(Warning: This includes discussions on childhood sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers and listeners.)
It falls on us as parents to push through our own discomfort to engage in conversations that allow us to learn and understand the best ways to protect our children and keep them safe. In this episode, I am joined by Feather Berkower to discuss ways you can arm yourself and your children with tools to prevent sexual abuse. We’ll talk about preventative measures, the conversations we should be having with the caregivers in our children’s lives, the language we should use when teaching body safety to our children and fostering their sense of body autonomy, some signs to look out for and resources where you can go to seek help.
If you or someone you know is in need of resources for getting help or support around child abuse, please reach out to The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.
It can be incredibly difficult taking the first step, but is so important and necessary to do. There is a lot of help out there for you.
Just like most conscious safe parents learn how to buckle their child into a car seat and put their helmet on a child and learn first aid, sexual assault prevention slash body safety is one more piece of safety.
Dr. Sarah (00:24):
Today’s topic is a difficult, but very important one. This episode is targeted for grownups. So if you’re on your way to drop off with the kiddos in their car seats right now, you may want to go ahead and save this episode until they are not listening. In, in this episode, we are going to be discussing body safety and ways the parents can protect their children from sexual assault. You may feel uncomfortable listening to this episode, but I encourage you. If you can, to try to push through this discomfort, it’s only through these tough conversations and by educating ourselves that we can really move towards keeping our children safe and ending the cycle of child abuse. And if you’re not quite ready to listen to this episode yet, I just want to say that is also okay. This is a really triggering subject and everyone is in a really different place with their own journey.
Dr. Sarah (01:15):
If you feel like you’re not ready to hear us talk about the perpetrators themselves, but you do want to get some concrete recommendations for things that parents can do to raise a child who may actually be less likely to be targeted. Go ahead and skip to 20 minutes into this episode. One more thing I want to make sure is extremely clear is that at the beginning of the episode, we talk about methods for preventing sexual assault against children. This is a multi-faceted effort and one of the pieces to prevention is to stop perpetrators before they actually act on their impulses. We state this in the conversation, but I really want to reiterate this one more time while we discuss the lack of mental health support. For those, with these types of urges, we are in no way justifying the behaviors of sexual abusers. So with that being said, let me introduce my guest today.
Dr. Sarah (02:06):
I’m joined by Feather Berkower , a licensed clinical social worker and co-author of the book Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse. She has been a leader in the child, sexual abuse prevention since 1985 and has educated similar close to 150,000 school children, parents, and youth professionals. So she knows what she’s talking about. Her workshop, Parenting Safe Children, empowers adults to keep children safe from sexual assault. And as you’ll hear in this episode, I took this workshop and I really highly recommended for all parents. We’re going to be talking about Feather’s efforts in preventing sexual crimes, against children. What systematic changes she feels needs to happen in our society. The best ways that we can speak to our children, as well as all the other adults in their lives about this topic signs to look out for to alert you that something might be off. And also the things that are very normal and part of healthy childhood sexual development. And finally, what steps parents can take. If they suspect their child has been sexually assaulted. This is not easy. It is not always straightforward, but together we can work to keep our children safe and to protect them as best we can.
Dr. Sarah (03:24):
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. I’ve built a career dedicated to helping families find deep connections, build healthy relationships, repair attachment wounds, and raise kids who are healthy, secure, resilient, and kind in this podcast. I’ve taken all of my clinical experience. Current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights to help you understand the building blocks of children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting, voice confidence, and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Dr. Sarah (04:14):
Hi, welcome back to the podcast. I’m so excited and really honored to have the opportunity to welcome Feather Berkower to our podcast. She is a licensed clinical social worker with a background in social welfare, and she’s been working for many, many years. It’s a passion for her on educating families, how to best prevent child abuse. And she’s done tons of work on this. She’s written a book she’s wonderful. I’m so happy to have her here. Welcome feather.
Thank you, Sarah. Happy to be with you.
Dr. Sarah (04:46):
I’m so glad you’re here. It’s a hard topic to talk about, but it’s such an important one. And every time I’ve had the, the opportunity to speak with you, I’ve always learned something really valuable. So I’m just grateful that you’re here. Can you share a little bit about how you got into this work? This is hard work.
It is hard work, but prevention is easier than after the fact. So that’s why I’m so passionate because my work really focuses on prevention. And you said something important a minute ago. You said this is really hard stuff. And I always say how I always respond to that is, yeah, it’s really hard. And who is it really hard for? You know, adults say it’s really hard for us to talk about this and think about it, but who is it really hard for? It’s hard for the child who lives through it. So that’s just an aside. Your question was, how did I get into this work? And I don’t know how, excuse me to tell you why, except I was just called to do it. I was looking to work with sexually abused children. And I found a program in Berkeley called Child Assault Prevention Project that went into the schools, taught kids about prevention.
