Sexual Abuse...It Happens and Let’s Talk About It
Updated: Mar 2, 2022
By: Rebecca Penzick
As an educator of young children, there’s one idea that I often stress to my students. It’s my #1 job to keep them safe. However, as any parent knows, we’re not around the children we care for 100% of the time. So the big question is: How do we prepare young children to keep themselves and others safe? Especially, if it involves something that is truly unthinkable...sexual abuse.
After completing several online trainings with an organization called Darkness to Light, I felt educated and empowered to start implementing lessons in my classroom that focused on the prevention of sexual abuse in children. This is not a comfortable topic for most folks but it’s important that we understand how prevalent sexual abuse actually is in order to rise above our discomfort.
On the Darkness to Light website, they have a Learn the Facts page that is both incredibly eye-opening and upsetting. For example:
1 in 10 children will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday
The most likely person to sexually abuse a child is someone the child knows, like friends and family
As many as 60% of children who are abused are by someone the family trusts
For the rest of this blog post, I will give you a checklist of activity ideas that you can (hopefully) easily refer back to in order to feel more prepared on your journey of arming yourself and the children you care about with steps that can be taken to prevent sexual abuse or at least stop it in its tracks. I urge you to start using some of these ideas with your children, some of which can even be used before they start talking!
Personal Safety - Creating Safety Promises
The idea of personal safety is quite broad and extends way beyond the scope of preventing sexual abuse. Create “Safety Promises” or “Safety Rules” with your child as you read the book I Can Play it Safe by Alison Feigh. It’s important that rules are created in conjunction with your child(ren) in order to give them a sense of ownership and to help them connect ideas from the book to their own thinking.
Some rules that may come out of this activity include:
Ask before petting animals
Be aware of your surroundings and the people in it
Ask confusing questions to parents or trusted adults
This isn’t a “one and done” activity. The “Safety Promises” you create together should be revisited and revised as situations arise AND as the child ages.
One of the first songs that children learn to sing is, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and they are absolutely fascinated by the human body. They crave to understand how it works, what different body parts are called, why bodies look different, and on and on! Even before they start talking, you can teach children the correct name of their body parts that are considered private.
Penis. Vagina. Labia. Breasts. Anus. Scrotum.
Children will model how you react to these words. We don’t feel nervous or giggly when talking about belly buttons. Why do we feel so awkward when it comes to talking about a penis? The more we can get comfortable talking about these body parts, the more knowledge your child will have in reporting potential abuse. No cute names for vaginas like “coin purse” or “snickerdoodle” because it can get confusing if your child tells a teacher that an older kid kept wanting to see their “coin purse” instead of an older kid wanting to see her vagina.
Who Has What: All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies by Robie H. Harris is a fantastic book that seamlessly introduces all of these body parts and has simple illustrations. When reading this book with my students recently, it led to conversations about how babies are made, gender fluidity, and so forth.
You may be wondering how a child will know what to do if they encounter a potential abuser or have been abused. This is why the, “What if…?” game is crucial to helping your child use their critical thinking skills to protect themselves. The more you can get your child to come up with ideas on their own, the more prepared they will be to handle these situations independently if they were to arise.
As you read, Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Maude Spelman, start asking some hypothetical “What if?” questions and invite your child to act out how they would respond. Here are some examples:
What if a neighbor invited you over to their house for some yummy chocolate cake?
What if your aunt asked to take some photos of you as you were showering?
What if an older student at your school wanted you to look at his penis?
What if grandma said she would give you $5 to touch her breasts?
Since these can definitely bring up unpleasant thoughts, don’t overload your child with too many questions in one sitting and you can vary up the questions with ones that are more benign. The “What If?” game could be played in the car, at the dinner table, and over long periods of time to keep the responses fresh.
Keep or Speak Secrets
As the saying goes, “Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone.” But...what about GOOD secrets like a surprise birthday party or knowing the end to an M. Night Shyamalan movie? Well, you may have noticed a trend by now but there’s two great books that help young children think through secrets that you should keep like a surprise party and secrets you should speak right away like if someone has touched your anus.
Do You Have a Secret? by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos helps children discern between fun & happy secrets vs. secrets that can be damaging.
I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide on Keeping your Private Parts Private by Kimberly King is somewhat of an instruction manual on helping children recognize and listen to icky, yucky feelings that could be signs of abuse, when to keep or speak secrets, how to speak to a potential abuser, how to “raise a red flag” to a trusted adult to get help, and so much more! This is a book that should NOT be read all in one sitting but is chock-full of important information that can be turned into fun role-playing games.
Five Senses Game
How many times has this conversation happened at home…
Parent: How was your day at school?
Parent: What did you do today?
Child: Ate a yummy lunch and played at recess!
Parent: What else did you do?
Child: I don’t know. Stuff!
It can be very tricky trying to suss out information about a child’s day or even just a few hours at a friends’ house. This is where the Five Senses Game really comes in handy and it has an added bonus of scratching that itch of learning more about their bodies. After your child spends time at their basketball practice or anywhere else not in your care, ask them the following questions:
What’s something that you saw?
What’s something that you heard?
What’s something that you smelled?
What’s something that you tasted?
What’s something that you touched?
You may be surprised at the information that you can glean from your child if questions are asked in a different way! If anything, this game will help you feel more connected to the children under your care and often elicits some giggles. In regard to sexual abuse prevention, these questions could just be the key to unlock information that could illuminate danger.
Trusted Adults and Reporting Abuse
Your child is hopefully surrounded by a network of trusted adults that ranges from family members, teachers, coaches, and mentors. Unfortunately, not all of these trusted adults are educated in sexual abuse prevention and may not know what to do if a child discloses abuse. This is why it is essential to help children do the following:
Identify trusted adults in their lives. These should be people over the age of 18. Older siblings and teenagers can seem like adults to young children!
Keep speaking their truth until a trusted adult listens and takes action
Understand that some trusted adults can be abusers
By no means does this blog post cover all of the potential activities, conversations, wonderful books, and so forth that can be used to prevent sexual abuse. Yet, I hope you have similar feelings of empowerment and education to protect the children in your life. If a child does disclose abuse, I urge you to go to the Reporting Child Sexual Abuse page on the Darkness to Light website for guidance. The children in your life are counting on you!
Written by Rebecca Penzick
Hi there! I have directed over half of my life to enriching the lives of children and their families throughout the city of Chicago. I started working with young people when I was still a kid myself, signing up to be a Junior Camp Counselor at Welles Park Summer Camp at the age of 13. My fascination with child development and helping people learn led to me pursuing and earning a master’s degree in early childhood education, along with a Type 04 teaching certificate and endorsement in special education in 2012 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. For the past 4 years, I have been guiding children at Greenfields Academy and I strongly believe that social emotional intelligence should be the focal point of education. When I’m not buried in my work as a teacher, you can find me caring for my menagerie of animals, tending to my jungle of plants, hiking in the woods, watching a movie, or enjoying the company of family & friends. Special shout-out to my husband, Ben Kurstin, who listens and supports me throughout the rollercoaster ride of educating young children!