – grabbing something out of the way before they trip, catching them before they slip, pulling them up before they even fall.
We try so hard, rightfully and with the best of intentions, to keep them safe that we often forget to take the time to teach them how to keep themselves safe. It’s not an easy thing. The entire process seems so complicated and we always think that they’re too young for all of this right now.
It’s easier to keep outwardly protecting them, but continuing to do this does them a great disservice. The truth is that we’re not always going to be around to catch their falls – we can’t always protect them. But, it is our responsibility to teach them how to protect themselves as best as we can.
As parents, parts of our job result in truly heavy, soul-crushing realizations. To come to terms with all that we need to teach them can feel entirely overwhelming. It’s important to prioritize your family’s values and focus on what you deem most important. If personal body safety is one of those things, we are here to help you out.
Here are eight ways to teach your child to keep their bodies safe.
1. Use the right words
It seems much easier to come up with nicknames for your child’s private body parts, but this can sometimes cause confusion or lack of clarity when it comes to them wanting to share something that may or may not have made them uncomfortable. Teaching your children the proper names for their body parts (i.e. penis, vagina, testicles, scrotum, butt, nipples, etc.) not only gives them the right knowledge of their own bodies but also gives them the ability to confidently state where and how they were touched, should that situation ever arise.
Parents often feel that these words are not kid-appropriate, but the reality is that these are the correct words for their body parts. There is nothing “bad” or shameful about them – the shame they often bring up is strictly adult- or society-induced. Using correct words can also help deter potential predators because predators can try to groom their victims by using pet names.
When teaching kids about their bodies, remind them that areas that are typically kept under their bathing suits are private, and then stay consistent with that notion. If you’re reminding them that certain areas are private but then stripping them down in a public place for a clothing change, they can get a mixed message.
Using correct words can also help deter potential predators because predators can try to groom their victims by using pet names.
2. Teach them about their feelings
While emphasizing privacy and inappropriate touch is important when talking to your kids, so is making sure they are in touch with the full range of their emotions and feelings. The more emotionally intelligent a child is, the more specific they can be when describing or understanding when something makes them feel uncomfortable or not right. Having the appropriate emotional language helps them feel confident about talking about their experiences in a truthful way.
Sure, kids seem to have very big emotions at very inopportune times (like the checkout aisle of the grocery store when you say “no” to a pack of M&Ms). But, disregarding these displays without acknowledging the feelings behind them can result in children believing their feelings don’t matter.
Emotions exist to serve and protect us, so it’s vital for children to understand why we feel certain things in certain situations, and how to manage each appropriately. When your kids are young, use questions to help them figure out their own feelings and emotions.
“Questions, such as ‘What does that feel like in your body?’ or ‘If that feeling had a color, what color would it be?’ can help broadens kids’ emotional vocabulary and makes talking about feelings more comfortable,” notes licensed family and marriage therapist Ann DeWitt.
When your children are very young, you can use your words to narrate your kids’ emotions in order for them to better understand why they’re feeling what they’re feeling.
3. Help them understand their instincts
Instincts are one of the most important things that we have inside of us and one of the biggest tools when it comes to keeping ourselves safe. Unfortunately, what happens is that in trying to get our kids to conform to our society, we often unintentionally push those gut notions out of our children instead of helping them understand and protect them.
The more we can value our kids’ gut instincts, the more they will begin to understand them as important and how exactly these instincts can help us – this can help to build a very strong sense of self and sharp decision-making skills in questionable circumstances.
So, when kids are scared, honor that, and don’t force them to ignore their own feelings and do something anyway, emphasizes DeWitt. “If a child wants to hide behind your legs when meeting new people, let that be,” she says. “If you want your child to be directed more by their feelings than by social conventions, you have to keep that higher goal in mind. This includes not forcing your child to say hi or give a hug, even if the other person is the child’s grandma,” DeWitt continues.
Acknowledge their perspectives, and value their choices. Don’t fault them for trusting their own instincts, even if their choice doesn’t match yours.
