It's important to talk to your children often and consistently about how to stay safe. But how you do have effective conversations, from which children absorb valuable information that they may need later? Make sure the information you deliver is easily understood for your child's stage of development.
Teach your toddler:
- Their name and guardian's name
- Stay within sight
- Proper names for body parts and how private parts are different than the rest of their body
- When it comes to his/her body, no means no.
- Uh-oh feeling – always tell a caregiver when you are feeling scared or confused about something
Challenges at this age: As this is an age where "no" seemingly can be the only word the child knows, it is important to remember there is a difference between saying no to feel safe and protect boundaries and saying no to defy authority. It's important at this age to be consistent and repetitive.
Having the conversation: This is an age when using real-life teachable moments are so important, because toddlers do not understand hypothetical situations. Children at this stage have no concept of right and wrong, only what is normal in their lives. Therefore, it is inherent that caregivers state clearly what is right and wrong to help children develop appropriate morals and boundaries.
It is also important at this stage, to teach children how to ask for help if they need it. Children should be told that they should find their caregiver if they need help. On those occasions when they may get separated from a caregiver, teach your child to not leave that spot and look for a mom with children as a first possible helper.
Conversation Starter: "Ouch! Hitting isn't ok because it hurts."
Teach your child:
- How to use 911– your child should know their address, phone number and be able to describe the emergency
- Check first before going anywhere or getting into a car
- Say "no!"to uncomfortable or confusing touch
- How to yell for help – "Call 911! I need a grown up!"
- Adults don't ask kids for help.
Challenges at this age: Children begin to be social at child care settings, play groups and with friends. Appropriate interactions need to be demonstrated and reinforced as you supervise their play time. As children connect with new people, they need to learn what is okay and not okay when it comes to touching. As they learn about the difference between genders, they should be told that even though the parts are different, the rules are the same when it comes to boundaries and saying no.
Children can be confused about touches as touching can feel pleasurable even if it is a "bad touch"or inappropriate contact. Children should be taught that if anyone touches or tries to touch their private parts, they should tell their caregiver or a safe person immediately to get help.
Have the conversation: Knowing that almost all adults who abuse/abduct children are known to the child, teach them to make a lot of noise, get away and tell someone if any person acts in a way that makes their "uh-oh feeling" go off or tries to take them somewhere without letting them check first. Do not focus on if the child knows the adult or not, but instead focus on how the person makes the child feel.
Use "what if"scenarios at this age, but keep it simple and use a variety of settings. Kids this age can't generalize information to different scenarios on their own, so these discussion and games should be played in many different locations with different people.
Conversation starter: "What if right now while you were playing in the park, someone came up to you and asked you to help get their cat out of a tree?"or "What if while you were home, someone knocked on the door and asked you to help them find their dog?"
Teach your child:
- Family password – in case someone is sent to pick up child
- Create a list of five trusted adults to call about any problem
- Buddy system – safer and more fun to stay with a friend
- Online safety
- It's not okay to keep secrets from a parent
- Correct, age-appropriate information about sex
Challenges at this age: Children will begin learning about sex from their peers, so it is important to give them proper understanding early on. Books may be used to help begin conversations, but it should not replace discussions. Approach the topic with concrete explanations and use proper terms. As uncomfortable as it may be, providing correct information will help them understand that they should go to their parents with their questions about sex instead of the kids on the school bus. Tell your children that they can tell you anything or ask about anything and you will still love them.
Have the conversation: When your child is around five or six it is important to inform him/her in a non-threatening manner that some people do hurt children. This is not intended to make your child afraid of everyone, but instead make them aware so they listen to their feelings and make safe choices. Do make sure they know that the good guys outnumber the bad guys – most adults want them to grow up healthy, safe and strong.
Involve your child in creating "what if" scenarios to help get an idea of the situations that make them uncomfortable or nervous. Above all, reinforce that they can always leave a situation that causes their uh-oh feeling to go off and find a parent/caregiver to help. This is a great age to begin having twice-a-year family safety nights to go over rules for your home.
Conversation starter: "What do you do on the playground? Can you think of something that might happen there that would make your uh-oh feeling go off? How about if older kids showed up and started playing a game that doesn't feel right?"
Middle School/Junior High
Teach your child:
- Don't put personal or emotional information online
- Difference between a mentor vs. relationship
- Cell phone (texting) guidelines – think before you send
- Responsibilities and rules for being home alone
- Respect is a basic right in all relationships
Challenges at this age: With the physical and emotional changes your child faces at this age, many conflicts may arise. This is the age where perpetrators attempt to use the attention and affection lure both online and in person. This lure involves the adult grooming the pre-teen to believe that the adult is the only one who understands how special they are and what they are going through. Teach your pre-teen about this lure and explain that adults who really do care about them would not accept or expect sex. Talk to your child about the difference between mentors and adults trying to create a sexual relationship. If a mentor ever begins to act in a way that a significant other would, talk to a different trusted adult right away. This is a very important age to update and maintain the list of five trusted adults so that your pre-teen is hearing positive messages from adults that you both trust. Be aware of who's on the list, and be understanding and supportive if the list does not include you.
Have the conversation: Sex becomes a hot topic at this age. It is important to discuss the emotional implications of sexual activity, as most of the media messages may portray sex only in a popular, positive way. As children age through this stage they should learn about precautions such as abstinence and protection (for older teens). This is a good time to discuss more in depth your family's personal or faith-based beliefs regarding sexual activity. Parents should discuss self-esteem linked with sexual activity, especially in terms of having control over one's body and not letting peer pressure influence bad decisions.
Conversation starter: "What if you had a friend who told you that an adult chaperone from a school trip was pressuring her to spend time at his house alone? How could you help her?"
Teach your child:
- Review cell phone and internet expectations
- The importance of respecting others boundaries
- Listen to your gut instinct – leave situations or people that feel wrong
- The power of the bystander to get involved and help others
- "No" is a complete sentence
Challenges at this age: Teenagers push limits as they work to get enough information to live and work independently from their parents. Parents are working to help stay connected to their teen, set boundaries and help their teen make safe and healthy decisions. These two very separate job descriptions can create conflict as the teen and parents attempt to navigate the changes that come with teens' added freedom and responsibilities.
Have the conversation: A teen should be reminded that sexual activity should not be done out of fear, guilt or in hopes of increasing popularity. Discuss with your teen their choices, their friend's choices and the outcomes of these choices. Having a discussion about sex an consequences does not mean that parents are encouraging their child to have sex, instead they are preparing that teen to be healthy and safe whatever his/her choices may be. This is an age where peer pressure can override the teen's gut instinct. Remind them the importance of listening to their gut.
Conversation starter: "What if you showed up at a party and your gut instinct told you things were getting out of control?”