TEACHING KIDS BODY SAFETY
IS TEACHING BODY SAFETY
NAME: Whitney Yip FROM: Melbourne, Australia SINGLE MUM FOR: Five years
FAVOURITE PART OF BEING A SINGLE MUM: I get to parent the way I want LEAST FAVOURITE PART: My son just got a One Direction CD for his birthday. Of course I have to let him listen to it on repeat, but being the only adult in the house, I can’t escape from it either.
While one in five Australian children experience some sort of sexual abuse during their childhood, single mum and founder of Body Safety Australia and Safe & Happy Kids, Whitney Yip, is teaching parents that there’s no need to be alarmed and our children don’t need to be afraid of people to be safe. It’s all about hands on, age appropriate education, and it’s something you can start teaching your children at any age.
Thanks for joining us Whitney. The topic of sexual abuse and stranger danger can be somewhat taboo or uncomfortable in our society, so what called you do the work you do?
I started Body Safety Australia and Safe & Happy Kids largely because of my own experience growing up. There was a history of sexual abuse in my family and so understandably my parents wanted to protect me, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised I actually got some weird messages about stranger danger. The way the idea was presented to me actually ended up making me feel really afraid of people. I continuously heard messages like ‘Don’t ever let anyone see you naked’ and ‘Don’t stay over at people’s houses, it’s not safe’.
It really affected me. It made the whole world feel like an unsafe place to be.
So, when I became a parent I wanted to make sure my son was safe but not scared. I didn’t want him to feel afraid, I wanted him to feel confident and empowered. So, as you do, I started Googling to figure out how to do that, and I couldn’t find anything I was comfortable with. Everything was about keeping an eye on your child, which as a single parent I can’t always do – I have a life, you know! The rest was about bubble wrapping your child so they are barely experiencing life.
None of it made me feel confident or empowered and none of it made me feel comfortable about having that conversation with my son, but I knew the stats about child abuse and how important the issues is; with 1 in 5 children experiencing sexual abuse, it is in my community, it is in my backyard. I knew I couldn’t just do nothing but I didn’t feel comfortable teaching what was already out there, so I decided to take a new approach.
The approach I’ve taken is about being positive and proactive instead of instilling fear into children, and to educate children about their rights and let them know that it’s ok to talk about things.
When the child protection movement started in the 1980s, it was called ‘protective behaviours’, so no wonder it felt ominous. I now simply call it ‘body safety’ so it feels more friendly and a normal thing to teach children; just like water safety or fire safety.
Ensuring children feel comfortable enough to talk to someone about abuse is so important, but accusing an adult of it is pretty serious. How can we be sure that we have all the correct facts from our children, how can we know they’re not making something up?
Kids are imaginative, they live in an imaginative world, so yeah they can make things up. But they’re imaginative about things they know about. A child that hasn’t been exposed to inappropriate behaviour won’t be able to make it up. In our courses we don’t teach children what inappropriate touching is, instead we teach them to be aware of early warning signs that will let them know they’re in a situation that feels unsafe. Things like if they feel like crying, if they are scared or starting to sweat or feeling uncomfortable. And that if they do feel those things, that they have the right to move themselves away from that situation and/or talk to a trusted adult until they feel safe again.
Children not being believed is actually a really big problem in the area of sexual abuse. The stats are that on average a child has to tell an adult 5-7 times until they are believed. And you can imagine that if they have been in an abusive situation or if they are in fact still in an abusive situation, it would be scary for children to tell someone just once, let alone enough times to be listened to.
Holy wow, that really is shocking.
It is. And we live in a society that predominantly deals with children by using punishments and rewards. The thing with punishments and rewards is that you’re using a technique to control your child that is exactly the same technique that predators use to manipulate or harm them, so if someone comes along and says to your child ‘Hey, if you do X and don’t tell anyone, I’ll give you (insert reward here)’, kids are used to that mode of behaviour so it doesn’t raise alarm bells for them.
It’s interesting you say that. I’ve started to feel uncomfortable using rewards and punishments with my three year old son and have been wondering what I’d do when that day comes when the rewards or punishments I’m using have no value to him.
It’s really about deciding whether you want to stop using punishments and rewards. If you do decide not to, the most important thing is communicating with your child. If your child hits you, get down to their level, explain that it really hurt you and it hurt your feelings and why. If your child won’t eat dinner you can explain why that’s not ok. It’s about teaching children how to be empathetic, thoughtful, problem solving members of society as young as possible.
That makes sense. But what about tantrums and the time when you have that conversation and they’re still not on board with you?
Of course it’s not going to work every time, but it’s about practice. When they do have tantrums, the most important thing is to listen to them, really listen through active listening. Active listening is when you reflect your child’s emotions back to them so they feel understood. Often when they feel heard, they’ll calm down and you can talk to them more and work towards a solution.
It’s about being more of a team rather than a dictatorship. And yes, and sometimes it can be really hard to work with that, and we have to acknowledge that sometimes we won’t feel like doing it and then we just get back up and try again next time.
