Parenting for safety during the holiday season

Guest Blog by Linda Crockett, Director, Safe Communities

According to large scale studies, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused. 

While child sexual abuse is the last thing many of us want to think about during the holidays, children’s safety may be compromised during our whirlwind of preparation, anticipation, and celebration. 

Sexual Abuse Statistics

85% of children are harmed by someone they know and trust – including members of their extended family. More than 60% of children don’t tell anyone – especially when the abuser is someone to whom they are close. They may be afraid no one will believe them, or think they did something wrong. Child-on-child sexual abuse is on the rise, with up to 50% of children that are sexually abused harmed by children near their own ages. 

The practice of sending a bunch of children off to play in another room while the adults enjoy eggnog elsewhere is not safe. Regardless of the age of the offender, the traumatic impact on the victim can last for decades. That’s a holiday legacy no child should have to carry.

Teaching Safety from Sexual Harm

While it’s always the job of adults to protect children, we teach them safety while crossing a street, or swimming, because we can’t keep eyes on them 24/7. Teaching your child to stay safe from sexual harm may in fact be the most important conversation of all, given its alarming prevalence and hidden nature.

Beginning at around age four, teaching your children the proper names for their private parts, and letting them know that no one should ever ask them to keep a secret if it involves a private part is an effective way to start. Assure them you want to know right away if someone does this – and they will never be in trouble for telling you.

In fact, with Santa’s lap beckoning, and visits from friends and relatives in high gear over the next few weeks, the holidays are a perfect time of year to brush up on keeping your child safe. 

Guidance for Parents & Caregivers 

First, it is important to know that sexual abuse includes a broad range of behaviors in which an adult or older child (or one with more social power) engages a child in sexual activity of any kind. This encompasses both touching and non-touching offenses. If you suspect a child has been abused, early intervention is key. A child who is believed, supported, and provided with appropriate counseling has a far better chance of avoiding long-term severe traumatic stress related issues than one who suffers for years without help. 

While it’s impossible to “abuse proof” our children, we can reduce their risk when we empower them to be the boss of their own bodies – and that means it’s up to them to decide whether they want to be hugged, kissed, or touched by anyone. This is also teaching them about consent at its most basic level – you ask permission before you touch somebody, and you respect their “no.” And there is no better place for them to practice than at home, or when they are with you. 

Examples and Scenarios for Parents & Caregivers

When parents come to visit for the holidays and your mom begins to sweep your child into a hug, you step in and say something like “Mom, I know you love to hug, but we’re teaching Cate that she gets to decide when she wants to be touched. Cate, do you feel like a hug from Nana right now, or would you like to say hello to her in some other way?” 

This “boss of my own body” rule applies even to Santa. It requires a conversation before you set out on this rite of Christmas. First, ask your child if they would like to visit Santa. If Billy says yes, the conversation goes something like “Ok! Would you like to sit on Santa’s lap, or would you rather talk with him another way?” If Billy doesn’t want to sit on his lap, affirm his choice. “You’re the boss of your body, and you don’t have to sit on his lap. How would you like to greet him?”  

And during the visit, stay close enough so you can intervene with Santa if needed – just like you did with your mom. We have all seen sobbing terrified children pulled into Santa’s lap. Don’t let your child be one.

Empowering Children to Speak Up

An empowered young boy I’ll call Nick practiced these rules at home and had occasion to use his “I mean business!” voice (another thing we can instruct our children to do when someone crosses a boundary) and apply the body safety rule at school. While the teacher was distracted, a child sitting near Nick grabbed his private parts and squeezed – hard. 

Nick jumped up and shouted: “Hey, you can’t touch my (p***s)! That’s not ok!” He not only got the immediate attention of his teacher, but he taught his classmates a valuable lesson many had never heard before. 

But don’t depend on a little Nick to teach your children. Do it yourself – and especially during this holiday season. 

LOHF Grant Recipient Work on Preventing Child Abuse

Safe Communities is a grant recipient of LOHF children’s behavioral health grant funding. In Spring 2020, LOHF funded Safe Communities to offer a series of educational workshops focused on preventing child sexual abuse. The program educates young children with three workshops with prevention basics: ‘Basic Body Safety’, ‘It’s Ok to Tell’, and ‘What Would You Do If…?’. Our program educates pre-teens with three workshops with relevant prevention information: ‘Internet + Social Media Safety’, ‘Healthy Relationships + Respect’, and ‘Understanding Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.’ 

During COVID-19, Safe Communities reached adults virtually with a variety of methods: Zoom trainings open to the public, specific programs for staff of local nonprofit organizations, and an opportunity for wide reach: Director Linda Crockett spoke on “Teaching Children About Safe & Unsafe Touch” on the ‘Cafe con Leche’ show on SACA radio/WLCH 91.3 FM. The show reaches 11,000 households every 15 minutes. Safe Communities launched the “Standing Together Campaign” in English and Spanish to educate adults about child safety. 

More Resources on Child Safety

To learn more, please visit the Safe Communities Resource Page  www.safecommunitiespa.org 

Visit this page for links to local, PA and national resources. Be sure to download our Child Sexual Abuse Prevention booklet on what to know, what to do, and how to help. Includes behavioral signs that may indicate a child has been sexually abused, and where to get help. Our downloadable Mandated Reporting brochure provide an easy-to-understand overview of how/where/when to report suspected child abuse. 

Visit our Stop it NOW! Page for information and resources concerning thoughts or behaviors toward children by adults or teens.  

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual abuse, you can file a child abuse report by calling 1-800-932-0313. The Pennsylvania ChildLine is a toll-free hotline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to receive reports of suspected child abuse and general child well-being concerns. The report can be taken in English or other languages. For TDD (Telephone Device for the Deaf) call 1- 866-872-1677.