4. Discourage secrets
For young children are who just beginning to learn and understand how things work, secrets can be a very tricky gray area. Consider things from their perspective – if Grandpa asks you to keep Daddy’s birthday present a secret, it’s okay, but if someone else asks them to keep an uncomfortable secret, it’s not? Secrets can become very abstract for children, so for their sake, it’s better to keep things black and white.
Encourage a “no secrets” household and tell them if someone asks them to keep a secret to tell you right away. If you need to keep something hush-hush for a brief period of time, like little brother’s holiday gift, tell them it’s a little surprise.
But, really, keep perspective. Ruining birthday surprises is nothing in comparison to having them endure something painful because they were told to keep a secret.
5. Give them ownership over their bodies
The biggest way parents can support their children is by not forcing them to do something with their bodies that they don’t want, says Shelly Ware, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. “This means not having to hug adults if they don’t want to,” stresses Ware. “It can be uncomfortable when a family member wants to hug your child and they decline, but you can let them know ‘We’re teaching her that she has ownership over her body. She’ll give a hug when she’s comfortable.'”
This may seem like a small thing (and you might get a bunch of eye-rolls from Grandma), but it sets a precedent for giving your child permission to own their body and their feelings. “A child who can tap into this will be much safer than a child who is overly compliant,” says Ware. It’s important to really stress the point that they are not in trouble for telling an adult, “no,” she says.
It can be uncomfortable when a family member wants to hug your child and they decline, but you can let them know ‘We’re teaching her that she has ownership over her body. She’ll give a hug when she’s comfortable.’
6. Show them the difference between feeling safe and unsafe
These two things bring on very different feelings within our bodies, and it’s important for children to begin to understand how to tell the difference in those situations. You can help by pointing out how certain things feel.
When sitting on the couch, cuddling while watching a movie, you could say, “Wow, this is such a safe feeling. I love being here with you, I feel so relaxed, happy, and safe.”
When standing on the edge of a tall climbing structure, you could say, “This feels so unsafe. My palms feel sweaty, my heart is racing, I feel really nervous, and my stomach is twisting and turning.”
Being able to match feelings and emotions to the notions of feeling safe and unsafe can go a long way in helping children develop and protect their instincts.
7. Focus on privacy over stranger danger
Yes, the concept of strangers is one to discuss. But, it’s not the only thing.
“Most of the crimes against children are not committed by strangers, but by people the children know well and feel comfortable with,” says Alexandra Descalzi, MA, LPC, ACS, Licenced Professional Counselor, and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional. “In fact, ‘Stranger Danger’ is very important, don’t get me wrong, but what is even more important is that parents teach their children that their bodies are private and no one, that includes family, friends, neighbors, etc., have the right to touch them in any way that makes them feel uncomfortable,” she tells us.
Teaching them that “no means no” includes teaching them to respect others’ bodies in the same way.
8. Ask questions and maintain communication
Being involved in your child’s life is one of the best ways to build their trust, and in turn, allow you to build theirs. Ask questions about their likes and dislikes, their friends and other people they come in contact with, and how they feel about certain situations or circumstances.
Ask, “What do you think? How did that make you feel? Do you believe that?” Questions like that can encourage kids to think for themselves, understand their thinking, and begin to trust what they feel.
Keeping an open line of communication between you and your child and working actively to build trust in your relationship will go a long way keeping your child safe. For them to know that they have you to lean on, go to with problems, and talk to can help them feel safe and help them come forward if something is not right.
If you’re looking for resources to help you talk to your child, the following books were recommended by the therapists and counselors with whom we spoke.
It's definitely difficult to toe that line of being honest with children while using language that corresponds with their understanding level. This book is from the perspective of a kid and the specific words and gestures he used to tell someone "no." This is a great resource for you to read with your child that they'll connect with, even from a young age.
Nothing like the Berenstain Bears to connect with kids, right? In a book I remember reading as a child about "stranger danger," Sister Bear is learning to recognize the difference between "dangerous people" and friendly strangers. This is great for kids who are learning that not all strangers are dangerous, but also that not all dangerous people are strangers.