5 Body Safety Rules Every 5-Year-Old Should Know
This article was originally published on March 12, 2019 and updated on March 10, 2023.
It seems like the number of things you need to talk to your children about in order to keep them safe just keeps growing! One issue that should be at the top of your list is protecting kids from sexual abuse.
Why? The CDC reports that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience sexual abuse. By talking to your kids about personal safety, they will be more prepared to stay safe and get help when needed.
The link between pornography and child sexual abuse
Unfortunately, pornography fuels sexual abuse.
Protecting kids from child sexual abuse includes teaching them what pornography is and what to do if they see it. This not only helps prevent them from becoming a victim of non-physical sexual abuse (such as being shown pornography), but also potentially from becoming an abuser themselves. An estimated 30-50% of reported cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by other juveniles.
Here’s an example of what can happen: a child sees pornography without any idea of what is normal and not normal sexual activity. Not understanding that what they see is harmful, they act these scenes out on other children.
Sometimes adults are motivated by pornography to abuse others, including children. Adult abusers will often show pornography to children to groom them for further abuse. According to Defend Innocence, perpetrators will test boundaries and “see how a child reacts when privacy is violated.” Pornography is a tool they use to see how a child responds. The child’s reaction could mean the difference between safety (the abuser backs off) and extreme danger (the abuser feels like the child can be manipulated).
What’s the problem with the idea of “stranger danger”?
It was drilled into every 80’s kid’s mind: “Don’t take candy from a stranger.” For decades the message was so focused on strangers, that we failed to warn children that sometimes people we know and trust turn out to be dangerous too.
Are strangers the main danger? Statistics tell us NO. In 90% of sexual abuse cases, victims know their abuser.
60% of perpetrators are not family members, but someone the child knows: a babysitter, a babysitter’s boyfriend (whom you didn’t know was at your home), an older sibling at a friend’s sleepover, or a long-time family friend. Sexual abuse happens during playdates behind closed doors and in bathrooms at school. Yes, elementary school.
Surely we can trust our children with members of our family? The NSOPW reports that 30% of perpetrators of sexual abuse crimes are family members. It’s hard to swallow, isn’t it? A mistake we make as parents and adults is trusting people just because they’re family.
Here’s what you can do to protect kids from sexual abuse
You might be thinking to yourself, I’m never leaving my children alone again. Don’t worry, there’s hope. You can become an educated and proactive parent who does everything in their power to protect children from sexual abuse.
Let’s start by learning about body safety rules. While it’s not your child’s responsibility to protect themselves from sexual abuse, he or she should be taught important boundaries about their body. The guidelines below are adapted from the non-profit organization, The Mama Bear Effect.
The basics of body safety
1. Use actual names of body parts
While you’re teaching nose, elbow, and knee, also teach your children the correct names of their private body parts: penis for boys, vagina, vulva (the name for female external genitalia) and breasts for girls, and anus and buttocks for both. Now your child has the vocabulary to tell you if someone touches or shows them private parts. If they start calling their private parts a different name, ask them where they learned it from.
2. Appropriate and inappropriate touch
While you are teaching your child the names of body parts, also tell them that no one should touch or show private parts (the ones covered by a swimsuit). Talk about a couple of exceptions. Explain how a parent, babysitter, or grandma (etc) may need to help you wipe after going to the bathroom. A doctor may have to look at your private parts to make sure everything is healthy - but you will always have a parent with you in a doctor’s appointment.
3. Discuss with your child what an appropriate touch is, like hugs and high fives
Find out what kind of touch they’re comfortable sharing with people they care about. Create family guidelines about the appropriate people to share affection with (hugging, kissing, cuddling, etc). Inappropriate touches happen when someone touches your private parts, or even hugs too long, touches somewhere near a private part, or an inappropriate kiss. It’s important to tell an adult if someone touches a private part, or does something you feel uncomfortable with. Practice using the terms appropriate and inappropriate touch. It may seem easier to say good touch or bad touch, but this can be confusing for kids. Sometimes, inappropriate touches might feel good.
Now that you have helped your child identify appropriate touches they feel comfortable sharing with others, help them enforce the boundaries they have set. If they don’t like to kiss people on the cheek as a farewell, don’t force them to kiss anyone, even a family member. Encourage them to share a high five instead, an appropriate touch they’ve identified as okay. Never force anyone to give or receive affection they don’t want. Consider having a family rule that you ask (and receive) permission before giving affection. Within the walls of your own home, it’s easy to practice boundaries by saying, “Do you want a hug?” or “Do you want to come cuddle during the movie?”
Set a rule in your home that No Means No and Stop Means Stop. If siblings are wrestling or tickling each other, and someone says, “Please stop!” - make sure everyone stops immediately. Conversations about boundaries should evolve as your child gets older. What do you do if someone taps your bum while walking down the hallway at school? Discuss this and other issues, like your family standards around affection between a boyfriend and girlfriend. What do you do if your boyfriend and you are kissing and he touches your breast? Preparing your teenagers for these issues (whether they happen or not) teaches them valuable lessons about boundaries - they are the boss of their body.
5. No secrets - surprises instead
You don’t want a predator to encourage your child to keep a secret from you. A conversation with your kid about secrets might sound like this: A secret is something that is kept unknown from certain people. If someone tells you to keep a secret from me, it might be because they are trying to hurt you. We don’t keep secrets in our family so that everyone is safe. If anyone tells you to keep a secret, you will not be in trouble for telling me. In fact, I will be so happy you told me so that I can make sure everyone we love is safe, including you. Instead of secrets, we keep surprises in our family. Do you know what’s great about a surprise? Everyone finds out what’s going on! So you and I might buy your dad a surprise chocolate candy bar for his birthday. He will be so surprised when we give it to him!
