It begins with a touch. Being touched can be a source of comfort, as when we are hugged by a loved one. It can be as harmless as someone accidentally brushing against you as they pass by. Or, it can be filled with malice and intent to harm. Knowing the difference is vital to helping prevent sexual abuse of children.
Too many times, there is the failure to properly discuss the body and how to protect it with children, because there is the misconception that they are too young to understand it.
But nothing could be further from the truth. From the moment children can talk, they are ready to learn about their bodies and how to protect them. Teaching them age-appropriate information about what is right and wrong is not going to rob them of their innocence.
Rather, it will help them understand their feelings and give voice to their instincts. It will help them assess their situation and know how to react if they need to report someone or something.
As parents, we want to keep our children protected at all times and at all costs. However, we cannot always be there, and the best thing we can do is to arm them with knowledge so that they can keep themselves safe.
Recently, a friend told me about the concept of “Good Touch/Bad Touch” and a Power Point presentation on it designed by Mary Jo Sampson, director of Religious Education at St. John the Baptist Church in the United States. If you go online, you will find that it is a fairly popular presentation, and you can find numerous websites to download it from.
I found the points very easy and light, perfect for discussion with very young children in case they come across both sexual predators and bullies.
The first step is to identify feelings. Most children are familiar enough with positive feelings such as excitement and joy, but have a hard time verbalizing and identifying specific negative feelings because they do not have enough experience with them or simply do not understand them yet.
Sadness, anger, shame, fear and embarrassment are some of the emotions that a child must understand in order to identify them correctly, should a specific situation lead to any of these feelings.
These are some of the feelings that arise from encounters that involve sexual abuse, whether children realize and understand them or not.
Go through the different emotions with children and use events that they can relate to, such as perhaps how they felt when they did something wrong and were scared and ashamed to tell someone about it. Teach them to understand that if they are touched in a way they are not comfortable with, it may give rise to the same feelings of shame, but they have nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.
After going through the various emotions, it is time to differentiate a “good touch” from a “bad touch.” Children are asked to name good touches such as a hug, kiss or a pat on the back from a friend, loved one or trusted person. You can also expound into “safe touches” for the sake of cleaning (for example, when a mother cleans a child who is too young to do it properly) or for the sake of health, such as a doctor who injects a vaccine.
From here, it is easy to get a child to give examples of bad touches or contact that leads to pain such as slapping, hitting and kicking.
This is the time to include being touched in places where you are not supposed to be touched as a bad touch. In general, there is the “swimsuit rule” for boys and girls, which teaches children that any area of the body covered by one’s swimsuit is private and should not be touched by others. However, we are advised to use this only as a general starting point, because the mouth is considered a very intimate part as well, though it is not covered.
Furthermore, many predators can start by touching a child in a perfectly innocent place such as their back or neck. Since children are usually very literal, they might assume that despite their discomfort, it is all right because it is not covered by the swimsuit rule.
By the time the predator moves to a sexual area, the child may have a more difficult time taking action on his or her instincts because the predator may have already succeeded in earning their trust. Children should therefore be taught that any contact that makes them uncomfortable should be brought up with a trusted adult.
There is also a special section on tickles. It teaches children that there is a line between a good tickle and a bad one. Once a tickle lasts too long, hurts or touches a private area, it is no longer good, and the person being tickled or touched always gets to decide if it is good or bad, and has the right to demand for it to stop.
Who is touching
Aside from differentiating a good touch from a bad touch, we are reminded to teach children that the same touch can produce two different feelings, depending on whom they are coming from. It is important for children to understand that even if a touch is good when it comes from their parent, it is not automatically a good touch from anyone. It can be bad when it comes from someone they do not know.
Once touches and feelings are clear, it is easy for children to understand the relationship between touch and feeling. To put it simply, a good touch results in positive feelings, while a bad touch leads to some of the negative emotions discussed above. Being able to listen to and identify their feelings and make the connection will allow them to know when something wrong is being done to them and hopefully, empower them to act upon their instincts by saying “no” or “stop,” and enforcing their words through their actions to the best of their abilities.
Not their fault
The final steps include coming up with a list of at least five trusted adults such as parents, grandparents, teacher, godparents, aunt or uncle that they must share the encounter with. They are advised to tell five trusted adults in order to be sure that someone will believe them and take their story seriously and investigate the matter.
And finally, remind the child that he/she is never at fault. It is always the fault of the person who did the touching. Children can be manipulated to keep things a secret by shaming or scaring them, but if children are confident that they will not be blamed and there is no reason for them to be ashamed, then there are less chances that they will keep it a secret.
The Power Point presentation is aimed at children from Kinder up to Grade 3, or from ages 5 to 9. As they get older, parents can further expound on this subject and continue the discussion with their children. What is important is as early as possible, we teach our children ownership over their bodies, and how to protect themselves from harm.