It’s Christmas, and your Great-Aunt Bertha is visiting from Cincinnati. You remember her from your own childhood. She always has hard candy in her purse (which you like), and she smells like mothballs (which you don’t, so much).
You also remember how you had to hold your breath when she hugged you, while you and your sibling made faces at each other over her shoulder.
Now here she is a generation later, aiming her mothball aroma at your children.
What should you do? How should you handle it when family members expect physically affectionate greetings from your children? Do you encourage (or require) your kids to hold their breath and get it over with? After all, you want to teach your children to be polite, and you weren’t exactly scarred for life by enduring those hugs.
Or do you decide to intervene, sparing your child the unwanted physical closeness and possibly earning the wrath of Great-Aunt Bertha and other family members?
It is a Big Deal
We may feel like it’s no big deal, it’s just a harmless hug, and it’s important to keep the peace within the family and not offend our elders.
It really is a big deal, though, and here’s why:
Allowing our children to refuse physical affection is one of the most important ways to prevent sexual abuse.
Child Sexual Abuse is defined as any involvement of a person younger than 18 years old in any sexual activity. Children may not fully comprehend the activity, and they are not developmentally prepared to handle it.
Helpful and Frightening Statistics
According to the National Children’s Advocacy Center, 48.6% of sexual abuse of children ages 0-5 is committed by a family member and 48.3% is committed by an acquaintance. For children ages 6-11, 42.4% of sexual abuse is committed by a family member and 52.9% is committed by an acquaintance.
One of our most important roles as parents, guardians, and caregivers is to keep children safe.
So how does Great-Aunt Bertha threaten our children’s safety?
It’s not about Great-Aunt Bertha. It’s about our children’s bodily autonomy.
In order to do everything possible to protect our children from child sexual abuse, we must teach them that they are the boss of their own bodies, and that they have the right to accept or refuse physical affection, or any physical contact at all.
And they have the right to say “no” without guilt, pressure, or coaxing.
If kids can’t say “no” to Great-Aunt Bertha’s innocent, mothball-scented hugs, they may feel that they can’t say “no” to touches from someone whose motives are not so innocent.
Teach Children about their Bodies
It’s also important to teach our children that their private parts are the parts of their bodies that are covered up by their bathing suits. No one may touch their private parts or ask children to touch theirs, and no one may take pictures of their private parts or show them pictures of anyone’s private parts. Make sure your children have someone safe in their lives who they can tell if this happens.
An important practice to protect our children from sexual abuse is to teach them the proper anatomical words for their private parts. If the unthinkable happens and they are sexually abused, they need to be able to accurately describe what happened using clear language. We are often uncomfortable with words like “penis” and “vulva,” so we tend to use cute euphemisms. These euphemisms can actually be dangerous. Children need to know the proper words to use.
If a child discloses sexual abuse, or any interaction that makes them uncomfortable, believe them. Do not try to investigate on your own. Call your local Children’s Advocacy Center, who have trained forensic interviewers who can help the child explain what happened without judgement, and without planting any ideas in the child’s head.
Child sexual abuse is an uncomfortable and frightening subject, and we are obligated as parents to do everything we can to protect our children. These two techniques – honoring your child’s bodily autonomy by not forcing them to hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to, and teaching your child the proper name for their private parts – are your best tools for prevention.
This doesn’t mean that our parents were ogres because they forced us to endure these hugs. They simply didn’t have the knowledge and understanding that we have today about the links between bodily autonomy and child sexual abuse prevention. As Dr. Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
May you all have a peaceful, joyful, and safe holiday!