Parenting with a PhD: Talking to your kids about Sexual Assault

All the recent talk about sexual assault has many parents wondering how to protect their kids from being victimized; however, just as important is raising children who respect boundaries, understand that no means no, and are willing to stand up for others when needed. One of the best ways to introduce kids to complex and adult topics like sexual assault is through children’s books. Teaching our girls (and boys) to protect themselves against sexual assault may make them less likely to be victimized but setting the foundation for healthy consensual relationships in childhood will reduce the overall problem of sexual assault. It’s especially important that parents remember that sexual assault is not a “women’s issue” but whole society issue. Consider adding some of the following books to your children’s library to help them learn more about important topics like consent, boundaries, and body ownership.

No Means No!: Teaching Children About Personal Boundaries, Respect, and Consent by Janyneen Sanders. Best for children aged 3-9. The goal of this book is to “Empower kids by respecting their choices and their right to say, “No!.” Obviously, the book doesn’t teach kids that they are allowed to refuse to go to bed – my kids wish there was a book that said that. Rather, the book highlights that kids’ bodies belong to them alone, that they don’t “have to” hug or kiss anyone if they don’t want to, and that they need to get consent before touching anyone else’s body. The book prepares children to respond to typical approaches used by sexual abusers but in a kid friendly, non-scary way. Ultimately, this book teaches kids to trust inner feelings that say a situation is weird or dangerous and to get help from someone they trust. For further ideas when talking about these issues with kids, find the discussion questions in the back.

I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private by Kimberly King. Best for ages 4 and up. This book provides appropriate responses to situations when kids feel their boundaries aren’t being respected. Topics covered include what kind of touches are appropriate and from whom, how to recognize inappropriate behavior and what to do about it, and how to keep asking for help until you get it.

Do You Have a Secret? (Let’s Talk About It!) by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos. Best for preschool for grade 3. This book details the difference between good and bad secrets, and how to get help if you have a “bad secret.” This option isn’t specific to issues of sexual abuse/assault but can also be helpful for kids dealing with family and social issues, bullying, etc. Essentially, the book sends the message that kids shouldn’t try and deal with big, upsetting issues all by themselves and that asking for help isn’t just O.K. – it’s the right thing to do.

Miles is the Boss of His Body by Samanta Kurtzman-Counter. Best for preschool through 2nd grade. What I love most about this book is that it focuses on relatively harmless touches (e.g., pinches, too tight hugs) but illustrates that the main character is allowed to say no to them if he wants, even though the touchers are family members. In fact, no one gets upset with him for saying no – rather, he is reinforced for asserting his boundaries. Kids will love the comic book style and parents will appreciate the light-hearted delivery of important lessons.

An Exceptional Children’s Guide to Touch: Teaching Social and Physical Boundaries to Kids by Hunter Manasco. This book is particularly helpful for reading to children with  special needs who are at heightened risk for abuse. No specific age range is given but it’s generally recommended for elementary-aged kids. The stories presented highlight the importance of boundaries and how boundaries change according to situations. The book does a great job of teaching kids how to advocate for themselves when they’re in uncomfortable situations.

Other books to consider:
My Body Belongs to Me From My Head to My Toes from pro Familia
It’s MY Body: A Book to Teach Young Children How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch by Lory Britain
Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Spelman

Parents can reinforce the messages in these books in the following ways:

Never require your child to give hugs, kisses, high fives, etc. Your child should be respectful of others and acknowledge them when being spoken to but should not be forced into any unwanted physical contact. If needed, you can give a short explanation to the adult in question but avoid apologizing or guilting your child. It’s a good idea to note that there are a few exceptions like when your child has a check-up with the doctor or needs help from a parent with his bath.

When siblings hit each other, include lack of consent when you’re pointing out what they’ve done wrong. You might say, “You’re going to your room for 20 minutes because you touched your brother without permission and you hurt him.” Avoid blowing off complaints about siblings’ conduct, even if you didn’t see what happened. Whether you believe the child’s version or not, you can give a quick empathic statement and a promise to watch for problems: “You told me your sister kicked you and you look really angry. I didn’t see it happen but will be watching her.”

Avoid forced touching in the family, even if it’s done in jest. For example, if you continue to tickle your child when he asks you to stop (even if he’s laughing) or kiss her when she says she doesn’t want a kiss, you’re reinforcing the idea that kids aren’t allowed to set their own boundaries about their bodies – a very slippery slope. Insist that others in the family respect boundaries, too. If siblings are play wrestling and one asks to stop, insist that the others leave him/her alone immediately.

Allow and encourage your kids, even/especially your sons, to express their emotions. Provide empathy for feelings – even if you don’t understand why your child feels as he does. Give guidance on appropriate ways of expressing strong feelings. You might say, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so angry. It’s always O.K. to tell me you’re mad but it’s never O.K. to throw the remote.” Avoid making statements to your son suggesting that expressing emotion is “feminine.” Not only is it untrue that only girls have feelings or should express them (duh), but also it’s hurtful to our daughters when we suggest that boys should try not to be like them.

Intervene when you notice your child being disrespectful of someone else’s boundaries. Communicate to your child that it’s his responsibility to notice when he’s made someone uncomfortable and to stop doing what the other person doesn’t like, whether he understands their complaint or not. Provide consequences consistently when your child continues to violate someone else’s boundaries.

About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her daughters, ages ten and four, and seven-year-old son.

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