Trigger warning: this article discusses themes of child abuse
This week is National Child Protection week in Australia and is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on ways to nurture and grow our children and teens in safe communities.
Whilst none of us want to think about children and young people feeling unsafe or being at risk in any way, it is our responsibility as communities and parents to be proactive in weaving in ‘incidental teaching’ with our children and young people, so that if there ever is a time when they feel unsafe, they may just be able to reach out and feel empowered to speak up.
Making this topic normal in your family life, in a natural and healthy way can enable your child to find their voice and be heard at times of danger or uncertainly. Normalising these topics in your family life, means it doesn’t have to be weird or uncomfortable for both you or your kids.
HERE ARE MY TOP TIPS:
1. LEARN TO BE AN EMOTION COACH:
I cannot over emphasise the value of learning to tune into our kids emotions, being really present and listening. You may have had the experience of a close friend showing deep understanding as they listened to you talk; without judgment or quick fixes. If we nurture a culture in our households that fosters active, respectful listening, our children learn that there is always an open door, and they will hopefully also start to believe that nothing is too terrible that it cannot be discussed. This kind of deep listening is a skill to be learnt and practiced over time. John Gottman, world renowned relationships expert, describes 5 steps to emotion coaching:
- Be aware of your child’s emotions
- Recognising emotions as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
- Listening empathically and validating the child’s feelings
- Helping the child to verbally label their emotions
- And finally – only after the above – setting limits whilst helping the child to problem solve.
Pre-schoolers: teach your child accurate names for their emotions. Put a feelings chart up on the fridge, and when they are calm, talk about what feelings they experienced at different points during the day. Borrow books from the library about different feelings, and talk about the character’s emotions. Teach them that all emotions are ok. It’s ok to be angry, sad, scared, happy or joyful. Teach them to express their different emotions in healthy ways.
Primary schoolers: continue to emotion coach, it may be at bed time, but just be present with them as they tell you about their friendships, their fears, their joys, their challenges. Notice and validate what they have experienced.
High Schoolers: at this time in life, kids need an emotion coach more than ever. This may look like side by side conversations as you walk or drive, it can feel less confronting that way.
2. TEACH YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT THEIR BODIES, THEIR ‘GUT FEEL’ AND WHAT TO DO WITH SECRETS:
These are the things we don’t really want to focus on with our kids, as it can feel uncomfortable. But these conversations are really important, and can be ‘dripped’ into everyday moments.
Teach children from a young age that their bodies belong to them. Give them accurate names for their body parts.
Often when we feel unsafe, we sense danger in our bodies through our nervous system. The scientist Stephen Porges, refers to this as ‘neuroception’. Talk to your children about this, and teach them to tune into this internal sense of safety or fear, and pay attention to it. Talk to your kids about how it feels in their bodies when something just isn’t quite right. For instance, ‘When you feel something is not right, what do you notice in your body?’ ‘Maybe you get wobbly legs’ ‘maybe you get a tummy ache’ ‘maybe your chest feels tight or your throat feels dry’, ‘maybe your muscles get all tight or your heart races fast’.
Secrets: teach them about the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ secrets. Secrets that give them that ‘not quite right’ feeling are not good secrets.
Pre-schoolers: when they are in the bath or shower, weave into the conversation ‘hey what’s that part of your body called’, ‘who is allowed to touch that part?’ ‘can you touch it?’ ‘can your friends touch it?’ ‘can other grown ups touch it?’. ‘That’s right, its private, no one else is allowed to touch it except you, and mummy or daddy when we clean it’. Read your children books that promote protective behaviours messages, such as the book ‘My Underpants Rule’. Give them accurate names for their private parts, and talk calmly, in a matter of fact way about their bodies.
Primary-schoolers: continue to build in messages about their bodies. Give them accurate information about sex as they reach appropriate ages. In addition, teach them about secrets.
You could say ‘what are some secrets that are happy secrets?’ This would be where you’d talk about the time they made a father’s day gift at school and kept that secret from their dad. Then take a moment to talk to them about ‘unhappy secrets’. You could say ‘sometimes, people ask us to keep secrets that make us feel uncomfortable or give us a bad feeling’…. ‘these kind of secrets need to be told to a safe grown up, no matter what the other person says, it’s always important to tell these secrets.’ Talk to them about their ‘gut feeling’ and the importance of listening to this.
High schoolers: continue to teach them to trust their gut. At this age, it’s really important to be actively talking to your teen about what safe, respectful relationships look like and feel like.