And I work with them in my internship, work with them for five years, got my master’s in social welfare and then did various different jobs in psych hospitals, in schools with kids, mental health programs, but always kept coming back to prevention. And I’m not going to go my whole, you know, CVS, my whole resume here. But eventually in my career, I really shifted from my focus of prevention with children to wanting to educate adults, because it’s my belief that though children need to be educated. Really the responsibility of prevention lies on adults. Adults are responsible for protecting kids from sex assault and children need protection skills, and we need to teach them, but ultimately it’s up to us to create environments for them that minimize risks. So that’s where my career took me. And I started parenting safe children, which are I present workshops to youth professionals in organizations, helping them create policies that minimize risk and to parents everywhere now with zoom and COVID all over the world, I was having in-person workshops. But yeah, my workshops focus on helping adults minimize risk and create environments for kids that are safe.
Dr. Sarah (07:24):
Yeah. And it’s so interesting because with COVID how everything went virtual in some ways, there’s something beautiful about that. Like I took your workshop and I mean, you live in Colorado and I would have never had the opportunity to take a workshop that you were giving. And it was, I took it as a parent, not as a psychologist. I mean, it was helpful for my clinical practice in general, but it was very helpful as a parent because you talk about things I did not know and did not think about. And so yes, I will make sure I share the link to your workshops in our show notes because it’s really, it’s not a tremendous time commitment and it’s very, very valuable. How, one of the things that you talked about before that I found incredibly interesting from a psychological perspective was your interviews with people who have been arrested and are in jail for sexual crimes against children, you went to the source, you interviewed people who were, who have committed abuse with children and ask them like, why did you do this? How did you do this? What was your headspace? And like, what, how did you use that information to inform parents on how to best protect their kids. And I thought that that was so powerful.
Yeah. I’ve been in prisons in women’s prisons and men’s prisons. And most of the work that I’ve done with sex offenders, and I don’t do treatment just to be clear, I sit and talk to them as a guest to learn how people who offend do what they do. So I can take that information and go back to parents and teach them what makes kids vulnerable. And so what I, you know, there’s so much that I’ve learned, but just in this short call, I really learned a lot about grooming. Grooming is the process that a, and we’re talking here about adults, because I didn’t sit with adolescent offenders, okay. Or adolescents who offend it was, it was adults. And so the grooming process is this process that of behaviors and friendship building that proceed touch. And typically most of the time in sexual assault of a child, there is this process that occurs before the touch happens before the actual sexual assault.
And it’s a building a friendship, and it’s a getting very intimate and close with the child’s family. And one of the things I learned was that how often people who offend groom the child, adults first, how the community is groomed, how the parents are groomed. If the offender is not the parent, how other children are groomed, how everyone around the potential victim is brought into this friendship process with excellent image management to make this person look and, you know, come off as perfect. And most of the time when we learn of an offender, we say there is no way he or she could have done that. That person is the teacher of the year, etc. So I learned a lot about grooming and it’s this, you know, pulling a child in pulling the parent in. So if someone were grooming you, Sarah, they would appear to be your very best friend.
And I’m not saying all of our very best friends offend kids at all. So what is it super important for parents to learn are what are the signs of grooming? You know, what happens when someone is grooming a child? What are the behaviors and not just know what grooming is, but be willing to intervene and speak up and say, you know, I’m really uncomfortable when you touch my child like this, or when you tickle or when you keep putting my child in your lap or whatever the grooming sign might be. So that’s one of the major things I learned is about grooming. But another thing I really learned, and I think this is important to say is that adults and particularly men who sexually assault children really, really wanted help before they did this. Okay. Many of them, I’m not saying all of them, I’m not saying every offender can be stopped, but many can.
And our society does not have programs and a mentality like we do for other mental health issues to help people who have sexual thoughts and feelings for children. And I say this with other care, for any survivor who is listening today, that I am not siding with, or condoning sexual assault of a child when I’m sharing with you, is that helping people before they offend is an arm of prevention that I feel is critical and really comes at the top. Meaning adults are responsible for protecting children. You are of protecting your child, Sarah. Right? But ultimately it’s the offender who’s responsible for not offending.
Dr. Sarah (12:23):
Right. But in order to do that, the reality is there are millions of people who have sexual feelings for children. And if we had a place that they could talk and go before they offended, like to walk into your office as a psychologist and share what is going on for them, most psychologists and, and mental health people are not trained how to deal with a person with sexual feelings for children. And so what happens is they get so isolated, they cannot deal with those with what’s going on for them. And that makes them more at risk for offending. And that was fascinating to learn about.