Bonus rule! Build a body safety network
Help your child choose 3-5 adults they could go to if someone breaks a body safety rule. Help them identify people both within and outside your family. Make it clear that children do not get in trouble if someone else breaks a body safety rule; it’s important that they tell someone in their body safety network. Make sure you tell the adults who have been selected as part of your child’s safety network. Tell these adults what you would like them to do if your child comes to them for help. Explain how important it is that they believe your child, should they tell them something.
Related: 3 Big Red Flags of Sexual Abuse
Check out our popular eBook: How to Protect Kids from Sexual Abuse: Body Safety Toolkit
Protecting kids from sexual abuse by minimizing opportunity
Teaching body safety is ONE PART of the equation for protecting kids from child sexual abuse. Adrianne Simeone, of The Mama Bear Effect, compares body safety to a seatbelt,
“It’s there to protect them in case of disaster – it’s not a guarantee they won’t get hurt.”
Simeone emphasizes the key role adults have in anticipating and minimizing risk for child sexual abuse:
“The point of teaching children body safety should not be so that we can leave them responsible for protecting themselves from abusers. Ultimately, we have the responsibility to reduce opportunity for abuse by being educated and making conscious decisions as to who and when we allow people alone with our children, verifying that trust continuously, and communicating to those people that our child’s safety is a priority.”
Here are a few ways you can minimize opportunity:
- Have an open-door policy during the day: no one plays behind a closed door. Pop your head in often when your child is playing with a sibling or friend. Tell other parents about your open-door policy.
- Tell everyone your child has contact with that they have been trained in body safety - coaches, teachers, babysitters, church members, scout leaders, other parents, etc. Predators are less likely to target an educated kid who has an educated parent.
- One mom describes her heartbreaking journey learning that her six-year-old has been sexually abused by a babysitter. She recommends you post your body safety rules in your home, visible to kids, babysitters, and visiting family/friends. Again, this lets people know that your children are not easy prey.
- Read this article from The Mama Bear Effect on Minimizing Opportunity. This goes over it all- professional service providers, school personnel, babysitters, peers, sports coaches, playdates and sleepovers.
Here’s an example of an adult minimizing opportunity for child sexual abuse. I have a friend who lives 15 minutes from a busy airport. She often has family and friends ask to stay overnight before an early-morning airplane trip. She is a gracious host.
Anytime someone stays the night, she pulls out a small mattress and has her only child sleep in her parent’s bedroom. This mama feels that while her daughter has ongoing lessons on body safety, for now she is going to minimize the risk of harm befalling her young child. For her, it is easier to not make an exception to the rule for anyone, even trusted family members.
For the record, this mom DOES leave her child with other people on occasion. They are not glued to the hip 24/7. Minimize opportunity to the best of your ability, and be mindful about who you leave your child within a 1:1 situation. Don’t take trust for granted - check in with your child after a family party, a cousin sleepover, time with a babysitter, etc.
Ask your child the right questions
It’s a good idea to check in with your child after every party, playdate, or any time spent with others. In an article titled, How Good Parents Miss Child Sexual Abuse, Lauren Book recommends parents ask their child questions like these in private where they won’t feel pressured by other people:
- Did you enjoy yourself?
- How did you spend your time?
- What was your favorite part?
- What was the least favorite part?
- Did you feel safe?
- Was there anything else that you wanted to share?
I would add, after establishing body safety rules, that it’s okay to ask:
Did everyone follow the body safety rules?
Instead of trusting family members, neighbors, or close friends because you know them well, trust them because your child has positive responses to these questions over and over after spending time with them. As Adrianne Simeone suggested, “verify that trust continuously” by checking in with your children and reminding everyone around you that your child’s safety is your number one priority.
Talk to other adults about body safety rules
Opportunities come up all the time to talk with other adults about protecting kids from child sexual abuse. Don’t be afraid to bring light to a subject that some people feel more comfortable leaving in the dark. Discussions like these need to happen more often in order to protect the people you love:
- You may be discussing a surprise party with your sister for your brother-in-law. You can remind her to use the word “surprise” instead of “secret” to describe the party around your kids, because they may end up telling about it! You can explain your body safety rules about the word “secret,” and why it’s important to your children’s safety.
- You might be renting a cabin for the first time with friends, and propose an open-door policy during the day while children play in various rooms. Explain that it’s one of the rules you use at home to minimize opportunity for sexual abuse.
- Your face is turning beet red because your 3-year-old just asked her preschool teacher if she has a vagina. Instead of brushing it off with a quick apology, explain that you are following a body safety plan and teaching her correct names for her body parts.
You are taking important steps educating yourself about protecting kids from child sexual abuse. May I issue two challenges? First, share something you learned with another adult, preferably someone in your inner circle. Second, no matter how old your children are, start doing one new thing this week to protect them from child sexual abuse. If you need a little help, Defend Innocence has easy-to-use activities about topics discussed in this post.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take comfort in the words of pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock, “You know more than you think you do.” Don’t let fear of saying or doing the wrong thing prevent you from taking action to protect your child from sexual abuse. Teaching body safety rules is an important job for parents. Your intuition will guide you to the right plan of action for your family.
If you have older kids, be sure to check out 4 Body Safety Rules to Protect Kids Ages 5-10