Health & Safety

How and When to Talk With Your Child About Inappropriate Touching

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I had previously written about strangers who would touch and carry my baby without permission and the difficulty I had experienced in preventing these incidents without seeming rude. While I still struggle with my apprehension with strangers touching or carrying my child even in my presence, I realise that there may be bigger challenges as my toddler grows older and later into a child who goes to school and comes into contact with other adults in my absence.

This issue came to mind when a mother on a Facebook forum had alerted other mothers about a picture book called Alfie’s Home by Richard Cohen. It’s a story about a boy who lives in a seemingly happy home until it is revealed that his father is always working and when he’s home he’s always shouting at Alfie and quarrelling with Alfie’s mother. The unstable home environment causes him to become close to “Uncle Pete” who comes to live with them from time to time. Eventually Uncle Pete gains Alfie’s trust and ends up molesting him – the book has, among other disturbing content, a picture of Alfie in bed with Uncle Pete.

The picture book appears to be written for children but seems wholly unsuitable for them because of its lack of depth, and the way it is written is confusing and may be misleading for adults as well as children. In addition, it’s a very crudely illustrated book and doesn’t provide sufficient or appropriate explanation on how to prevent sexual abuse. A book written to help children understand or overcome trauma and sexual abuse must be read with the guidance of a parent or an adult professional who is equipped with sufficient expertise to help the child.

Although there have been other more appropriate books published to educate children on preventing sexual abuse as well as to help victims of abuse, books alone are never as effective as a parent explaining these dangers to a child. The idea of having to discuss inappropriate touching to my toddler is a daunting prospect but thankfully there are various sources on the internet with helpful tips for nervy parents like myself.

The Underwear Rule

One of the principles more widely known and used is the Underwear Rule – which means that a child should not be touched on parts of their bodies covered by underwear, and similarly they should not touch others at those areas as well.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children website is also a useful source and worth reading for more information on the Underwear Rule as well as other suggestions on how to approach discussions on the prevention of sexual abuse. The website also provides a list of suitable books for this subject. The following are some of the tips suggested by the NSPCC:

  • Introduce the conversations to your daily routine and not make it sound like a lecture. Have small, simple chats frequently about the issue so that talking about staying safe becomes normalised and not something unusual or weird.
  • A good place to have these conversations would be in a car, to and from school or when you go out for a walk, places where there are fewer distractions or more comfortable.
  • When they go swimming, you can adapt the Underwear Rule to swimsuits and talk about private parts being private, and that’s why they are covered when they are in the pool.
  • Speak honestly and let your child know that you are always there to talk to them about difficult subjects so they will be unafraid to approach you. It is also suggested that a great way to help children understand these difficult issues is encourage them to voice their opinions and learn to develop their own judgment in tricky situations.
  • Make sure that your child feels that he or she can always come to you if they have any questions or concerns about a matter that’s worrying them. If you maintain an open relationship with your child, they will feel comfortable sharing worries and this good habit can start from the early years and hopefully continue until adulthood.

An article by Darlena Cunha also suggests steps to identify an inappropriate touch to a toddler:

  • Talk to your toddler what each part of his or her body is for, in simplified terms. Understanding the parts that can be violated means understanding the role of these parts first. Correct anatomical terms should be used for each private part.
  • Use the Underwear Rule to show which parts are not to be touched – they cannot touch others there and people cannot touch them there, with the exception of parents, doctors and limited caretakers who bathe the toddlers and change their diapers.
  • Ensure that your toddler feels comfortable reporting any inappropriate touching to you. Treat the inappropriate touch like any other danger, such as touching a hot stove.

This is also a good opportunity to warn your child about the dangers of talking or being near strangers. Let them know it is not okay for them to interact with strangers in your absence and certainly not let strangers touch them in any way, i.e., carry them or place them on their laps. Abuse can be committed by someone known to the child, like a relative or a family friend so it would be prudent to warn your toddler about inappropriate touching by someone he or she knows as well.

Janet Tay was a freelance writer and editor before becoming a stay-at-home mum. She has published short stories, book reviews and articles on books and the literary world in MPH Quill and The Star. She currently juggles her time between writing and running after her toddler around the house.

Image Credit: Flickr user Alessandro Pina

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