Family Safety Guidelines: for the protection of young children against sexual abuse without creating fear

The need for guidelines

AA Pink roseYoung children clearly need extra help in protecting themselves against sexual abuse – from very early on in their lives. However, they also need to know that their world is a place which is (ideally) safe and good. How then do we offer extra protection against abuse without scaring them and undermining their emotional well-being and their trust in others? The foundation for the strength to protect oneself against any sort of abuse lies in good self esteem. This is so for adults and children. We need to help children have deep self respect, inner strength and confidence, and a belief that they have the right to feel safe. But there are also other strategies parents can work with, like the Family Safety Guidelines which follow.

These guidelines are designed specifically to help protect younger children against sexual abuse without having to talk about potential abuse and ‘bad people’ very directly with them. The time will come for that when they are a little older in school. We suggest you put a copy of the guidelines up somewhere very visible in your house as well as making them part of your children’s guidelines for living in everyday life. Explain to the people caring for your children that these are the guidelines you use in your house. This way it helps to discourage anyone with intentions to abuse from touching your children inappropriately.

As we have seen, most abuse (85%) is perpetrated by people whom children know within and around the family. If potential abusers know your family has these guidelines and that you carry through in making sure all the children know and understand them, they are more likely to look elsewhere for victims. You also help to define the boundaries of personal safety for the immature older children or adults, who might have confused sexual reactions to children.

Remember though, that younger children and even older children cannot be relied upon to follow safety guidelines and procedures. After all, they are used to having to give way to adult authority, and are often punished if they don’t. So all safety measures need to be put in place to protect children.

As children get older, and are out in the world without you (including for sleepovers), they will need to be given more specific information about what sexual abuse involves and how to deal with it. If young children are at high risk because of unavoidable circumstances, they may also have to be given more specific information, sooner than would otherwise be preferable.

Our Family Safety Guidelines

  • In our house feelings are important and may tell us what to do.
  • We always have the right and deserve to feel safe.
  • Privacy is respected. I am boss of my body.
  • We always have the right to say no if we are asked to do something that we think is wrong or we do not understand.
  • We do not keep bad secrets in our house, only good surprises.
  • We have a loving circle of friends who would help us if we needed it.
  • We can say NO and YES strongly when we mean it.
  • We can be persistent to get what we need.
  • We do not like bad tricks, bribes or blackmail in our house.

Why these particular guidelines?

These guidelines address the common factors involved in sexual abuse of children and encourage behaviours which can help keep children safe. See Dr Freda Briggs’ YouTube talks and books for more understanding of the basis for these guidelines, but here is an introduction to the background to them.

In our house feelings are important and may tell us what to do

This encourages children to listen to their feelings of discomfort, embarrassment or feeling that something is not right in someone’s behaviour and to withdraw from a person or situation that makes them feel that way. You need to absolutely respect their responses here, even if it is embarrassing for you—for example that they don’t want to be kissed by Aunt Carol or Uncle Jim or get undressed in front of Grandpa. Children can be quite sensitive to inappropriate behaviour in adults who squeeze their cheeks hard, pat their heads condescendingly, or hug too close. You need to support them in listening to their feelings or they will not listen to them when they really need to. They also need to be able to say they don’t want hugs and kisses from you too, just because they don’t want it. No other reason than that. No one has the right to ‘take’ hugs and kisses, not even you. This teaches them that feelings of vulnerability, reluctance and repugnance and doubt should be listened to.

We always have the right and deserve to feel safe

This is a rule which is useful for teaching children about safety all the way through childhood and to help them to learn how to problem-solve ways to make them feel safer. They can often tell you what they need, if you are willing to listen and help. “If you come with me…” “If Johnny is there…” “If I know I can call you to come to get me…” Parents need to learn to tune into what the signs are of their children feeling unsafe. Feeling fearful of a person or situation is not about a lack of courage but what may be a healthy wariness. When a child’s feelings of ‘unsafeness’ is related to a particular person, adults need to be especially wary themselves. Avoid leaving them with that person alone. Children have the right to feel safe and sometimes have a good sense of when an adult has unclear personal boundaries.

Privacy is respected. I am boss of my body.

This of course goes with the rule: ‘Our private parts (including our mouths) are our own and other people don’t touch them (except Mummy or Daddy or doctor in special circumstances like keeping them clean and healthy and then only with respect and permission.) We also do not touch other people’s private parts.’ This also means respecting that they want to close the bathroom door, not be made to get undressed before another person and so on.

We always have the right to say no if we are asked to do something that we think is wrong or we do not understand

This is the rule on the list you might want to point out politely to people who care for your children. Our initial reaction might be that we want our children to do just what they are told to do and say “Be a good boy and do what Jenny tells you to do.” But what if that involves something you don’t want your child to do or that you have told them is wrong? A safer admonition might be: “Listen carefully to what Jenny tells you.”

We do not keep bad secrets in our house, only good surprises

It is suggested that we avoid the use of the word ‘secret’ and use the word ‘surprise’ instead for all those occasions where we are going to surprise someone with something good. This is because abusers often tell children, “This is our secret” to prevent them from telling about what has happened. We need to teach children that ‘bad secrets’ should always be told especially if we or someone else is going to be hurt by a secret being kept. This guideline makes it so much easier for a child to report bullying in class, for example.

We have a loving circle of friends who would help us if we needed it

Children need to know that there are people around them who love them, whom they could turn to for help. This is reassuring anyway for children but it is part of the strategy for protective behaviours because often children have to go to many people to try to get help when abuse is happening, because people in the immediate family circle can be in denial that a family member or friend is abusing the child. A beautiful way to affirm who they can turn to is, at special times like birthdays, to light candles for each of the people in the child’s ‘circle of love.’

We can say NO and YES strongly when we mean it

Children need to be able to be firm in being able to say no and we can get them to practice this by saying yes and no firmly, like they mean it. Do you want an icecream? Yes… what? Say it like a lion! YESSS! Do you really mean that? YESSSS!!! Shall I tickle your toes? NOOOOO!

We can be persistent to get what we need

Another rule in protective behaviours is to teach children to persist in finding an adult who will listen to them when there is trouble. Adults do not always want to hear about abuse which they do not want to admit is happening. Teach children to be persistent with you too. “I did not hear you ask for a banana! Did you get my attention? Did I look you in the eye? Did I hear what you said? Let’s try that again…” “Mummy please listen to me…”

We do not like bad tricks, bribes or blackmail in our house

This rule is because abusers often use tricks, bribery and blackmail to get children to cooperate with them. Try not to ever use emotional blackmail or bribes yourself. Try to make it OK to get a reward for doing something good but not OK to take a bribe for doing something bad. A fine line of difference.

For more help

So these Family Safety Guidelines are designed to warn off potential abusers as well as to set the scene for children keeping themselves safe, and making a foundation for more detailed training in protective behaviours when they get older and can understand that there are people in the world who try to do bad things to children sometimes.

More information and references can be found in the longer article from which this excerpt comes: The prevention of sexual abuse of young children A developmental approach to understanding the sexual behaviour of young children, the nature of sexual abuse and how to minimise the risks by teaching protective behaviours.

The short version of the guidelines for viewing or downloading as a pdf can be found here: Guidelines