You say you teach emotional safety as well as body safety, what’s the focus of each?
They’re both entwined really – our feelings affect our bodies and our bodies affect how we feel. For example, there have been body scans of people done that show if someone’s angry, they’re hot, if they’re sad, they’re cold, so it’s about raising the child’s emotional awareness and how emotions relate to their bodies. If they know their body and how their body is making them feel, they’re much more aware of knowing if a situation is right or not.
That could apply to so much more than just body safety!
Yeah, it could be about some kids going and laughing at another kid in the playground and your child knowing the feeling that that’s wrong and listening to the early warning signs their bodies are giving them.
It’s really about life skills; about enhancing their emotional intelligence, assertiveness, critical thinking and problem solving.
So here’s an interesting comment I’ve heard since becoming a single parent – that children of single mums are more at risk of sexual abuse. Is that true?
It’s a nice, juicy myth to float around and it’s a nice myth to demonise single parents. It’s something to be aware of but sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate based on age, education, class or status. Rather than saying a child of a single parent is more likely to be abused, we need to move the blame to the perpetrator who is wanting to harm a child and the child’s mother. Abuse could just as likely come from biological fathers as step-fathers but no one is saying that traditional couples should be alarmed.
As parents, what is our role in our children’s body safety?
To teach children about consent and uphold their right to it, and that means consent relating to all aspects of their body, not just abuse. For example, asking them if it’s ok to put their clothes on or asking them if they want a kiss or a hug and letting them have the right to say yes or no, just the same as when we, as parents, may not want a hug – it’s ok for either of us to say ‘No thanks, I don’t want a hug or I don’t want to be touched right now,’.
And yes, this will cause our children to be assertive and raising assertive children is hard – as busy mums, and single mums, we don’t want to hear ‘no’ all the time but you can teach yourself the skills to make it work.
I’ve heard of the word grooming when it comes to sexual abuse. Can you explain this in more detail and how can we be more aware of it?
Grooming is a technique abusers and predators use to gain a sense of trust, and it’s important to recognise that they don’t just groom the child, they groom the whole family.
In terms of being more aware of it, it’s hard, abusers and abusive behaviour can be undetectable, so the best way is to listen to your own instincts. In terms of helping your children being aware of it without alarming or frightening them, it comes down to asking them ‘Is there anything that worried you today?’
Is that a question we should be asking our children regularly?
Yeah, and the answer may not be something big. It could be that they lost their favourite pencil, but by asking and listening it lets them
know that they’ll be heard, so if it is ever a bigger, more critical issue, they already know they can talk to you. It’s about using teachable moments on an ongoing basis. It doesn’t have to be a big deal and it doesn’t have to be a big sit down uncomfortable talk with your kids. Part of my parenting program is about really listening to your children. In their lives little things we might consider unimportant are the centre of their worlds.
At what age can we start educating our children about body safety?
You can start laying the foundations when they’re quite young with simple things like asking them if it’s ok to remove their nappy and accurately naming body parts. Body safety and consent is even as simple as things like knowing that people shouldn’t shove food in your mouth without asking. So you’re getting them used to being comfortable saying no to relatively harmless things before they’re in a position to be exposed to more inappropriate or abusive situations and behaviours.
I understand that teaching the idea of consent is important, but if I asked my son if I could remove his nappy, nine times out of ten, he’d say no! How do we find balance between letting them give consent and just getting through an average day?
Absolutely, I get it! There are three roles when it comes to parenting where sometimes you just have to be the parent - they are your children’s health, hygiene and safety. The idea of consent is something your should practice with your children on a regular basis, but life is life, sometimes you’ll be in the position where you can have a more involved conversation but other times you’ll have to step in.
You say you teach through unique creative games, activities, songs and dances so safety is taught without fear, can you give us an example of one of these?
Sure. A quick and easy game for any age is the Traffic Light System. In the game, red is unsafe, green is safe and not quite sure is yellow, then we give children situations and ask them what colour it is. For example, is eating an ice cream safe or unsafe? Is riding your bike for the first time by yourself safe or unsafe? You think there’s a monster is underneath your bed – is that safe or unsafe? It can be loads of fun and lots of laughs, but you’re really teaching them about critical thinking
I’ve got a free ebook that includes some of these games. You can get a copy by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As parents, what’s one thing can we do right now, today, to ensure our children are safe?
It does depend on your child’s age of course, but a great start is teaching your children about their body parts and the idea of consent when it comes to their bodies. Moving to older children, encouraging them to have a safety network is key. Encourage them to have five people they feel safe talking to about everything and anything. This teaches them that they are allowed to talk about things. Children’s lives are so often governed by what they’re allowed and not allowed to do that it’s important they know they have trusted people that they’re allowed to talk about anything in their lives without fear of judgement; it will not only keep them safe but set them up to have open communication in all of their future relationships.