By Laura Hurstfield
As new parents you know to buy the socket covers, the cupboard locks, have the car seat professionally fitted. When they get older you make sure they have their helmet on when on their bikes or scooters and wear their floatie in the water. Walking to school you teach them how to cross the road safely. These are all things you just do as parents, it’s like second nature, then why is it not the same with personal safety for children? Why do many parents find it difficult, confronting or just avoid having the conversation with their children?
Yes schools have personal safety in their curriculum, but you really want them to be able to identify an unsafe situation and have strategies in place before they head off to school. You also want to them to hear it from you, with your values and opinions and have your voice in their head if they are ever in a difficult situation.
You can’t be with them 24/7 but you can educate them about what to do if something doesn’t feel right and that it is safe to talk to a trusted adult. Giving them simple strategies about keeping safe can help build confidence, resilience and empower them. It might be scary to start the conversation but it’s so important to take the first step and then make it an ongoing dialogue which evolves as they develop.
According to Bravehearts.org.au the not–for–profit organisation dedicated to prevention and treatment of child abuse, the benefits of personal safety education can:
- Reduce the likelihood of a child entering an unsafe situation
- Clearly demonstrate to the child how to respond to an unsafe situation
- Increase a child’s sense of confidence and in doing so increase their resilience
- Increase a child’s knowledge of their personal rights i.e. “I have a right to feel safe with people”
- Increases the likelihood that the child will speak out if they feel unsafe and tell someone they trust
- Can interrupt or prevent grooming.
So how do you do this?
Teach your children the following three rules:
We all have the right to feel safe with people.
Talk about people you feel safe with, ask them who they feel safe with. Talk about if something or someone makes them feel uncomfortable they should tell someone. I often use the term “Icky feeling” in my programmes, often this presents as a funny feeling in their tummy and sometimes it can be upset tummy, but sometimes it can be that something else is bothering them, listen to them in those moments. Tell them it’s OK to tell you if they don’t feel safe with something or someone or in a situation, trust their instincts. Tell them this can be in any situation at a party, at school, at the skate park etc.
It is OK to say No if you feel unsafe or unsure.
The rule teaches children it’s OK to say No, to stand up for yourself and be assertive if something doesn’t feel right. It’s important they know they have a voice, and their voice matters and is heard. This includes others hurting or touching them in ways they don’t want them to. It’s a good idea to refer to school or daycare rule of keeping our hands to ourselves and that if someone is touching them or hurting them then they need to tell someone they trust.
Teach them it is their right to say no if someone comes towards them and is too close they can ask them to stand back and give them personal space, using their hands to block someone getting to close is perfectly fine and a great tool for lots of situations. Putting their hands up and saying “No I don’t want you to touch me” or “No you can’t do that to me” is a great way of standing up for themselves without hurting others or being interpreted as rude and can be used in the playground or the park if another child is getting too close or maybe getting aggressive.
Nothing is so yucky that you can’t tell someone about it.
This is so important, often children don’t want to tell you things because they think they will get into trouble, or they don’t want to disappoint us. It is important they understand there is nothing they can’t tell you. “You can tell me anything at all, whatever it is I will always love you” It’s also a good idea to have other trusted adults who your child feels safe with, and you trust and put them on a Network Hand.
You will know if your child is developmentally ready to do their Network Hand. Simply sit with your child and draw around their hand, ask them about some adults they trust or feel safe talking to, this might be Aunts, Uncles, Coaches, Teachers. If you are happy with their choice ask them to draw the face of each person in each finger of their hand outline. Then you add in their mobile or best contact number. This then lives on the fridge or on the child’s wall. You must explain to the people on the Network Hand that they are a trusted adult and may one day get a call. This list may change as your child gets older but it’s a really good way of ensuring they know there is always someone they can talk to if they feel they can’t tell you.
Speaking with your child about personal safety should not be a big one off conversation, this is a dialogue that needs to continue. Use all opportunities to talk about personal safety, these conversations will evolve as they get older. When you are having the conversation, speak calming and confidently, with a natural tone. If they sense you are anxious they may pick up on your anxiety and not process what you are saying. Give them time to process what you say and ask a few times if they have any questions. Keeping the communication going is important and not just around personal safety, having clear open communication with our children is vital for later years too. Make it the norm to have open, two way conversations with your children.
A really good tool for starting these family conversations is something called “Bad Thing, Good Thing”. Maybe at dinner time or bath time, each person, Mum, Dad, Granny whoever is there, gets to say one bad thing that they did today or one bad thing they witnessed or experienced. When your child says, “I didn’t get picked for the concert” you say, “I’m sorry you didn’t get picked for the concert, you must feel sad about that?” They know you heard them and as time goes on they will feel more comfortable sharing things that have happened or things they are worried about. The bonus is they are also learning emotional language! Then everyone shares one good thing, and you celebrate the wins. This ensures good two way communication and they have learnt it’s safe to tell you things.
As a parent you might cringe at the thought of teaching your children the correct language for their private parts, its often easier to come up with nick names. However, for personal safety, its important they know the proper terms for their private parts, it means there can be no misunderstanding, “Willy” could mean any part of the body really, but we all know a “penis is a penis”, no misunderstanding. Use the proper names to emphasise that these parts are personal and belong to them. And most importantly, never make your child feel ashamed or embarrassed about their bodies, you want them to be confident in their bodies and know how to keep them safe.
If you are uncomfortable having the conversation about private parts and safety, there are lots of books available. A few I use in my programmes are “Everyone’s Got a Bottom by Tess Rowley” and “My underpants rule” by Rod and Kate Power, both available from most good bookshops and may be at your local library.
If the thought of talking about private parts to your child is too confronting and you don’t know where to start, there is a great book called “Where Did I Come From” by Peter Mayle which talks about private parts and where babies come from, with great illustrations which gets the conversation going and takes the pressure off you to come up with the words. With all the above mentioned books, be prepared for questions after they have processed what they have learnt and keep the conversation going. Its better they get answers from you rather than a friend’s older sibling or from the playground. With all these books, hints and tips, you will know if your child will be able to understand these things, because you are the experts in your children!
Laura Hurstfield has 20yrs experience as a Social Worker and Parenting Practitioner. Providing Parenting Programs such as Triple P Positive Parenting Program,123 Magic and Emotion Coaching and Circle of Security. In 2013 Laura won the accolade of International Triple P Practitioner. Laura offers 1:1 and group programs. Find out more: www.hurstfieldconsulting.com.au