Teaching Your Child to Protect Himself
If you hit your child apologize as soon as possible. Explain that you lost your temper and admit that that's no excuse. Acknowledge that you have no right to hit him. Make it understood that you're sorry and will try never to do it again. If you hit your child regularly, seek professional help. The damage you're inflicting can hurt him for a long time.
By age four, your child should know the names of most body parts. Many parents and teachers may be uncomfortable talking about genitalia, so preschoolers survey the body this way: "This is my head, neck, arms, hands, chest, stomach, legs, feet." What's missing? Your child needs to know that the penis, vagina, and bottom are parts of the body just like his arm or leg.
Teach your child to distinguish between safe touch and unsafe touch: Safe touch (hugging, consoling, even mussing his hair) feels good. Unsafe touch (hitting, kicking, pinching, molesting) feels bad, uncomfortable, scary, or "funny" (weird).
Encourage your child to trust his instincts about which is which. Let your preschooler know that if he ever feels unsure he should come and ask you or another trusted adult.
Unfortunately, your child may need to deal with dangers closer to home than strangers. The sad truth is that most forms of physical and sexual abuse are not inflicted by strangers, but by someone whom the abused child knows fairly well: parents, other relatives, friends of the family, neighbors. So you will need to teach your child to protect himself from the abuse of people he knows as well as from strangers.
The key to combating child abuse is to empower your child by giving him the right to say no. He needs to understand clearly that:
- His body is his own body and he has the right to keep it private.
- He has the right to refuse any kind of touch from another person.
- He has the right to say no to anyone who wants to keep something a "secret."
If he knows the names of all parts of the body, then you can clearly tell your child that no adult (or older child) other than a parent, doctor, or nurse has permission to touch his penis or bottom. (Of course, younger preschoolers may also need a caregiver or preschool teacher to help wipe them after using the toilet. Make sure that your child understands this exception to the rule.) You can also make it clear that no adult (or older child) has the right to force or ask your child to touch his penis or her vagina.
Emphasize your child's ownership over his own body. His body belongs to nobody else, not even to you. This means that he has the right to say no to any adult who wants to touch him in any way. Even if an uncomfortable touch seems accidental or the person who touches is a relative or someone whom your child trusts, he still has the right to say, "Don't touch me like that."
If you want your child to recognize, appreciate, and exercise his rights over his own body, you will have to respect those rights, too. Don't force physical signs of affection on your child. If you want a hug or a kiss, ask for one. But if he shies away or says no, as some preschoolers begin to do, respect that and back off a little. This same rule should of course be applied to all of your friends and relatives. When your sister comes to visit, you should never command your child, "Give your aunt a kiss." Rather, ask your child, "Do you want to give your aunt a kiss?" If he says no, don't apologize or make excuses. That's his right.
Finally, teach your child the difference between "good secrets" and "bad secrets." An adult who physically or sexually abuses a child will almost always insist that the child keep it a secret—and often threatens harm if he reveals it. So you'll need to give your child guidelines that let him know when to keep secrets—and when to tell them.
A good secret, one that's okay to keep, is usually exciting and fun (a birthday present, or a surprise party). A good secret almost always involves hiding knowledge from one or two special people for a short period of time (hardly ever longer than a month). But a bad secret probably won't make your child feel excited or happy. Instead, it feels like trouble—and no one is ever supposed to find out about it. This is the type of secret that your child should reveal to a responsible adult as soon as possible.
Your child needs to know that he can and should tell you or another trusted adult if anyone asks him to do something that makes him feel funny or uncomfortable or scared—or if anyone touches his genitalia. Encourage him to ask you about any adult behavior that confuses him or makes him uncomfortable. Most of all, your child needs to know that you'll listen to him if he does. So never punish him for revealing information to you. If you show that you are open to any and all questions and that you will listen if he tells you that something bad happened, then you'll go a long way toward protecting your preschooler from any potential abuse.