Dr. Sarah (13:08):
It’s really interesting. Actually, I know we’re kind of getting deep into the psychology of this, and I want to go back and talk about how parents can support kids. But I do, I think there’s, you bring up really two really incredibly important points. One is the resources for protecting kids is, is multi-leveled and multilayered. And one of those layers is preventing, is supporting people who have interests in this behavior to not do it. And so you’re right. You’re right. I do think, you know, I actually, and maybe I’ll try to find some resources to share in the show notes. But there are, there are programs for people who want treatment for thoughts about sexual interest in children and to, to not act on that. And I think you have resources on your website actually for people to get help in that, in that area.
Dr. Sarah (14:04):
But also the other thing that’s really interesting is like, you know, we look at people who commit heinous crimes beyond sexual assault on children, like any kind of crimes. And quite often we want to understand, like, what would make someone do this? What would make someone do this? I mean, look at the fact that, and this is really, the evidence is really there to support the people who do these things have trauma. They tend to have their own experience of trauma. And is, it’s kind of like this. If, if we, as a society can reduce trauma in children across the board, we will see less things like people who offend because people who tend to commit heinous crimes tend to have a traumatic history in their childhood.
Yes. But I do want to make the point here that when I work with offenders, and if you look at research, that doesn’t mean that every trauma, every person who sexually offends had a trauma of sexual offense, they’ve had some trauma, something. But, but not most of the men that I speak with were not sexually assaulted. So in, in a nutshell, if you want to hear what I learned, they, what trauma they did have. I think this relates to every single one of us, because it’s not overt trauma. Do you want, can I list for you? Some of the things, what I learned from the men I spoke with is that all of them had an intense loss of self-worth. Okay. Now many of us have problems with our self-esteem and we don’t, you know, we, we have our critical thinking and, you know, that’s just human, but I’m talking about intense loss of self-worth disempowered, hopeless very few healthy attachments in their adult life stemming from childhood, a great sense of entitlement, huge negative self image, and really no power anywhere in their lives.
So the only way that they could have relationships was to manipulate and distorted thinking. And then, and then one other that’s important is just this often an addiction to pornography. So the reason it’s important to list these things is because if we see these, these personality traits or these characteristics in people, maybe our own partner, our brother, our, you know, aunt whomever, it is our own child that it’s just so important to pay attention to those and get someone help. So they don’t offend. I’m not saying people with all of those characteristics will offend all of the people who offend have those
Dr. Sarah (16:53):
They’re warning. They’re red flags.
Dr. Sarah (16:56):
They’re worth paying attention to. And it’s interesting. I just watched a talk by Stuart Brown, who is, has done a tremendous amount of work on the study of play. And he’s a psychiatrist, he’s a developmental specialist, but what his, what he started his career in was there was a massive shooting in Texas in the sixties. And he was brought in to study the person who did it. And what he found was this individual had much like you describe a childhood that was almost completely devoid of any adult attachment, any loving relationships, any ability to play. And his work actually looks at, he’s done many, many years of research on children who are not allowed to play, or who are deprived of play and how play deprivation profound play that probation early on in early childhood has been shown to correlate with people who have gone on to have severe pathology and criminal behavior and much like you’re describing. So, you know, it just, it just points to the importance of these secure attachment relationships and early childhood, and that ability to have safe adults in our lives and have the freedom to develop our sense of self and to feel safe in the world and to be with safety comes the ability to play all of this, to say that, you know, if you don’t have that, it’s, it can damage us. It’s it. We are, we need that. We need that to become healthy adults.
And the other, the other piece of, of, you know, having some interest in helping people before they offend is that, and that most people don’t know this is that one third to one half of all child sexual assault is committed by children. Okay. So if we are seeing concerning behaviors and kids around sexuality, then not intervening puts them at higher risk of offending, which is why it’s so important for parents and, and not just parents, but caregivers and school officials and, you know, youth professionals to understand the difference between age appropriate, sexual exploration and kids, what is normal, how to support them and not shame them and what is concerning because when we see concerning behaviors in kids around sexuality, and we leave it alone, that again, the risk is higher. So when we talk about offenders, the image people usually get is this adult man, creepy guy on the street, or, you know, hanging around the school yard. And it’s just not the truth. And we must understand the facts to keep kids safe.
Dr. Sarah (19:48):
So, okay. That’s a good segue. What are some of the things like, what are some of the most important things other than what we’ve talked about already about grooming and what are some of those important things parents need to know about abuse prevention from a keeping kids, safe standpoint.
There’s so many, okay. Let’s start, let’s try to give a short list here. So I think the first is that just like most conscious, safe parents learn how to buckle their child into a seat belt or a car seat, and many put a helmet on a child and learn first aid and all the responsibilities that you have as a parent to keep your child safe. That’s sexual assault prevention slash if you want to soften it, body safety is one more piece of safety. And the reality is that the likelihood of a child being sexually assaulted is much, much greater than a child being killed in a car. Okay. One in three girls, approximately, and six boys by the age of 18 will experience sexual assault. So that means either your child or your niece, or your nephew, or the neighbor kid coming over to play, or your classmate.
