Parents will do whatever it takes to safeguard our children’s wellbeing – from child-proofing our homes to obsessively safety-padding our kids before their first bike ride. Similarly, we need to stay prepared when it comes to protecting them from the horrors of sexual harassment.
As a continuation from our earlier article, we explore some common questions relating to consent and safe touches.
Here are some practical guidelines to help you keep your kids safe.
How should I begin to address this tough issue?
Introduce concepts slowly. Begin by framing your explanation around the less scary idea of “safety” (in the same manner you would tell your kids about crossing the road), as opposed to “abuse” or “harassment.”
What are the key points I should address?
Which areas are private
Explain that your child’s private parts (i.e. their penis, vagina, vulva, breasts, nipples or buttocks – use the anatomically correct terminology) are usually those covered by their bathing suits or underwear. Also, explain that their mouth may also be considered a private part.
Teach your child that no one has the right to touch or ask to see their private parts and that if someone does so, this is wrong. Say also that if someone asks them to expose or touch their private parts, or if anyone shows your child their own private parts (or photos of the same), this too is wrong.
Types of touches or contact
The Kids Safety Council details three kinds of touches: safe touches, unsafe touches and unwanted touches.
Your child should be informed of the distinction between these touches. Help your child understand by sharing specific examples about what might constitute “safe” touches (e.g. changing a baby’s diaper or getting a doctor’s vaccination) or “unsafe” touches.
Encourage your child’s awareness of the distinction between “safe” and “unsafe” moments by teaching them about the Early Warning Signs of feeling unsafe. Explain to them that they should inform you or another trusted adult if anyone causes these signs to arise.
Often, victims of sexual harassment are told to keep the abuse a “secret” upon threat of harm or other repercussions. Break the silence by reassuring your child that they will never get in trouble for sharing such secrets with you.
Say: “Even if someone who is touching you has told you not to tell, or has said that they will be angry or hurt you if you tell, don’t be afraid. You mustn’t keep this a secret. What they’re doing is wrong and this is in no way your fault. Please tell me and I promise you that I will do everything that I can to keep you safe.”
My child is still young. Are there any simple methods that I can employ to help get the message across?
Help them understand their feelings
Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings and to describe what makes them feel happy, sad, angry etc. This helps them to understand their emotions and to effectively communicate how they’re feeling if something (or someone) makes them feel bad.
Respect their autonomy and boundaries
Never force your child to kiss or hug people if they’re not comfortable doing so. Explain that every person has a body boundary – a personal space that surrounds us, into which no one can enter unless permitted – and that they are the bosses of their own bodies.
Explain to your child however that they should still be polite in acknowledging someone and can perhaps offer a friendly high five or a wave hello instead.
Practice saying “No!”
Empower your kids to speak up. Practice or role-play a firm stance, and tell your kids that they have the right to say a loud “No!” or “Stop!” with their hands outstretched if someone tries to touch them in a way that makes them feel unsafe. Remind them that it’s also imperative for them to tell you if this happens.
What other measures can I put in place to protect my kids?
Give them a strategy
Help your kids to set up a Safety Network of trusted adults that they can go to if something happens. Together with your child, identify people that would have your child’s best interests at heart and who would always hear them out.
Adopt internet safety
Set reasonable boundaries or time-limits around your child’s screen-time and make sure to block mature or inappropriate content. Teach your child not to give out personal information about themselves and explain why they should always exercise caution with online friends.
Be present in your child’s life. Familiarise yourself with their social circles and daily activities.
If your child’s behaviour around certain people changes, take note. Be cautious of any older person in your child’s life that spends an inordinate amount of time with your child, fails to respect their boundaries or expresses uncomfortable interest in them.
What are some warning signs of sexual abuse or harassment that I should be aware of?
Not every victim will be prepared to disclose what has happened. Parents should be mindful of symptoms such as changes in their child’s behaviour, temperament or sleeping patterns.
For a more detailed look, please see this helpful guideline prepared by the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC).
My child has just informed me that they’ve been a victim of sexual harassment – what should I do?
Say “I believe you”
Firstly, keep calm and assert your belief in your child and in what they have told you. Tell your child that they have done the right thing in telling you and that you are proud of them for being brave.
Report the crime
The WCC’s website sets out a comprehensive look at the reporting options available.
Seek professional help
Your child may require further guidance or counselling to heal from their trauma. We hope that our list of mental health support providers in Malaysia will help.