Educating communities, including children, is an essential part of preventing sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Age-appropriate conversations to encourage open communication can help provide children with the tools they need to identify abuse. Those conversations may give them courage to speak up when their personal boundaries have been violated.
Learning about body parts and touches is a great starting point for healthy sexual development. To help children feel comfortable, discussion should be casual, informal, and frequent.
One of the most important tips to remember is to give invitations, not commands. Invitations- like “It’s always okay to tell”- help encourage a child to share and help prevent them from feeling pressured or guilty. Commands, with good intentions- like “you always have to tell”- can make children feel responsible for abuse that’s happened, or worried that they have broken a rule.
Below are some examples of how to start conversations with children, but these are only suggestions - say what feels natural or comfortable for you!
5 Body Safety Rules to Teach by Age 5:
- My Body is Mine: I am the boss of my body! I don’t have to be hugged, kissed, or touched by anyone if I’m not comfortable. Avoid describing touches as “good” or “bad”. Child sexual abuse is often not violent or painful. Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows and loves. It can be hard for children to identify those touches as “bad”. Explain to a child that safe and unsafe touches depend on which body parts are being touched and whether the touches are a secret. Those are two things the abuser cannot or will not change.
- Private Parts are the parts of our bodies covered by a bathing suit and are kept out of view. We don’t look at, touch, take pictures of or play games with each other’s private parts. It would be helpful to tell a child, “Some body parts are private because they are not for other people to look at or touch.”
- We use the proper names for our private parts. They’re not weird or funny - everyone has them! It’s empowering for children to know actual names for body parts. That knowledge signals to perpetrators that children will be able to talk about any abuse. Being comfortable with body part names makes it easier for children to clearly disclose abuse. “Private parts are not bad or embarrassing because everyone has them. All of your body parts belong to you - I want you to know all of their names!”
- No one should be asking me to keep a secret - especially if it’s about private parts! You can tell a child, “Secrets about body parts or touches are never safe. If someone asks you to keep a secret about your body parts or touches, you can always tell. It is not right for a person to ask you to keep a secret”. Remember to avoid telling children that they “have to” tell about abuse, in case they have already kept a secret. Say things like “You won’t get in trouble for telling about unsafe touches. “ It’s also helpful to tell a child, “It is never too late to tell a secret. Even if you haven’t told anyone and it has been a really long time, you can still tell.”
- My Body Safety Circle: I know five people I can talk to if I’m sad, scared, and especially if I need to talk about body safety! If someone breaks a body safety rule I tell people I trust until someone helps me. Even if I don’t tell right away, I won’t be in trouble - it’s never too late to tell. One conversation you could have with a child is “No one ever needs a kid to touch their private parts. If a grown up or another kid wants you to touch their private parts, that is an unsafe touch,” and “keep telling until someone helps.”
Establishing a safe environment for open conversations with children is an important part of keeping them safe. Positive parenting approaches can set the foundation for children to tell about any future (or past) abuse without fearing trouble. Children should be encouraged to have a network of safe adults they can tell in case something happens. This also allows the child to have control over the process. Teachers, coaches, church leaders and other mandated reports are excellent candidates for that safe network of adults.
The Church has a special role in protecting children, detecting abuse, and caring for survivors of trauma. If you’d like to learn more about Rapha’s work with churches on child protection and serving survivors, contact Aryn Crawford at email@example.com regarding the Culture of Care program. Culture of care is an in-depth workshop on child protection practices and policies that can help a church enhance its knowledge and build a culture of transparency, accountability, and safety.