By SUE BOLDE, Executive Director
A preschool teacher was helping one of her students button her winter coat. As the teacher threaded the buttons through small button holes, the little girl looked up at the teacher and whispered, “My daddy touches my buttons.”
“Oh, that’s nice of him,” the teacher replied as she secured the last button. “I’m glad that he helps you.”
A few months later, it was discovered that the little girl was being sexually abused by her father. As it turns out, the girl was actually attempting to disclose the abuse to her teacher as she was buttoning her coat. Instead of knowing the proper names of her body parts, the little girl was taught to call her breasts “buttons”. So, when she shared with her teacher that “daddy touches my buttons,” the teacher had no idea the little girl was talking about being molested by her father.
Is this an isolated case? Sadly, no. Far too often parents, in an honest desire to protect their children, are hesitant to teach kids the proper names of their body parts and instead use euphemisms like “naughty”, “no-no”, “Popsicle”, “bumps” or “buttons”… and the list goes on. In fact, there was one case where a little boy was taught to call his penis an “esophagus”.
So, when children use words like these, it’s easy to see how attempted disclosures can be misunderstood. To help protect children from sexual predators, “Body Safety 101” is to teach kids the proper names of their body parts. Doing so actually empowers children to understand and appreciate their bodies… after all, each of us has these body parts and every body part has an important purpose. Teaching kids proper body part names also helps remove the shame or stigma sometimes attached to them.
There are four (4) very easy ways to begin body safety conversations with children that are simple, child-friendly and not scary at all… for you or your child.
1) Get comfortable using proper body part names yourself.
Hey, we come by it honestly… many of us were not taught proper body part names when we were young and were instead told NOT to use those words because they were “dirty” or “wrong”. Let’s dispel that myth right here and now. Practice saying these terms until you are comfortable and can share them with your child — if you treat these words as something silly or embarrassing, so will your child. So get used to saying:
These are all proper terms and body parts each of us has… nothing to be ashamed of or embarassed about.
2) Start early!
Begin using proper body part names with your child from the time they are born! You can start as you change their diapers. There has been plenty of research demonstrating that talking to babies boosts their brain power. Babies as young as six-months begin to understand the words that are being spoken to them. So, start talking right away.
As children grow, other opportunities to use proper body part names happen on a daily basis! Take advantage of bath time or getting dressed to use proper body part names and talk about parts of their bodies that are “private” and “just for them”.
Toddlers are naturally curious and will want to know things like, “Do you have a penis, mom?” or “Does our cat have breasts?” Embrace these questions as opportunities to talk about body parts and their proper names (and functions). These don’t have to be long conversations, but rather address your child’s questions directly in short sound bites.
3) Take advantage of every-day opportunities.
Believe it or not, this is SO easy to do! You can reinforce basic body safety principles in ways that your child won’t even suspect you are teaching them protective behaviors. Here are some simple, every-day things you can do with your child:
Use a washcloth or bath mitt when bathing. Sexual predators will look for opportunities to be alone with children and seek skin-on-skin contact. By teaching kids to use a washcloth or bath mitt when bathing reinforces that these tools are used to help get clean. So, someone using their hands to help a child bathe isn’t the way to do it. If someone else helps your child bathe, you can simply ask your child afterwards, “Hey, what color was the washcloth grandpa used to help you with your bath? If your child shares that no washcloth was used, that’s a sign that you need to follow-up with grandpa to find out why.
Use toilet paper or wipes after going to the bathroom. For the same reasons as above, be sure your kids know it’s important to use something to clean themselves after going potty. It’s also a good time to reinforce that going to the bathroom is a private activity and they should respect other’s privacy when they are doing so. AND, your child should let you know if they see or are asked to watch someone else going to the bathroom. Case in point… one grooming technique used by sexual predators is to walk in on a child using the bathroom or leave a bathroom door open so a child can see the perpetrator as s/he is urinating, defecating or even masterbating. This is done in an effort to desensitize children and groom them for future sexual contact.
Keep lines of communication open. Children who have been sexually abused will often ‘test the waters’ before they disclose abuse. Many are afraid of not being believed or have been made to feel the abuse is all their fault. It is estimated that 70% of sexually abused children DO NOT disclose their abuse for at least one (1) year; another 45% won’t tell anyone about their abuse for five (5) years; and still others never tell. By encouraging and maintaining open communication with kids, you establish an environment in which disclosure would be easier should it ever be necessary. Talk with your kids. Time spent driving kids to and from school, sports or clubs provides an awesome opportunity to find out about their day (…the added bonus is that neither of you have to establish eye contact, which sometimes makes it easier for kids to share). At dinner, go around the table and have everyone share the best and worst things about their day. Bottom line: find opportunities to chat.
4) Model your own behavior.
Children really do live what they learn and will follow your lead. It’s important for you to model healthy behavior in touch, attitude and treatment of your spouse, partner or friend. Ask for permission before giving a touch so that toddlers can learn that permission must be received before touching someone or being touched by someone. And never force a child to hug or kiss someone… instead, offer options such as high-fives or hand shakes and support your child’s decision not to give kisses or hugs.
For additional tips on talking with kids about body safety and sexual abuse prevention, visit our Team Zero website.
Experiences cited in this and other articles on this website have been modified to protect the child victims.
About Sue ♥
Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Sue Bolde has a BA in psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara and an MA in art therapy from the University of Illinois. Her professional career includes clinical work with children and teens at the University of Chicago, graduate-level instruction with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and certification as a Montessori teacher and yoga instructor. She is currently a teacher in training with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as well as a Michigan ACE Initiative trainer.
About Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center ♥
The nationally accredited Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center brings help, hope, and healing to child victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and violence. Our mission is to protect children by supporting multidisciplinary investigations into alleged cases of child abuse by conducting child forensic interviews in an environment that is child-sensitive, supportive and safe. We help heal child victims and their families through our in-house therapeutic services and offer prevention education throughout the region via our Team Zero program. As the Grand Traverse regional response center for the investigation of child abuse, we collaborate with multidisciplinary teams in six counties – Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford – in addition to the Sovereign Nation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. More than 1,400 children have been referred to the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center since our founding in 2010.