All of us have children in our lives and adult friends and family members who have experienced this. So the first thing I’d say, Sarah is, is parents are so uncomfortable. Adults are uncomfortable about this topic, and we must be willing to feel uncomfortable. So kids don’t have to. So my point is learn about it. I can teach you there’s many other programs. There’s many books to read are the question I ask is, are you willing to feel a little uncomfortable? So your kids don’t have to, and if you’re a survivor yourself, get support, get help. Yes. It’s a trigger it’s really difficult as a survivor to then turn around and teach prevention. But once a person has a parent, that’s part of their responsibility.
Dr. Sarah (21:58):
Yeah. And it makes sense that it’s really hard. It makes sense. I mean, we live in a society. We’re talking about body parts, sexuality, that these are things that are somewhat hush hush still.
Dr. Sarah (22:13):
And I mean, I work with families a lot who I always kind of guide families to refer to their children’s body parts with the accurate words for their actual genitalia. Because, you know, if we have nicknames for certain parts of our body, it’s confusing for kids. And it makes it harder for them to tell us what’s happening to their bodies. If somebody were to do something to them, it’s harder for them to communicate that to adults in a way that there’s a shared language. And everybody knows what I’m referring to. Everybody knows that, you know, a vagina is a vagina or penis is a penis versus my wee-wee or my flower or things like that.
Dr. Sarah (22:58):
It makes it harder for children to actually get adults to know what’s going on. They don’t have the language for it. And they don’t have the understanding that, you know, we have, we have body safety rules. I know that I’m in charge of my body. And that if someone touches me in a way, I don’t like I, that’s not okay. And I get to say something and I will never get in trouble. If I tell on a, tell a grownup that somebody touched, touched me or did something to me that made me uncomfortable because that grownup probably told that child don’t tell.
Right. Right. So all of that is right on everything I talk about in the workshop. Yeah. So putting it on your radar, calling genitals the correct names, if a child does need to tell him they use a slang term and it’s in a legal system, it’ll get thrown out. So all of that is super important. Also, you know, my main message without doing the whole workshop here today is that having conversations with other caregivers, you older youth and adults about your child’s body safety rules, is the way we can best deter sexual assault. Because if you’re speaking with your potential babysitter and the gymnastics coach and the teacher at school and your own father and grandfather and family members, and everybody around your child about your expectations about touch and privacy and forced affection, consent secrets, all of this, you’re letting the world know that you’re doing your due diligence, like conversing about this, that it’s on your radar and that you’re watching.
And that is your job. You’re not paranoid. You’re not a helicopter parent. None of those judgmental words, you’re doing what you signed up to do, which is to protect your child. And so I, so to answer your question about what are some of the important things in prevention, having conversations with all of the people you put your kids in the care of is key to reducing their risk. That’s primary. That’s what I mean by adults are responsible. Second to that would be teaching your kids, the body safety rules. But I don’t want your, your little one Sarah, to have to live in the world, thinking about sex abuse. It’s not their job. Yes. They need to know no one’s allowed to touch my genitals. I’m allowed to say no, I’m allowed to tell what they shouldn’t have to be consumed with that. You get to be consumed with it, you know, on some level, whatever you choose by having conversations with other caregivers.
So really that’s, you know, would be my answer about what’s important in prevention. I do want to mention one nuance to this since you brought it up and I love the way you said it, you know, about tell, teaching a child that they won’t get in trouble. If they tell and that it’s okay for them to say, this is my body. And what I want to say about this is that it’s so important for us in the prevention field. And for parents. When I teach this to parents, the language we use when we talk to kids about body safety, because sometimes the language we use can magnify guilt and shame. If a child in fact is sexually abused, once they learn body safety rules. Okay. So what I mean, in a brief example, if you teach your child, we don’t keep secrets in this family, you should say no.
If someone touches your genitals and you should tell, okay, so listen to that language. You should tell, you should say no, and we don’t have secrets. That’s all very true. But the reality is in this crime children, don’t tell they do keep it a secret. And they don’t say no. They don’t say no. Typically because their body freezes the trauma response is happening inside their brain. This is a person they love and trust they’re in their own bed or their own school classroom, and the trauma without getting into the psychology of trauma. The reality is in a trauma event, children do not resist typically some do, but most of the time they don’t resist this encounter. They just don’t. When I talked to offenders and I asked them, do kids say no to you? No, of course they don’t say no with all the manipulation. So if we, and they don’t tell.
