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    Immunising kids against abuse.

    One thing that does seem culturally driven is how much space we leave between us and others we interact with. South Africans have quite a spectrum of what is ‘polite’ space between people. From pretty much a meter to right up against you...and there is merit in both I have found.

    But I am not talking about that here – I want to talk about something a little more complex. I want to talk about how children find their own ‘skin boundary’ and their own personal space and privacy of thoughts and body. And this is not something cultural – this is something all humans have to achieve within their particular environment.

    What culture sometimes hides from view is our similarity as humans. We all have the same basic physical needs and we all have the same basic emotional needs...By this I mean that we all need a strong good enough emotional attachment to a main caregiver at first. And the possibility, with their mediation, to learn to become attached to others and to be able to explore the environment around us with confidence born of a secure attachment to our main one or two caregivers. It is this that gives baby an emotional resilience and toughness that will enable him/her to take challenges in his/her stride and also get up again when life knocks him/her down.


    It is attachment – the good bond between parent and child that makes a child emotionally tough. It is anxious, insecure and toxic attachments that create people with emotional difficulties and the propensity to either act in (become depressed, overly neurotic, OCD) or act out (become bullies, psychotic, abusers, substance abusers ect...)

    Babies do not know they are separate from mom at first. The separation comes gradually – not by forcibly separating baby from us in regimes like ‘I only pick him up to feed him’ but through a loving bond where mom and dad slowlyfor example  become less in a hurry to pick up baby because they know baby can cope for a bit longer. And baby realises slowly over the first 3 years or so that s/he can do things on his/her own and can survive small separations.

    We all know that when baby is about 8 months s/he cries when mom leaves the room or when a stranger tries to pick them up. They have just come to acquire the rather terrifying knowledge that mom is ‘not me’ so when she leaves where is she and when will she be back?

    Babies and toddlers do need to accept and process their separateness from mom/ dad. And Mom and Dad have to facilitate this by letting go a bit. (No , not letting them stick their fingers into plug points...)
    But back to personal space. Children do need to, once they have realised that they are separate and it is actually a good thing, learn that their body and thoughts belong to them. Gradually and age –appropriately of course...

    Toddlers need to be able to choose what they want to wear (not a tutu in the snow though), how they are touched (ie no smacking them or tickling them when they say stop), and to an extent what they want to eat. We need to give them an age appropriate say over what happens to their bodies as much as we possibly can. They need to feel that their body is their own and that they have final jurisdiction over it.

    Why is this so important? For the simple reason that it helps to protect them against those who molest children. A small child who knows his/ her body parts, is highly verbal, confident, and aware of their final and inalienable right over what happens to their body is both less likely to be targeted by abusers as well as far more likely to notice when someone does over step the mark or try to groom them or even rape them. And more likely to be able to clearly tell someone about it.

    And children as young as three, if given the chance to have this ‘personal space’ and personal power can already be sure about their bodies integrity and when something feels ‘wrong’.

    Nigella Lawson’s mother said to her ‘I am going to smack you till you cry’. Her mother and probably her mother before her created a situation which opened the possibility of abuse. In her abuse of Nigella. And I am afraid any physical ‘punishment’ should be seen as abuse. I have a beloved friend I have known all my life and I remember her being beaten by her mother into her teens. I also remember her in hospital after a long term boyfriend had beaten her senseless.

    Sorry – but if you want a child to really help to 'vaccinate your child against abuse you must not physically punish your child – and you have to give them plenty of ‘own body power’. Yes damaged molesters are out there and you and your child are the victims if they attack and nothing can protect us from this if a situation arises where your child is placed inadvertently in a vulnerable position. And an abused child is ALWAYS the victim and NEVER to blame for the abuse. And the parents (unless they do the abusing) are also victims. But as parents we do need to take some responsibility and actions to protect our child and in teaching them to protect themselves.

    If we help them to learn ways of protecting themselves and make sure they are emotionally resilient and tough enough we both  aid them to be able to tell us if someone has abused them and eventually process that it was NOT their fault. (This is not as easy for a child where parents have used physical punishment and blame to control their child’s behaviour as they would have internalised that when they are hurt by other it is there fault).

    So rail against abusers and march against them. But also do the much harder work of making your child and the children in your care less vulnerable to attack from those who prey on vulnerable people.{

    So a few practical things you can do:

    • Ask your toddler to choose between two outfits rather than just putting on their clothes.
    • Allow your toddler to quite often choose between two foods/ meals  if that is possible
    • Talk about skin and how it holds your body together. Talk about veins and arteries that hold your blood. One’s skin is a barrier and a container and can only be touched with your permission...
    • Talk about private body parts in a matter of fact way during bath and dressing times or whenever the subject comes up naturally. Do not use unusual names for them. Penis, vagina, urethra, clitoris and anus are not rude words. Use words in common use if you want to use different ones.
    • Let them wear superman clothes or their PJ’s if that is what they want to wear...
    • Make sure that each family member has a separate space for their clothes.
    • Make sure that your child has their own toys they do not have to share and a place where they can be kept. Decide together which toys can be used by friends and siblings with your child’s permission. (Negotiate which they are).
    • Having your own chair to sit on at the table gives a sense of place.
    • A room of your own and even a bed of your own may not always be possible but then at least your own pillow, place in the bed and your own duvet if possible is desirable.
    • Allow children to be private when they need to be. Allow them to set their own ‘down times’. Even babies look away when things get too much – respect that.  But do not rush in when your child is pensively thinking or trying to do something on their own.
    • Do not insist that your child ‘kisses Uncle Chris’ – let your child decide how close s/he wants to get to family members and friends.
    • Tickling is fun – but it needs to stop when the child says stop.
    • Read books about keeping safe to children. But also read lots of other stories to them as well. It makes them more verbal!
    • Chat to your child every day. Not while you are texting or driving – rather while relaxing together focussed on each other. And let your child do lots of the talking – chatting is a two way thing...a child with good communication skills is better at telling if something has gone wrong in their lives.
    • In Pre-school a cubby for each child really helps children to feel that they have a personal and special space in the group environment.

    Keep your streets clean - it discourages crime and protects your child.


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