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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 whit­ney@safe­and­hap­pykids.com.au.

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.

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