So if we say to a kid, you should tell, you should say, no, they learn all this body safety. And then say their teacher or their friend down the street touches them. And they don’t tell because they’re terrified of the consequences. And they didn’t say no, because they were scared and their body froze. Then they feel consumed with that greater guilt because they didn’t follow the body safety rule you just gave them. Does that make sense? That makes so much sense. So small shift, when you’re teaching body safety, you’re allowed to say no. If someone ever engages you in sexual touching, asks you to touch them, they touch, you shows you sexual pictures on the computer. You have my permission to say stop it. And you will never be in trouble. That’s what I love. What you said is to add that in now, the reality is they may be in trouble. So be careful with, you know, the language because the offender might, you know, things, there are consequences when kids tell and other people can get mad at them. You have my permission to tell you, or my permission to say, no, you are allowed to. And I love you no matter what, rather than you should tell.
Dr. Sarah (28:59):
Yeah. I love that.
Right. We don’t keep secrets. But if you ever kept a secret, I still love you. And it’s never too late to tell where you’re giving a kid an out.
Dr. Sarah (29:12):
Yeah. And also taking the onus off of them. Right. It’s like, this is something that they have access to, that they are allowed to do. But the sort of underlying communication in those particular set of words you’re choosing is that it’s on me. Right? I’m the one granting you permission. I’m the one saying it’s okay, because I’m the one in charge. I contain this, I hold this space. It’s my job. It’s similar. If anyone’s been following along some of the ways that kind of guide parents in, in setting limits and boundaries with kids and discipline, it’s very similar. You know, I often will say, I won’t let you hit versus we don’t hit because when you say we don’t hit, well, the kid knows that, but they couldn’t help it in the moment. That’s not, they’re not doing it on purpose. And so when, when I, when I say, I won’t let you hit, I’m kind of owning that authority, that space, and kind of saying, you know, it’s my job to keep you safe. I’m going to help
You do this. Right. Exactly. And that’s such a great point because so often with sexual behavior and children, you know, parents learn the safe behaviors of sexuality and the unsafe ones when I teach them. Right. And then they call me later and say, and this happens with many parents. I “caught my child, playing with their friend and looking at vaginas.” Okay. First of all, take the word caught out because looking at vaginas that sex is totally normal when there’s no force or coercion involved. And when the kids have agreed with each other, not the kids can give consent, but that’s part of normal sexual behavior. But when the adult says, we don’t do that, we don’t look at privates. Yes, they do. They do. That’s part of normal sexual development. So a reframe is, it looks like you’re looking at private parts with your friend. Let’s talk about this, your vagina, your penis, your testicles, your private areas are for you. And it’s just, instead of just telling a kid, we don’t do this, discuss what, you know, how you understand that that’s normal development and there are still rules.
Yes. That’s that perfect balance of, I understand the appropriate behavior. I don’t shame a child for doing that. And I also have rules and have boundaries and I contain it. There is this not a free for all. It’s not complete permissiveness, but it’s also not complete authoritarian. Shut it down. It’s gotta be a dialogue. It’s gotta be our energy when we’re coming in. If we see our kids doing something exploratory with one another and it, it might scare the crap out of us, right. We might come in and be like, oh my God, what is going on? And that’s our own fear response. If we come in hot and say, stop, that’s not something we do. You go to that room, you go to that room. This is over. We’re freaking everybody out, right then that, that embeds this like emotional visceral shame, response, or fight or flight response, even around that.
Dr. Sarah (32:15):
And it makes that whole curiosity about our bodies and this natural, very biologically appropriate, developmentally appropriate curiosity about bodies and how things work. It makes it now kind of shrouded in something kind of scary or uncertain or not so safe and actually kind of drives underground for kids. We want kids to understand what’s healthy body exploration, where they can do that, where it’s not safe to do that, or where it’s not appropriate to do that. And that we give them a space where they can do that and boundaries around how they can do that in an appropriate and safe and developmentally, you know, appropriate way.
And it makes no sense to them. When we say we don’t do that, stop that go to this room. You go to that room because two, four year olds looking at penises is to, in their development and their brain is just as regular and normal to them as learning to crawl and walk and ride a bicycle and read to them. There’s no difference. So when we come in with stuff that they don’t understand that that’s why we have to teach them that penises is you know, for you and you can touch your own when you’re in private and everything that you just said, but to understand that’s normal when they explore. Yeah. And then to understand this might be a great time to give listeners just a few bullet points of when is it concerning? When is it not age appropriate any longer is that you want to talk?