3. BUILD A NETWORK OF SAFE PEOPLE:
From a young age, encourage your children to have a strong network of support. Can your child count 5 safe grown-ups that they can tell if they need help with anything?
Pre-schoolers: ask your child to draw their handprint. Have your child turn each of the fingers into a person, with eyes, nose, mouth and hair. Ask them to name them as grown-ups that help care for them and keep them safe.
Primary schoolers: ask your child to build a collage of the people in their life that they can turn to if they feel worried or upset. Talk to your child about the kinds of qualities that you would seek in someone trustworthy.
High schoolers: spend time with your teen, just be there and listen. Talk to them about the people who have their back, the ones they would turn to if they ever needed support. Talk to them about the qualities of safe, reliable people.
Teach your kids to be persistent in following through and seeking support, if something doesn’t seem right.
The key message is ‘if your gut says something isn’t right, keep reaching out to a trusted grown up, UNTIL someone helps.’
You can build this into everyday conversations, whilst you’re driving home from school or doing the dishes together.
You could discuss topics such as:
- Let’s just say you were playing with your mates, and one of them told you not to tell, but they were planning to do something mean to another kid.
- Let’s just say, you were online, and a picture of something flashed up on your screen, and you got that bad feeling about the picture.
- Let’s just say you were on your i-pad, and you got a call from someone you didn’t know.
“Who would you tell? What would you say? If they didn’t listen who else could you tell? What would you say to that person?”
And finally, if you ever have concerns, reach out for support. If you are worried about your child, speak to someone! Reach out to your child’s school, speak to your GP, speak to a pastor, contact your local children’s hospital and ask to speak to someone in the child protection area. This part of parenting can be tricky to navigate at times, and, as with all aspects of parenting, IT TAKES A VILLAGE!!!
If this article has triggered anything for you, please reach out for support. This advice is general, and child abuse is a complex issue.
BSW, MCFT, MAASW.
Sarah Wood has worked as a professional social worker, in child and family settings for the past 15 years. Sarah has worked with families where children and young people have experienced complex trauma in the context of family violence – in the health sector, and the non government sector as a clinician, and also in Policy and Planning. She has a Bachelors degree in Social Work, and a Masters Degree in Couple and Family Therapy, and has undertaken regular continuing education in working therapeutically with traumatised children, young people and their families, and attachment theory. She holds registration with the Australian Association of Social Workers as an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker.
Gottman, J (1998) Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Simon & Schuster, NY.
Porges, S (2004) Neuroception: a subconscious system for detecting threats and safety, Zero to Three, Vol.24, No.5, pp.19-24.
Resources for Parents and Guardians:
If this article has brought up anything for you, there is support available.
Lifeline: 131114 contact lifeline for 24/7 counselling support
Blue Knot Foundation: 1300 657 380. Blue Knot provide support for adults who have experienced childhood trauma. They operate between 9am and 5pm, 7 days a week.
1800respect: if you feel unsafe in your current relationships, contact 1800RESPECT, who are available 7 days a week.
Child Protection Helpline: please contact if you have concerns for the welfare or wellbeing of a child facs.nsw.gov.au/families/Protecting-kids/reporting-child-at-risk
Protective Behaviours Resources:
My Underpants Rule, by Kate and Rod Power: this book helps you talk in a light-hearted way about private parts and protective behaviours, and has a catchy rhyme that your child will be singing in their head, well after you’ve finished reading the story booktopia.com.au/my-underpants-rule-rod-power/book/9780992953003.html
Bravehearts: have loads of practical colouring books, videos and parent tip sheets, such as the Ditto Keep Safe Adventure Resources, to assist you in teaching your children protective behaviours bravehearts.org.au
Emotion Coaching Resources
Tuning into Kids and Tuning into Teens: these courses teach you how to be an emotion coach for your child or teen relationshipsnsw.org.au/support-services/tuning-into-teens and tuningintokids.org.au/parents/subscribe-to-tikol
Parenting NSW https://www.resourcingparents.nsw.gov.au/ have a list of parenting courses on offer in NSW.
John Gottman: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: this book give you practical skills in emotion coaching your child booktopia.com.au/raising-an-emotionally-intelligent-child-john-gottman/book/9780684838656.html
Resources around online safety and safety in relationships
Online Safety Tools: esafety.gov.au provide resources around internet safety contracts for your family, and a broad range of tip sheets around topics such as cyber bullying, privacy, consent, and online abuse.
Relationships Australia: relationships.org.au have lots of tip sheets and resources around safe and respectful relationships.
The views, opinions and content listed in this blog post are that of the guest contributor and do not necessarily represent those of Hillsong Church.