Don’t Wait for the Birds or the Bees

Most parents will agree that having the “birds and bees” talk with your children is one of the most uncomfortable conversations in the world. Teaching children appropriate names of the genitalia is equally uncomfortable for most. Some parents may question whether early sex education will steal their child’s naivety, often framed as “innocence.” Will teaching children about sex steal their childhood? These concerns are common and valid; however, I want to share my thoughts on why it is important to educate and empower children as early as possible.

You probably still get that feeling of discomfort when you think back to the time your parents had the birds and bees talk with you. When we talk to young children about the topics covered in this post, it should not take place in the format of a lecture and or a sit-down serious conversation. The conversations should occur more naturally where we seize opportunities that present in a variety of contexts. Mary Flo Ridley describes how she talked with her children about how to know whether a baby is a boy or girl when born. Her son stated “well, because if it’s a girl, she’ll have a boy; and if it’s a boy, he’ll be wearing blue.” Sure, she could have left the conversation there; instead, she explained how babies are born naked and if the baby is a boy he will have these body parts and if the baby is a girl she will have these body parts. This was a non-threatening and flowing conversation. It was not scheduled or planned. When we are on the lookout for these opportunities we will find them. A link to more resources from Mary Flo Ridley will be included at the end of this post. 

We must remember that God created sex. Sex, by God’s design, is sacred as two become one. When we question if teaching our kids about sex will steal their childhood, we inadvertently send the message that there is something bad about sex. We do not want to over-expose children to sexual information; however, I believe we can find balance in teaching them about privacy and how sex is designed for adults within the covenant of marriage. As a parent or caregiver, you have the opportunity to teach your children first about the beautiful way God created their bodies and why God created sex as well as the very clear context he created it to occur. I want to be the one to one day teach my children about their bodies and sex- before media tells them, before a friend tells them, and definitely before an abuser tells them. You can choose the narrative your child first hears about sex.

The narrative you begin with can simply include the correct terms for various body parts, as described in the example earlier. It teaches children why we wear clothes and why some body parts are considered private. The early education should focus on the biological aspects of sex, not the sensual aspects. However, you can help children understand what a safe, healthy touch feels like compared to a hurtful touch or a confusing touch by teaching children about feelings. Provide them the tools to know what steps to take if they experience a hurtful or confusing touch. When children are taught this information at an early age and their questions are received with warmth and age-appropriate answers, they become comfortable with these conversations. This foundation will be integral for the days when talking with your teen about sex is met with eye-rolls, shrugs of the shoulders, and embarrassed silence.

We live in a sex-accessible world. Studies suggest the average age of a child’s first exposure to pornographic material is anywhere from 8 years old to 11 years old; however, any child with access to the internet or television, also has access to pornography. Even without unsupervised internet access, children are going to begin learning about sex anytime they hang out with other children. Children’s minds are sponges- they hear and see things they do not understand and will attempt to process that information by talking to others about those very things they heard and saw. Decades ago, maybe it would be realistic to wait until a child reached puberty to talk with him/her about sex because a parent could reasonably control whether a child could access sexually explicit material. There was far less sexually explicit material available. It would require a child stumbling across a magazine hidden in a drawer or possibly a pay-per-view channel on the television. While many children were still exposed at an early age to pornography, it simply was not as easy to access as it is today. The day you decide your child can access the internet unsupervised is the day they need to know about sex and pornography. Whether the child is using the internet at school, at a library, at a friend’s house, on a parent’s smart phone, through a gaming system, or on the desktop computer in the living room, we need to assume that child will be exposed to pornography. There are wonderful apps and software available that work really hard to block certain material on devices, but there are always loopholes and pornographers are continuously creating ways to target children and expose them to pornography. Once again, we do not want children to learn about sex from the images and videos depicted in pornography.

Teaching a child about his/her body and sex will empower him/her by providing the words he/she needs to describe what has happened if he/she has been abused.  I often reflect on what information or knowledge may have helped me to disclose earlier. While I can never know for certain, I definitely think I would have understood what my abuser was doing to me was sexual if I had a greater understanding of sex at the age he began abusing me- eight years old. Abusers tell children that what they are doing is normal or it is their special secret. Abuser may even explain how what they are doing will actually benefit the child because they are teaching them things they need to know. I remember feeling absolutely gross and disgusting when I believed my abuser was peeing on me. I did not know that my abuser was actually using me for sexual stimulation. I did not know that penises had any other purpose than for boys to urinate. I did not know there was a thing called sex that should only involve a mommy and daddy. I did not know that I was being sexually abused. I did not know.