Dr. Sarah (33:56):
Okay. So this is why it’s so important for parents to learn the sexual development in their kids. What do kids do it, you know, two years old, four years old, 15 years old, and everything in between, what are the stages of development and those stages that I talk about in my workshop, in my book, you can Google it. You can find it, you know, learn about it as a parent when it’s not appropriate anymore, or when it’s concerning behavior is when the behavior a child is exhibiting is advanced sexual knowledge. When they are doing things that simulate adult sexual acts, oral copulation, I’m inserting objects into an anus or vagina using mouths, simulating gestures, intercourse that adults engage in. Somehow the child was exposed to that either through pornography or they’re watching it, or they’re experiencing it. Also when kids engage with other children where they’re more than two years apart, two to three years apart, that’s concerning. We need to intervene. If they’re having persistent themes of sexuality in their play, that’s advanced where they’re exposing their own genitals to other children and cannot be redirected. So those are just a couple of the warning signs, not to shame, not to get them in trouble, trouble will never help a child, but to get them to work with someone who has expertise in children’s sexual development.
Dr. Sarah (35:33):
Yeah. So if, for example, you’re a parent and you’re seeing this, or teachers are this up to your attention. Hopefully no one ever has to deal with this, but it’s possible, right? What can I, what is the next step? What should parents do?
Big breath first? Not to blame themselves or their child, and to seek help from someone who has expertise in trauma and children, not that the child was traumatized, but you might as well get someone with expertise in trauma and sexual development and children. So I would say to definitely do some play therapy and report it, if a child reporting must happen, if a child has acted out on another child, which is very difficult, particularly if they’re siblings and what many parents are shocked to learn, especially if it happens to them, is that sibling incest. And I know the word incest is so hard for people to hear and swallow, but we must say the word to get through this and prevent it. That’s sibling incest, sibling, child, sexual assault is one of the most common types of abuse that occurs between children. And so, you know, two kids in the bathtub throwing bubbles at each other and grabbing penises when there’s been no coercion.
And when they’re silly and giggling can fall within normal development.
Dr. Sarah (37:06):
But an older sibling with a younger sibling who’s forcing touch and forcing the viewing of pornography or oral copulation or sexual intercourse at worst is not okay. And, and so parents, I think Sarah, the biggest thing is to, I mean, it’s so hard for parents to say, my kids have done this to each other or my child. I have one child who’s a victim and one child who’s perpetrating how in the world do I deal with this? Yeah. Just be easy on yourself and get professional help.
Dr. Sarah (37:43):
Yeah. And understand too that again, you know, I think you made a distinction in this earlier, and I think that’s really appropriate that when we talk about adults who offend versus children who offend the way we understand it, the way we approach it, the way we treat it is very different.
Very different. And actually I’m reading this book right now. I know you can see it, but your listeners can’t, but I, I it’s excellent. And I highly recommend it. It’s called Sibling Sexual Abuse. It’s listed on my website under resources. And the whole book is about kids who, who offend. And I agree with the author here that children who sexually act out are not sex offenders.
Dr. Sarah (38:25):
That’s very important.
Maybe if they’re 16 and they’ve offended 20 children, they’re moving into the realm of being a, you know, a sexual offender. But for the most part, young children who act out sexually, these are concerning behaviors and we need intervention to learn where they learn this.
Dr. Sarah (38:43):
Yeah. Yes. (sigh) But you know, if we don’t talk about this. Who will? It’s gotta be…
I will! We will. Me and you.
Dr. Sarah (38:56):
Yeah. We say this stuff out loud. It’s really, it’s, it’s, it needs to be kind of brought out of the shadows. How can like adults, you know, and I’m aware of ways that like my best of intentions, I still sometimes kind of undermine my child’s autonomy with their own bodies and like other ways that we can be more mindful as adults, that we might unknowingly make children more vulnerable to sexual assault in the ways that we kind of talk to them and engage with them.
Yeah. There are. And I actually go into these quite a bit in my workshop. One of them is what you just said, undermining their body autonomy. So one way that is so common and anyone listening, if you’ve done this, just let the guilt roll off your shoulders because we’ve probably all done. This is suggesting to a child or bribing or forcing or coercing them to give hugs and kisses to relatives or friends when they do not want to telling them that they are rude or that they’re going to hurt grandma’s feelings. And having an expectation in a family that kids must sit on laps and give hugs and kisses to all the relatives. And the biggest pushback parents often say is in my culture, we are very touchy. Well, now that I’m doing zoom workshops all over the world and people from Africa and all over Europe and do by and just all over the world are attending.
I hear this statement everywhere in my culture. So yes, cultural sensitivity is incredibly important and acknowledgement in a family. But when are talking about forced affection, regardless of culture, a child should be safe. And we’re not saying here, children shouldn’t hug and kiss the people they love. Of course they can if they choose. But if they don’t want to just like, if we didn’t want to give someone a hug, hopefully we would have the choice. So that is one way when we bribe kids to make other people happy. And that’s one key concepts there to prevention is your children are not responsible for managing the feelings of other people. Perpetrators are looking for kids who feel they are responsible. So that is one way, another way that we unknowingly make them more vulnerable is, is asking to keep innocent secrets. So let me play this out with you, and maybe you’ve done this. Maybe you haven’t, many of us had, so, okay. So when your listeners probably have too, so don’t tell you fill in the blank downtown isn’t secret.
