How to talk to kids about body safety and consent

“How about a hug?” a relative asked my daughter the other day, her negative response at first was shutdown, “Come on, it’s only a hug and I miss you”.

This is when I said, “It’s ok, you can go and play, and if you want to come back and give a hug, you can. But you don’t have to.”

You see, what kind of messages are we giving our children when we are telling them that they have to say Yes and give consent to physical touch when it comes to certain people, because they are relatives, or friends, or it’s socially not ok to turn them down, when at the same time we are telling them that they have the power to say NO?

Moreover, many parents and caregivers often wait until their children are older to talk about sexual consent. What they are missing on is the fact that sexual consent is not just in relation to intercourse. Waiting until your child is ready to become sexually active before you start talking about consent, may place your child in vulnerable situation in relation to any unwanted physical touch.

One in four girls and one in 20 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18, and about 35 percent of sexual abuse victims are under 12 years old—elementary school age. And in a 2018 national survey, over 80 percent of women and 40 percent of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime.

This said, sitting down a toddler to explain to them what sexual abuse is, will most probably just confuse and scare them. So how and when to talk about keeping safe? I truly believe we need to teach safe, protective education and consent from the age of 3, using really clear, simple messages that do not aim to scare those children.

  1. Start with using correct words for all body parts.
  2. This should happen actually from day 1, as we are changing nappies for the infant, we start by mentioning that we are now cleaning the penis, the vulva, and the bottom. Those are body parts just like the nose, knees, or hands. Those parts are not unacceptable, taboos or have purely sexual connotations, it’s our perception of them that makes them as such.

    The reason why this is important, is that research has shown that children who are confident in using the proper names of those body parts are much more likely to tell if something inappropriate happens.

    Furthermore, it shows sexual predators that the child and his parents talk about this at home and hence adds another obstacle to the abuse.

  3. Introduce the concept of consent.
  4. Kids need to feel fully in control of their bodies and hence it is important to make it a habbit to ask your children if you can touch them, even for a cuddle or a hug. We explain to our 2-3 year old that I need to touch their private part to clean after they have done a poo if they have not mastered that yet or they are still in their nappy. We also repeat that they have the power to say NO and everyone regardless of who they are, have to respect our NO and we in turn have to accept and respect the NO coming from others.

    This leads us to point number 3.

  5. Don’t force hugs and kisses.
  6. We can’t emphasise how important it is to keep reminding children that they are the bosses of their own body.

    Stating that to them is not enough though.

    What kind of a message are we sending when we are telling them: “ you are the boss of your body” and then only 5-10 mins later to say “It’s not nice to say No to grandma, go give her a hug, she loves you”.

    Yes you guessed it, we are telling them that they are not really the boss of thei own bodies, because, Grandam and Grandpa and Uncle and Auntie and Grandma’s friend and our Neighbour X are allowed to give you hugs and kisses and make you feel uncomfortable even if you say NO!!!

    Hence, that molester who happens to also be someone I know (because 93% of the time they are) can touch me because they also love me? And it’s not ok to say no to someone I know who is showing me “affection”?

    You see where I am going with this?

  7. Teach kids to understand and trust their feelings
  8. Start by teaching children to identify and name their feelings and those of others. Whether through role plays, a fun memory matching game or sitting with them and talking about how they felt around a certain situation (whether happy or not).

    Let them identify where that feeling also was in their body, when I felt scared from the sound of the balloon popping my heart ached. Explain to them that if they ever feel uncomfortable, anxious, scared, etc because of someone or what they may have said or done, they need to come to you directly and that YOU WILL TRUST THEIR FEELINGS TOO no matter who that other person is.

  9. Teach them Safe VS Unsafe touches
  10. While you may be familiar with the “bad touch”, “good touch” concept, I personally along with others prefer not to use it as the word bad by itself (bad feeling, bad behaviour, bad person) has a deep routed meaning of shame and guilt. This may demotivate the child to tell so he won’t be associated with these two words. Furthermore, this may cause confusion as not all perpetrators are violent or aggressive with their victims. Some are gentle which may cause an unwanted and rather instinctual “good feeling” for the child leading them to again wonder why is this “bad”? and should I feel ashamed that it did not feel “bad” for me?

    Hence, using terms such as safe and unsafe touches are easier for a child to understand and does not include a lot of misinterpretation. Just like it’s Unsafe to cross the traffic light when it is red, it’s unsafe for anyone to touch you on your private parts which include the: Penis, Scrotum, Vulva, Bottom, Chest, Breast, and Mouth, unless it’s the doctor in the presence and consent of your parents, your parents/carer if they are cleaning that area after a poo (up to a certain age…when they can be doing that independently).

  11. Teach your child Safe VS Unsafe secrets.
  12. Unsafe secrets are secrets that may put you or others at risk of getting hurt.

    Example of Unsafe Secrets:

    • if they involve unsafe touches
    • if they involve someone else being harmed
    • being forced to look at pictures or videos that make them feel uncomfortable
    • being asked to undress
    • being forced to drink or eat or sniff something

    Make sure your child truly understands the difference. Provide them with scenarios of safe and unsafe secrets and let them tell you what they are.

  13. Help your child choose 3 to 5 trusted or safe adults (you included).
  14. Those are the people who they can go to if they feel unsafe. One must be present at school or childcare where the child spends his days and the others could be family members and friends. Make sure your child helps in choosing those people as they are the ones that need to feel completely comfortable and safe to approach those adults for help.

    Those safe adults need to show understanding, zero judgement and be proactive when it comes to what the child has said and not dismiss them in any way.

  15. Teach them and help them practice saying “NO, Stop It! I don’t like that!”
  16. These are not only words; you need to also teach them the posture that comes with it. Hands on hips, legs slightly apart, shoulders thrown back and head held high. This is a very empowering stance and should be practiced regularly and not only when facing molesters, but also with peers who are bullying.

  17. MOST IMPORTANTLY: it is never their fault, you will believe them no matter what.
  18. Assure them that they can come and talk to you about anything, not just through words, but also action. The phrase “You can tell me anything” loses its meaning if parents respond to questions or information from children with punishments, aggressive reactions, anger, or dismissiveness.

Revisit this often. Children learn through repetition. This is not a “let’s sit down and talk this one time and be done with it” kind of matter. How many times do you remind children to look both ways before crossing the street, or to blow the hot food before eating?

On a final note, here are some books that I recommend, or head to and download our “I am the boss of my body” activity books (in English, Arabic or French).