Last month’s blog post, “How Your Inner Child and Inner Critic Interfere with Keeping Your Kids Safe,” explains how our own traumas and fears can hold us back when talking to our children about sexual boundaries.
This month, we are deepening the discussion by answering the question, “How to keep your child safe at home?”
Typically when parents think about children’s safety, they think about “stranger danger” or concerns about someone outside the family. However, studies suggest that at least one-third of childhood sexual abuse is perpetrated by other children and young people, like siblings, cousins or neighbors (Yates and Allardyce, 2021).
Specifically, sibling sexual abuse is often largely unreported, which makes gaining exact statistics challenging, however, it is believed to be one of the most common forms of intrafamilial sexual abuse.
As someone who was sexually abused by a sibling, when I first heard these statistics, I felt both heartbroken that there were so many others and also validated. It wasn’t just me and it wasn’t just my family. That being said, there are some things my parents could have done to keep both me, and my abuser, safe.
First off, sexual violence prevention expert Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic assures that the best way to protect against any sexual mistreatment is by talking about sex with your children in an open and deliberate way, starting at a young age. When sex is discussed early and often, and with anatomically correct terms, sexual experiences tend to happen later in life and with less negative experiences.
Explaining safe body boundaries, such as who should or shouldn’t be touching a child where, and in what setting, teaches children about personal space. One simple way to do this is by using the bathing suit rule. Imagine they are wearing a bathing suit and all body parts covered by the bathing suit are private areas. It could also be helpful to remind all siblings that the bathing suit rule applies to them as well, at all times. That is, they should never touch a sibling in their private areas, whether the sibling is awake or asleep.
When talking with children about the bathing suit rule, remind them that only certain people like adult caregivers and doctors, should see or touch those parts and only at specific times. But, if there is a time when an appropriate adult does touch them and it doesn’t feel comfortable, then it’s important to talk about it and not keep it a secret.
In today’s world, it only takes one typo for a Google search to become an illicit experience for all ages. That’s why preparing for the inevitable by instilling parental controls on devices, checking browser history, and talking about what is appropriate and not appropriate online behavior is crucial.
As children grow up, continue to check in on the ever-present adult content floating around the internet. Defend Young Minds reports 50% of parents underestimate their child’s exposure to pornography. In Brad Watts’ book Sibing Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Confronting America’s Silent Epidemic, he discusses that early and frequent exposure to pornography is largely linked to sibling sexual abuse, which is why continuing the conversation is important.
Here are three steps Defend Young Minds suggests when talking with children about pornography: 1) have a definition of the word 2) state a warning or consequence so they have a reason to reject it 3) create a plan so they know how to respond if they come across it.
Another risk factor to sibling sexual abuse is accessibility. This means that family behavior, family rules, and even the arrangement of the house, can play an important role in safety. For example, discouraging children from sleeping in the same bed (even same-gendered children), establishing rules related to household nudity, discussing an open-door policy (even for those sharing a room) and having the caregiver’s room in close proximity to the children’s room are ways to reduce risk.
Babysitting is a common occurrence for families, whether it's by an older sibling, a cousin, neighbor or grandparent. So, when using a babysitter, take a moment to sit down with the sitter to explain the rules of the household, such as what is appropriate to watch and view on the internet. If there is a bedtime routine, discuss bathtime, or moments of changing into pajamas. Explain the rules related to privacy, noting that your child has a comfortable understanding of the bathing suit rule.
If they are an older minor, talk with them about their increased responsibility to care for another’s physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. This can instill a sense of pride for the job being done. Explain the importance of their behaviors and actions and, if possible, let them know you’ll be checking in regularly. Then, once you’re back home, check in with the younger child and ask them about their experience of the babysitter.
Another tool to not discredit is your own intuition. Pay attention if something feels “off” within your house. Following your instincts might lead to an uncomfortable conversation, but could potentially prevent years of hurt and pain.
Preventing sexual mistreatment in young children can often be overlooked, but by using open communication, clear boundaries, and your own parental instincts, you can help keep your home the safest place for your family.
Brinn Langdale, LMFT is a therapist, speaker, writer, podcast host and SSA survivor and thriver. Visit brinnlangdale.com for more insights and to access free guides and resources about healing trauma and more.