Dr. Sarah (41:51):
Don’t tell daddy we had some chocolate before dinner.
There you go. And don’t tell mommy, we got a speeding ticket and don’t tell your brother, I gave you gum during his nap. Okay. Why do we ask children to keep these seemingly innocent secrets?
Dr. Sarah (42:13):
Because we think that it’s going to help other people’s feelings.
Exactly. We’re asking the child to manage the conflict. Aren’t we between the two and what, or who’s the burden on them and what are we asking them to do? Keep what…
Dr. Sarah (42:31):
Keep a secret.
And we just broke our body safety rule, which is we don’t keep secrets.
Dr. Sarah (42:36):
So this is one way that adults do this all the time. And what I teach is if you’re going to ask your child to keep it, if you’re going to give your child chocolate before dinner, and you don’t want your partner to know, maybe you say we’re going to eat chocolate and I will talk to whoever daddy about this. It’s not your problem. We must take kids out of the mix here, because this mimics perpetrators, this is how they groom them kids with innocent secrets. Do we want to be mimicking that? Not really.
Dr. Sarah (43:10):
Okay. And then one other… Go ahead. Sorry.
Dr. Sarah (43:14):
I was just gonna say, it’s really interesting because this is actually, you know, in my head, I was like, of course, yes. I know this rule. Like don’t tell daddy or don’t tell mommy or don’t tell grandma, but that when you gave that example of, don’t tell your sister that I gave you gum while she was sleeping. I do that all the time. And I don’t think about it in the same way when I’m asking my son to keep a secret for his sibling. But that’s a really helpful reminder for me. It’s all secrets, for anyone.
Well, can, I mean, how old are your children? Can I ask?
Dr. Sarah (43:45):
They’re three and a half and two.
Okay. So you’re asking the three and a half year old, not to tell the two year old. So as brilliant as you are and the psychologist you are, can your three-and-a-half year old understand that? Can she hold that developmentally? No.
Absolutely not. He immediately blurts it out too. I’m like, I gave him a lollipop the other day while, and I didn’t want my daughter to see it. And I was like, don’t tell your sister, I’m giving this to you. And he immediately walked up to her and he goes, look what I have.
Right, right. But, like why do you want him to not tell her? Because you don’t want the temper tantrum. So what I’m saying is, are you willing to deal with the temper tantrum? If you chose to give the lollipop.
Dr. Sarah (44:24):
Right. My job. No, it’s so good.
And I know I’m targeting you here. This is so good, and this is how innocent we all are in this stuff, but it’s really what makes kids vulnerable and is as educated as you are about this. You know, you still make those mistakes and we all do so forgiveness everywhere. Yeah. One last one I want to ask you about, and I’m going to use you again here is, have you ever said to your well, your kids are so little, but have you ever said to them, listen to the teacher today or listen to the babysitter? Cause she’s in charge tonight. I want, I don’t want to hear you’ve misbehaved. You do what she says now.
You might not say it that way, but you know what I’m getting at?
Dr. Sarah (45:09):
So you say, listen to the teacher, she’s in charge, listen to grandpa. He’s the boss tonight you leave. Grandpa says we’re going to play a touching game. And mommy said, you have to listen. So we are going to do this. Have you just made your child more vulnerable?
Dr. Sarah (45:29):
Yeah. So the, the, the solution to that is listen to grandpa tonight, listen to your teacher because she’s the teacher and she’s the grownup that keeps you safe, except, and this is where you teach exceptions in your parenting. If your teacher said let’s touch privates or compromised your safety in any way, and that language you more for the age of your child, right? You don’t have to do it. Yes. I want you to listen to adults, except you never have to listen to anyone. If the thing they’re asking you to do makes you worried, scared, nervous, touching private parts, et cetera. And you get into that conversation with your children.
Dr. Sarah (46:16):
Yeah. Just I’m curious what you think about this, because in general, when I think about having important conversations where I really want, when I really want them to learn and take in what I’m saying, I don’t necessarily do those conversations in the heat of the moment during a separation. For example, those are, those are conversations I’m looking to have with kids in these calm, quiet, connected moments where they actually have the bandwidth to sort of internalize and take in what I’m saying and make, make sense of it. And we can play with it and we can process it together. But I think, you know, when, when I’m walking out the door, isn’t the time necessarily to say something that’s that important. Because they’re focused on that separation in that moment. And they’re emotionally activated in that moment. Those are conversations I might want to have with my kid.
