Heather Turner

As a parent, caregiver, or an important adult to a child, one of the first things we think about is that child’s safety. In the same way you may have taught a child in your life to hold your hand in the parking lot, or to look both ways before crossing the street, you can also help them keep their bodies and personal space safe.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month is a great time to begin the conversation with young people you care for, or reinforce the conversations you are already having. We need to acknowledge that these conversations may feel like a hard conversation to have. One thing to remember is, the tough conversations are often the most important to have. When we reframe the thinking of this as an uncomfortable conversation into an understanding that these children will be safer for having them, the conversation becomes vital.

We at Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services want to help make this conversation easier, so here are some tips:

1. Teach young people the correct names for their body parts. In the same way, we call our elbow an elbow, we need to teach children the names of their vaginas, vulvas, and penises. In cases where children do not call these body parts by their names, it can take a much longer time than necessary to determine when sexual assaults have taken place. Would it be super embarrassing to be in the grocery store and have your child say penis or vagina aloud? Sure, but more than that, your child just told everyone in the vicinity, including potential perpetrators, that they are not easy prey.

2. Talk about the difference between secret keeping and privacy. As we teach the young people we care for about their bodies, we also need to explain that some parts are personal or private. Sometimes, the doctor will need to make sure they are OK, but otherwise, they are private. However, secrets are different, especially when it comes to those personal body parts. It is important that young people know it is not OK to be told to keep secrets about their body.

3. Build that safety network. Help the young people in your life identify and name the adults they feel safe with — people they could talk to if something is wrong. They may not identify some adults you think they should feel safe with; this needs to be OK. It is about who feels safe to that young person.

4. Reassurance. It is essential that our young people know that they will not get in trouble for telling adults in their life if something happens. There is a fear among many survivors, of all ages, that telling someone when bad things happen will get them in trouble. Building trust by making time for children when they come to us with things that are important to them shows them that they are valued and what they have to say matters. When we are able to create that space for young people, they will be able to share the hard things if needed.

5. Let them say “no.” The permission to say no is an incredible gift we can give the children in our lives. Now, we certainly aren’t saying that they can say no to emptying the dishwasher or walking the dog, but allow them to decide who can be in their space. Ask before hugging, and if the child says no, it needs to be OK. You are teaching them so much in just that small interaction: they own their space, that “no” should be respected, and that you are safer because you listened and respected that boundary.

6. Model empathy and helping others. Grown-ups model behavior every day, and it can create safe or unsafe feelings for young people. When children see an important person in their life being helpful to others, you are showing that young person you will help and that one day they too can be a safe person for someone else by being a helper. Whether it is reaching a high shelf in a store to get something down for someone, turning in a wallet if you find one, or making a dinner for a sick friend or family member, these simple acts display security.

Advocates and Educators at Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services are available to talk through these tips. Should you have questions or need some encouragement to continue these conversations with your young people, our helpline is open 24/7 at 1-800-871-7741, or you can find us at sapars.org.

Heather Turner is communications coordinator with Auburn-based Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.

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