The Tough, But Necessary Conversation? Expert Advice To Help You Have It

Talking to your kids about potentially difficult subjects doesn't always come naturally, but it is vital that important parental advice about personal safety and self-protection doesn’t go unspoken.

Michael Turner, Great Circle's associate director of community-based services, says talking with kids about topics like violence and inappropriate personal contact doesn’t have to be daunting.  "There is a lot of abuse taking place in homes that sadly goes unreported," he says. "Often, it's because the child fears punishment or retaliation, doesn't have a trusted adult to turn to, or simply doesn't realize the behavior is not normal."

To prevent problems such as these, it's important to establish a pattern of regular communication with your child so he or she sees speaking up as the norm, Turner says. 

"As soon as your children develop cognitive abilities, use age-appropriate language to explain that other people should respect them and their bodies," Turner says. "Use wording that is easy to understand. For example, when you're talking about where it's OK for kids to be touched by another person, don't use terms like 'good touching' and 'bad touching.' Instead, talk about contact that is 'OK' and 'not OK.' We teach kids to think in terms of the body parts covered by a swimsuit: Anything under the suit is not OK for another person to touch unless it is someone like a parent or doctor who is doing something to keep the child safe, clean or healthy, like bathing, applying medication or taking a temperature."

Turner advises parents to speak about self-safety in calm tones and make sure children know trusted adults will listen without judgment when there is a concern. "Stay away from slang words when discussing parts of the body," he says. "Use anatomically correct terms to prevent confusion.”

Turner suggests sitting down with your kids to write out a list of 'safe adults' who can be trusted if a child needs outside help and post it in a visible location. "The list should include local police, someone at school such as a teacher or counselor, and others like a trusted friend, kind neighbor, or a relative who doesn't live with you," he notes. "Assure the child that if something bad happens and the parent or guardian isn't available, there are other adults around who will ensure their safety."

Turner says children with developmental delays or cognitive issues often require extra reminders about talking to a trusted adult. "These kids may be unaware that inappropriate behavior by a grownup is not normal," he explains. "They are even more susceptible to abuse and need constant communication about safe practices, because they may be less able to understand or verbalize their own needs."

Turner advises parents and guardians to keep an eye out for behavior changes in their children's friends as well. "There may be kids who don't have a trustworthy adult to turn to in a crisis, so you may need to advocate for them," he says. "For example, if your child's classmate was outgoing before but is acting withdrawn, tell a teacher or counselor." Or call the Missouri Child Abuse & Neglect hotline, 800-392-3738, if you notice a problem -- and you can remain anonymous if you wish.

While it takes a village to keep a child safe, it's also possible for communities to be deceived and manipulated by habitual abusers, Turner says. "They insert themselves into environments where they will be near kids, and they are often good at blending in and convincing parents and neighbors that they are harmless," he explains. "That's why it is important to get to know every adult involved in your child's life -- teachers, administrators, counselors, coaches, daycare workers, youth group leaders and others."