By Dabria VanGieson, LCMFT, RPT, Clinical Manager
SEXUAL ASSAULT PREVENTION. Three words that immediately get our attention. But overall, not only is it hard to acknowledge the facts when it comes to sexual assault – but I think the tendency is for most of us to try and put it out of our minds entirely since it’s unpleasant to think about and often even more uncomfortable to talk about.
Statistics show us that most sexual assaults happen the first time between the ages of 11-17 years old; so in theory, our focus should really be on sexual assault prevention. As parents, teachers, caregivers, and therapists, it can be very uncomfortable to have a conversation about this with our children. Our tendency is such that we just want to protect them from the dangers of this world and then an unfortunate consequence of that is we end up robbing them of the ability to protect themselves.
We need to normalize what it means to listen to our gut instincts (at any age) by reinforcing the notion that if something feels wrong, it likely is. Even (or maybe ESPECIALLY) when that gut instinct belongs to a child. Spending time teaching healthy physical and relationship boundaries to our children is an extremely worthwhile investment. For instance: Do they know it’s ok to refuse a hug? Do they know it’s ok to tell an adult “no” if they are feeling uncomfortable? Do they know what a healthy relationship looks like?
Thankfully, there are wonderful, age-appropriate books that can help facilitate these sexual assault prevention conversations between parents and their children. One of my favorites is “My Body is Special and Belongs to Me” by Berenzweig, Benjoseph, and Cohen. Books like this help educate our children on “good touch vs. bad touch” and coach them about the importance of not keeping secrets from their circle of trusted adults. Helping our children establish and maintain boundaries with others is another step toward sexual assuault prevention.
If a child does not feel like giving hugs, it is imperative that adults respect that. This is often a hard boundary to set–especially with family members. It may seem silly for a child to refuse a hug from someone in their family or it can also be interpreted as ‘unkind’ or ‘disrespectful’ to others.
However, when we support them in doing so, it sends the message that we respect their feelings, helps show them they are in control of their body, and reiterates the message that no one gets to touch them without their permission. When we force a child to be physically affectionate, it can send a message that tells the child to ignore their own wishes or feelings regarding their bodies and make them think that we aren’t honoring how they feel either. They need to know that they can say no to physical touch even with people they love.
The facts show us that in most sexual assaults, the perpetrator is someone that the victim knows. The importance of talking to our children and educating them about this subject is not to instill fear in them but rather to empower them to take control of their bodies and voice how they wish to be treated. This skill later translates into adulthood as they learn to form more intimate, romantic relationships, therefore promoting healthier relationships overall.
For more on sexual assault awareness and prevention, empac members can log into our Member Learning Library.