April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and at Hope House, we believe sexual violence is preventable.
One way to prevent abuse is to start talking about consent with children when they are young. By having these ongoing conversations with our children, we can help give them power over their bodies and decisions, teach them they deserve to feel safe all of the time and stress the need to respect other people’s boundaries.
Consent means giving someone a choice about touching or actions and respecting the answer they give. Children can learn and practice consent in any social interaction with family members, other adults or kids.
This can be demonstrated through play and choosing to share toys. It can be seen in physical touch, such as hugging, holding hands, tickling, wrestling, or touching clothes, hair or bodies.
We can let our children know it is OK if they don’t feel comfortable hugging, kissing or being tickled by another person. Even if we, as adults, believe it is safe for a child to hug or show physical affection to adult family members or friends, it may not feel safe or comfortable to the child. Likewise, we shouldn’t pressure or force a child to hug or show affection to another child.
Telling a child they are the boss of their body and have the right to say who they show physical affection to lets them know they have power to make decision about their bodies. If a child says no or seems uncomfortable, offer them alternatives, such as a high five, blowing a kiss, or using kind words so they can still interact and show respect without having their boundaries crossed.
We all have the right to feel safe, but others also have the right to feel safe with us. We need to educate our children that it’s important to ask others before acting on physical affection. As well as having their own “no” heard, we can teach kids to gracefully accept if someone else says “no” or “stop” — that we have to respect other people’s bodies and boundaries. We can practice with our children how to read non-verbal cues when someone else is uncomfortable.
We can educate our kids on safe, unsafe or confusing touches. This can include talking about private parts and that it is not appropriate for another child, older child, or adult to ask to look at, touch or show private parts and that no one should ask them to keep touch a secret. We can teach children to trust their own intuition and the signs their body gives them that they are feeling uncomfortable or unsafe.
The most important thing is to be there for your children, at any age. The single most important factor affecting a child or young person’s resilience is having a supportive adult in their life. We can let children and teens know that they can talk to us about anything, that abuse is never their fault, and that they deserve to be safe at all times.
Sexual assault and abuse can be difficult to talk about. But by teaching our children and young people that they deserve to be safe, they are the boss of their own bodies, and they have to respect other people’s bodies and decisions, we can move toward ending sexual violence.
Becky Berry is the Youth Educator Advocate at Hope House of South Central Wisconsin. To learn more about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit hopehousescw.org. Hope House offers free and confidential support and resources for those who have been sexually assaulted and can be reached at 608-356-7500 or 800-584-6790.