Not only does educating children about their bodies and sex empower them, I also believe it can serve as a protective factor. While it will never be a fool-proof way of protecting children from manipulative abusers, I do believe it is worth the initial discomfort adults may experience in these conversations to decrease the likelihood a child will be abused. Imagine how an abuser may respond differently to a child who questions: Why are you showing me your penis? Or, my daddy taught me that vaginas are private, and it is not okay for anyone to show a child a vagina or a penis. Imagine next how an abuser may respond to a child who shows an initial curiosity when seeing a penis for the first time and asks, what is that, or a child who silently does whatever the abuser instructs. When we as adults willingly answer children’s questions as honestly and truthfully as possible with age appropriate information, it teaches children that they can ask mommy or daddy any question. They can tell an adult when something confusing or uncomfortable happens. The adults have showed a genuine interest in what they experience on a daily basis. Children need adults that they can ask or tell anything without feeling shame, embarrassment, or like they are an annoyance. 

There is never a time when sexual abuse is a victim’s fault. Neither a child nor an adult should ever be blamed for not disclosing sexual abuse. Educating a child about sex and his/her body will not prevent a child from being sexually abused.

We have the opportunity to choose what narrative about sex will be the foundation for a child. We can provide a child with knowledge about his/her body and how God uniquely designed him/her. We can equip the children with the vocabulary to describe abuse and other inappropriate acts they may experience that will clearly depict what occurred, which is very important for law enforcement. We dismantle confusion about what is healthy and what is unacceptable. We empower children through these conversations. We can make a difference.

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Photo by Thijs van der Weide on Pexels.com

Resources

Mary Flo Ridley: https://birds-bees.com/

Family Life/Mary Flo Ridley: https://www.familylife.com/podcast/guest/mary-flo-ridley/

Darkness to Light: https://www.d2l.org/education/5-steps/step-3/

National Child Traumatic Stress Network: https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/fact-sheet/caring_for_kids_what_parents_need_know_about_sexual_abuse.pdf

Play It Safe: https://www.playitsafe.org/index_parents.php

Sexual Abuse in the Presence of Others

As Thanksgiving and Christmas are quickly approaching, I felt like I needed to share how abuse can happen despite being in the presence of other people. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that “approximately three quarters of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by family members or other individuals who are considered part of the victim’s ‘circle of trust.” I know it is hard to imagine anyone in your family or extended circle of trust harming your child, but it has happened too many times to too many people and we can’t ignore this any longer.

I believe many people have the misconception that sexual abuse can only occur behind closed doors or when the abuser is alone with their victim. It’s interesting that I started this post the other night and today while scrolling through twitter, I saw a very similar post. We sometimes have the thought “well no one will try to do anything with so many people around watching.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. Abuse can happen in your presence and abusers are so powerful in their manipulation skills that no one will be wiser. 

There were many times my abuser was brazen enough to abuse me in the presence of others. Some evenings when I was a child, we would sit around and watch television together in the living room. It became expected of me to grab a quilt and sit in my abuser’s lap during what should have been a safe and innocent bonding time. He was bold enough to do this because he knew how much he had manipulated me. I was so fearful in those moments that I would sit and act as normal as possible while he abused me rather than pushing the quilt away and screaming. Sexual abuse occurred in the presence of others.

If you have children, I hope you will take the time to talk about body rights and healthy touch. Empower them. Give them the choice of whether or not to hug a family member. Maybe a handshake or high five is more comfortable for your child. If your child appears fearful or nervous around certain people, do not brush it off as shyness- ask questions. Fight through the discomfort this type of conversation may bring and have these necessary conversations now.

My intention is not to make you paranoid about every person your child comes into contact with, but to make you aware that abuse does happen in the presence of other people. It is not always isolated incidents.  And just because it is a holiday does not mean an abuser will abstain from abusing.

 

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Children deserve to know their body rights at any age. There are age appropriate ways to have these conversations. It is never too early to empower children.

