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Open communication and education key to keeping kids safe

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Talking to kids about their body and their rights is one of the best ways to protect them against sexual assault.

And you can start talking to them as soon as they are born.

In fact, said sexual health and family life educator Saleema Noon, it often helps parents to chat to their newborn about all their body parts using proper terminology.

That way said Noon, when kids start talking back using proper names and not cutesy nicknames feels perfectly normal.

"There are parents who have difficulty talking about sex," said Noon.

"But it really is a safety issue. Protecting your kids against abuse starts with using technical terminology.

"A parent, who works in a daycare facility, told me not too long ago about a little boy who came there and told one of the workers that Grandpa was playing with his toy last night. (The woman) said, ‘how nice’ and went on with her day.

"Well in a four-week period this little boy came back and told the same thing to every worker there and sure enough when they called the family in, in their home the penis was called the toy.

"So teaching technical terminology is critical."

Noon, who writes a weekly column for the Vancouver Sun and leads workshops on sex education for kids, parents and others, tells kids there are three private parts of their body: the lips, the breasts and the genitals (anything between the legs).

"I also let them know that if they are in situation where someone is trying to look at or touch their private parts, or someone is trying to make them look at our touch their private parts they are allowed to do anything they can to get away," said Noon.

"The message is no matter who it is, even if it is an adult, even if it is someone you know, even if it a family friend or a relative they are allowed to do anything they can to stop the behaviour.

"I tell them this is the only time their parents will give them permission to be rude, even to an adult."

According to a national Health Canada study, in eight out of 10 sexual abuse cases the victims knew their abusers, and in four out of 10 cases the abusers were fathers or father figures.

Less than one in 10 child abuse cases is ever reported to authorities. Most sex offenders have an average of 17 victims before they are caught.

Noon tells kids that once they have got away they must tell an adult they trust immediately.

She tells them there are no secrets from parents. In fact she encourages parents not to use the word secret in their homes on a daily basis.

If a child does disclose Noon said adults should take the child to a quiet private place, talk to them gently using open-ended non-threatening questions.

"Don’t come right out and say have you been abused," advises Noon.

"Instead start off by saying, ‘I have noticed some changes in your behaviour.’

"Or, ‘I have noticed that you act strangely in front of this person. Do you feel comfortable in front of this person? Why or why not.’

"And you could say, ‘you know that if anyone came into your space you could tell me and we could deal with it and you would never be in trouble, right?’

"It is just a constant reminder of those things.

"They haven’t done anything wrong and it is safe.

"And a parent, even though they may not feel this way, must send a message to the child that they are completely in control of the situation and know exactly what to do, otherwise why would children report."

Give positive messages too, telling the child you are proud of them for talking about what has happened.

Educating kids about their personal space is also critical said Noon.

"I always tell people about when I was a child and my parents would have dinner parties and before I would go off to bed I was expected to go around the room and give every person a kiss and a hug goodnight," said Noon.

"But what message are you sending to your child then? That they are public property and that they don’t have the right to say no.

"I think it is alright for kids to say, ‘I am not in the mood for kissing or hugs, how about a handshake.’

"And the research shows us over and over that kids who have healthy boundaries are not only much safer in childhood, but also in their teenage years and their adult years in relationships.

"They know how to be assertive and say no."

Research shows that sex offenders prey on children who aren’t educated about their bodies and therefore lack the skills to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touching.

Noon said it is difficult to directly link types of behaviour with incidences of abuse. But she said if children are behaving out of character there is a reason for it.

Some signs to watch for are: Changes in personality, changes in eating habits, all of a sudden they don’t want to go to so and so's house, layering of clothing (they layer so they will be less accessible), poor hygiene habits as they are trying to make themselves less attractive to others, and changes in levels of self esteem.

She also pointed out that there is a legal responsibility for anyone to report suspected cases of child abuse to either a police officer or a social worker.

For more information visit www.saleemanoon.com , the Web site of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada at www.sexualityandu.ca, and www.mcf.gov.bc.ca/prevention .

Two great books are a Very Touching Book by Jan Hindman (for kids) and More Speaking of Sex by Meg Hickling (for adults).

If you need help call the RCMP or Whistler’s public health and nursing office at 604-932-3202. You can also call 604-310-1234. This number is active 24 hours a day, seven days a week.