Dr. Sarah (47:07):
As I’m preparing them, you know, tonight we’re getting ready for bed. We’re, we’re reading a book, we’re getting cozy. I might say, Hey, you know, tomorrow night, you’ve got a new babysitter coming. And we talked about that and you know, what’s going to happen. And also, you know, I want you to listen to her because she’s going to be in charge while I’m gone. But also there are certain times when you don’t have to listen. If there was any time when you didn’t feel safe, you can say no. If there was times when anyone asks you to touch your body in a way that doesn’t make you feel comfortable or touch your private parts, you say, no, you can say, no, I give you permission to say no. But having those conversations in the calm, quiet moments, as you are preparing a child for some new thing or some new interaction with someone outside of like, you know, your immediate primary caregiving family, you know, you dad, whomever, the safe network.
I think that’s excellent. And I, I think, I don’t know. I believe both can happen. What you’re talking about is important ongoing, but I think there’s so many times parents are like quick dropping kids off at camp, or they’re dropping off at soccer practice. And, you know, they’re, it’s a, it’s a drop and go and parents will say, Hey, have fun today and listen to your coach. Remember? So in those moments, I also think you can just take, make it into a teachable moment in a few seconds, you know, have fun today, be safe. Those are the alternative words that I like to use. Have fun. And remember that we’re gonna, you know, follow your body safety rules or however you…
Dr. Sarah (48:47):
Right. And those are things that you can say once you already have that shorthand established to be having these conversations in the long form, in these calm, quiet moments with your kids, when you’re feeling safe and you’re feeling connected and they can learn and take in information so that you can have that shorthand, Hey, when I say be safe, you know what I’m saying? You know what that means. I’m not giving you brand new information about what you can do about your own body safety as I’m dropping you off and leaving.
Exactly. Yeah, definitely.
Dr. Sarah (49:21):
I love that though.
Yeah. There’s so many ways to incorporate this into life with kids and, you know, people might be feeling overwhelmed listening right now, but you don’t have to be an expert at this. Just learn a little bit, put it on your radar. Come to my workshop, if you’re so inclined.
Dr. Sarah (49:44):
And we’ll definitely attach, we’ll put in the show notes, a link to your workshop. You can find it at parentingsafechildren.com and Feather also has a book Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe From Sexual Abuse, which I highly recommend. There’s a lot, a lot of information that you have. You have great resources on your website as well.
Thanks. And just FYI. The next workshop I’m doing is September 18th and 25th. They’re done in two parts cause they’re via zoom. So two, two weeks in a row is part one and part two. And it’s, we’d love people to come if you want.
Dr. Sarah (50:18):
Yes, and you know honestly, anyone who’s listening. If you have questions about this, if you have questions about, you know, how do I handle something where I’m not sure, or what are signs? You know, if you have more questions about this and you want me to ask Feather more stuff and we could do a follow-up episode. Write in, you can find, you can DM me on @securelyattachedpodcast on Instagram. And that’s a great way for you guys to submit any questions you have about this topic. And I can coerce Feather to come back and sit with us again. And maybe we can answer some more questions, cause this is your wealth of knowledge on this.
Thank you. People can also reach out to me if you’re interested and I do phone consultations, if you have particular situations. Yeah.
Dr. Sarah (51:05):
I highly recommend taking advantage of that. Well, thank you so much for coming and as always, I, I just truly enjoy talking with you and we’ll talk again soon. I’m sure.
Great. And thank you Sarah, for, for being willing to come to the workshop. You know, I just really want to say that to you that so, so much of the time people learn about this work and how important it is and, and they don’t want to sit through and like listen to all the information. So I really appreciate that you were willing to come for your kids.
Dr. Sarah (51:39):
Yeah. I mean, I’m so glad I did. I got a tremendous amount out of it and I’m coming from a place of knowing a good deal about this. And I still like really got so much out of it. So I can’t recommend it enough. Well, we’ll talk to you soon and thank you so much and have a wonderful rest of your day.
You too, Sarah. Thanks.
Dr. Sarah (52:04):
You made it through, I know this was a heavy one, but I commend you for listening. And I really hope you found this episode helpful. If you need support working through a sexual abuse issue from your past, or you suspect something might be happening with your own child, I really urge you to seek professional help and you can reference the show notes in this episode for links to support resources and emergency hotlines. It can be incredibly difficult taking the first step, but it is so important and necessary to do. And there is a lot of help out there.
Dr. Sarah (52:36):
This is also an episode that I really recommend every parent find at least one other person to share this with. We are obligated as parents to get this word out to as many people as possible because protecting children is a collective responsibility with a collective result. The more we protect more children that has this sort of multiplier effect, as you know, we really discussed in this episode. So please share this episode far and wide for more information about Feathers workshops, please go to parentingsafechildren.com and to gain access to additional parenting resources, head over to my website, drsarahbren.com. And please subscribe, follow rate and review the podcast. Thank you for listening. And don’t be a stranger!
If you or someone you know is in need of resources for getting help or support around child abuse, please reach out to The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.
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