 

 

 

Identifying the Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

I am pretty sure the first place I learned the term “sexual abuse” was during a health lesson in elementary school. Although I was being abused at the time, the connection between what was happening to me and what I read in my book did not exist. If you research signs of sexual abuse or something similar, there is a fairly consist list of “symptoms” a person may exhibit if they are being abused. While I firmly believe in the importance of knowing the signs, I also know that if we rely solely on the lists, there are many children that may not be identified as victims because they do not demonstrate the signs in a typical manner.  

             So, what are the signs of sexual abuse?

  • Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects
  • Nightmares/sleeping problems
  • Becoming withdrawn or very clingy
  • Becoming unusually secretive
  • Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings, and seeming insecure
  • Regressing to younger behaviors, e.g., bedwetting
  • Unaccountable fear of particular places or people
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Changes in eating habits
  • New adult words or body parts and no obvious source
  • Talk of a new, older friend and unexplained money or gifts
  • Self-harm (cutting, burning, or other harmful activities)
  • Physical signs, such as, unexplained soreness or bruises around genitals or mouth, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy
  • Running away
  • Not wanting to be alone with a particular person

List is compiled by:

http://www.parentsprotect.co.uk/warning_signs.htm

This is clearly not an exhaustive list. These are just a few of the signs of sexual abuse in children. It is extremely important to realize that some children will exhibit many of these signs as a result of other circumstances in life (not necessarily abuse, but likely something traumatic), while other children will experience none of these signs and have endured significant abuse. We can’t simply rely on checklists to determine what is taking place in a child’s life.

Parents and caregivers must be attuned to their children. God has created each child with a unique personality intricately woven together. It is our responsibility to know what “normal” is for a child and to be able to readily identify when something seems “off.” From there, we must be ready to have the “not so easy,” but absolutely necessary conversations to discover what is taking place in the child’s life. It may not always be abuse, but if a child is experiencing any the distressing “signs” listed above, they need someone to intervene and assist them through the difficult time.

If you are unsure of how to start the conversation with a child about potential abuse, visit this website for some tips. RAINN is a great website and resource for further information. Feel free to leave me a question in the comment section.

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Asking the Right Questions

Over the last year I have noticed discussion about whether or not parents should allow their children to attend sleepovers. Before I dive any further into this conversation I want each reader to know that there is no right or wrong answer. This is a decision that should be made within a family. Every family is different and every person is different. Choosing one option over the other does not make one family “better” or “worse” than the other. Until I started seeing these news articles on my social media feed, I had not really given much thought to sleepovers, to be honest. One particular article struck me as quite informative and helpful in thinking about what I may or may not want for my future family.

The article was written in the summer of 2015 and updated in September 2015 by Tonya GJ Prince and here is the link to the original post: http://www.wesurviveabuse.com/2015/07/how-good-parents-miss-child-sexual.html I hope you will read her post before continuing.

In the post she describes a time when she picked her son up from a birthday party and asked the “typical” questions parents ask- did you behave? Did you listen? Did you have fun? Do you want to come back again? As she began driving down the road, she felt like something was wrong. She reflected back on an abusive experience that occurred when she was a child. Her mother had asked her the “typical” questions in the presence of the abuser rather than in private.

The author then realizes that asking those questions at the door when you are picking up your child may not be the best time. Or if you do ask those questions at the door, follow up with them on the car ride home and ensure the child he/she has permission to change their earlier answers. If you read the blog, you will see what can happen when you simply rely on the answers to the typical questions at the door. She also offers some questions that I believe will generate better conversation about the child’s time at the sleepover or party.

“How did you spend your time?”

“What was your favorite part of the party?”

“What was the least favorite part?”

“Did you feel safe?”

“Was there anything else you wanted to share?”

As a child and teenager I spent many nights at my friends’ houses and family members’ houses and they were for the most part very positive experiences. I grew socially and became more independent by staying away from home. Even with all those fun, safe, and memorable times away from home, the reality is that abuse can still happen. I have seen both sides of the “sleepover coin.” My abuser assaulted my friend and I during what began as a game. My friend was hurt and my house was no longer “safe.” So I know it can happen even when you think it can’t or won’t.

 My hope is that this blog will continue to spark the conversation about empowering our children to identify when things are no longer safe and actions they can take to get to safety and educating parents on the right questions to ask after a child’s time away at any event or activity- not just sleepovers.  

Now that I’ve finished writing this post, I realize it isn’t that much about sleepovers, but more about ensuring our kids safety at all places.

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