Showing Your Child How to Stay Safe Through Play
I love writing articles for parents, but my heart goes out to them. It’s difficult being a parent in this time and age. Between the devastating news about our actual world being a victim to climate change and all the social-emotional dangers to which children are exposed to nowadays, it’s terrifying.
Child sexual abuse, specifically, has been on the news a lot lately. It’s a scary topic because it’s such a scary reality. But, the less we talk about it, the more vulnerable we are leaving our children. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, children are most vulnerable between ages 7 and 13. Victims of child sexual abuse may develop “low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and an abnormal or distorted view of sex.”
So, how do we prevent this? It’s a responsibility we must take as a society on an individual, family, and collective/political level. And, one way to do so, is teaching our children how to stay safe in the language they speak the most fluent: play.
Using personal boundaries during play time
A conversation that should come up frequently when teaching our children about consent and how to stay safe, is openly talking about body boundaries. Ways in which they can realize what does and doesn’t feel comfortable for them and learn how to communicate this to others.
One way to do this is by adding “safe words” to the playing session. So, choosing a phrase or a word that a child can use is helpful. Especially, when physical proximity is uncomfortable or when their boundaries are being compromised.
It’s important to develop a certain expectation when a parent or a caregiver is playing with the child and is consistently voicing phrases such as “Is this comfortable for you? Are you okay? Do you feel safe?” Asking these questions allows us to do two things:
- Grasp how comfortable our child is during playtime
- Teach our child a healthy way to respect and express body boundaries
Using dolls to verbalize “safe” and “unsafe” touches
Another way to teach your child about consent is by using terms like “safe” and “unsafe” touches. A “safe” touch is when someone respects and touches our body in a way that isn’t harmful. When they ask before they give a hug, a kiss, or a pat in a back. An “unsafe” touch can be a touch that feels harmful (shoving, pushing, kicking, hitting) or touching a part of your body that is covered by a bathing suit.
A way to show different examples of what “safe” and “unsafe” touches are, is using dolls to reenact different scenarios. It’s important to act out a variety of scenarios with people relatable to your child. For example:
- An older cousin at a birthday party
- A grandparent who is babysitting
- A teacher who is tutoring
It’s important to use scenarios with family members because research says 90% of child sexual abuse cases happen within close family members and friends. An adult they know, love and trust.
Use play to reinforce your love and trust
Most victims don’t come forward because they feel a mix of profound fear, shame, and guilt. It’s important that throughout different playing scenarios and playtimes, you–as a parent–continue to reinforce your unconditional love and affection for your child.
When you explicitly say, “there’s nothing you can tell mom or dad that will make us love you less”, you’re guaranteeing that they will have your unwavering support and trust. That at the slightest “unsafe” touch, they should come to you immediately because “mom and/or dad always have your back.”
Talking about these topics is never easy, and it’s never comfortable. But, to prevent sexual abuse, we must be constantly opening conversations around boundaries and consent. And when we do, we mustn’t allow shame, stigma, and silence to be a part of this conversation.
Anyone affected by sexual assault, whether it happened to you or someone you care about, can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline. You can also visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.