Protective Behaviors for Children
How do I help a child when I think he or she may be at risk of sexual abuse?
This question was put to me recently in an email. I would talk to a child or teenager by adapting the Protective Behaviors Program I used to give in the classroom when I was a primary school teacher. (As a teacher, I obtained prior parental permission for their child to be part of that program.)
I also taught Protective Behaviors to my daughter as she was growing up.
I sought out training in Protective Behaviors for Children when I was studying to be a teacher because, as a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, I knew how important it was for kids to have some training that might help them if they were ever abused. I believe the training program I did is still the best material around, though I’m not across all that is out there now.
Here’s the link to Protective Behaviours program that I did: Protective Behaviours Consultancy Group of NSW
The two themes are:
1. We all have the right to feel safe all the time.
2. Nothing is so awful that you can’t talk about it with someone. (Some secrets should not be kept secret.)
You start off introducing the themes (you can even have them written down on posters) and then you move into talking about safe and unsafe situations. You begin with a light example, chosen according to the child’s age and experience, like being unable to get into your house because you don’t have a key and no-one else is home. Or being lost without your cell phone. Or being bullied at school. Or feeling unsafe in a shopping mall. You get the child to brainstorm how they might deal with such a situation — what strategies they might use. You reiterate the themes and introduce the idea of Telling Adults Whom You Trust (see below).
You then, perhaps on another day, talk about a more serious situation such as, “What would you do if two adults are fighting and you can’t get away?” Again you reiterate the themes, get the child to brainstorm strategies, and consider who might be their trusted adults.
You then, again maybe on another day, talk about unsafe touching — how the parts of our bodies that we cover with swimsuits are private; and how some touching can feel ‘yucky’. And get the child to brainstorm strategies for how they might deal with it. and who they could tell if they felt still unsafe.
One step removed
Often it’s good to talk about hypothetical situations that are one step removed from the child’s own reality. For example, you could ask the child about a hypothetical kid: “What if someone was touching a kid and the kid felt unsafe or the touching felt yucky? What should that kid do?”
In the ‘What if’s …” you don’t have to name the person you might feel the child is at risk from. It would probably be a good idea to not mention that person at all, unless the child brings it up.
Telling Adults You Trust
This is a practical application of the theme “Nothing is so awful that you can’t talk about it with someone”. You explain that a child who feels unsafe should tell an adult whom they trust. Keep telling until something gets done and you feel safe again — even if that means you have to tell several different adults until one of them takes action that makes you safe.
Ask the child “Who would you consider to be trusted adults you could talk to if you felt unsafe? Your mum? Your teacher at school?” Get the child to draw their hand print and write the name of a trusted adult at the end of each finger to create a visual reminder. The hand diagram also prompts the child to brainstorm a sufficient number of adults so that if one adult does not protect them, hopefully another will. If the child names someone on their diagram of trusted adults whom you suspect to be a potential abuser, don’t flinch; just look plain faced and say, “And who else might be good to talk to?”
If you are doing this with a group of kids and one of them starts disclosing abuse they have experienced, you should protectively interrupt that child so the details are not revealed to the other kids. Say to the child, “Can you talk with me about that afterwards?” And follow up when the other kids are not around. That protects the abused child’s confidentiality, and the innocence of other children who may never have experienced abuse.
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