Teaching our children the differences between “good touch” and “bad touch” has been preached about for quite some time as a means of protecting those children from possible sexual abuse. It sounds good and makes a great deal of sense to the parents. Good touch referring to hugs, kisses and gentle brushes meant out of love and bad touch means touching any private areas. Sounds simple and effective, right?
In reality, however, most parents and sadly even some mental health professionals and law enforcement are very uneducated in the typical child sexual abuse scenario where phrases that seem so clear to adults are easily blurred and skewed once in the mind of a child through no fault of their own.
Most sexual abuse cases occur from an individual who is close to the child and has access to them over a period of time. Through this time, the adult is seen as an important figure in their lives, becoming both trustworthy and respected. Often times they are the “fun” adult and while the parents, in their role of protecting and caring for them child, can turn into the “meanies.” Due to this arrangement, the abuser can easily “groom” the child by spending a great deal of time mentally preparing them to accept the abuse, expect the abuse and believe that they deserve the abuse.
A key part of the abuse is that most children who do not immediately disclose have been led to genuinely believe that they deserve the abuse and are at fault. They are conditioned to think that telling anyone would lead to swift punishment for what they “allowed” to happen. By applying clear cut terms such as “good” and “bad” to what is occurring, the well-intentioned parents have played right into the abuser’s game.
When they condition children to believe they deserve the abuse, the word “bad” carries with it the shame used to keep the children quiet:
The touch is bad. They deserve the touch. They are bad.
The shame is effortlessly placed by the abuser and the child is now left vulnerable and feeling guilty. Each time the parents reinforce this phrase to their children, they are unknowingly reinforcing the shame that keeps the child quiet while the abuse continues.
Another problem with teaching children the differences between good touch and bad touch is that in some cases it may conflict with their feelings leaving them confused about the truth. As adults who know the difference between positive, loving touch and abusive, unwanted touch, the idea that abusive touch can feel good seems baffling yet it occurs all too often, usually during the early stages of grooming and touching.
When someone a child has been taught to trust and admire begins touching their private area in a way that makes them feel good, they are left wondering why this is considered bad touch. Suddenly the parents words seem untrue and the abusers words make more sense. In the innocent mind of a child, this credibility strengthens the abuser’s case and weakens the parents’ words.
When taught the difference between good touch and bad touch, the boundaries are usually private areas versus non-private areas. As parents, of course we want to ensure that our children’s private areas remain their own, but sometimes being touched or touching in non-private areas can be just as abusive.
Not all abusers are focused on the classic sexual behaviors that come to mind. Sometimes they force or coerce children into sexual behaviors aside from private areas like tickling, kissing, ear-licking or stroking other non-sensuous body parts. Each of these behaviors are still sexual in nature yet do not match the profile that good touch, bad touch covers.
In order to break down what is good touch or bad touch, parents would have to tackle a wide range of behaviors and actions that may not necessarily be complete nor appropriate for the child leaving the catchy phrase lacking at best.
What You Can Do Instead
This point cannot be stressed enough. There is far too much misinformation about child sexual abuse and sexual predators running rampant. Whether or not you believe your child is currently at risk, obtaining as much information as you can on the signs of abuse as well as signs of a predator, the better chance you stand in protecting your children.
Please, never assume that your children will come and tell you that someone is abusing them. This is far from reality in most cases.
Educate Your Children
Rather than focusing on good touch and bad touch and other catchy phrases, consider just talking to your children regularly about their bodies. I in no way mean that you should prematurely jumped into the birds and the bees, but teaching your children the basics can make it easier for you to recognize signs of abuse as well as helping give them the language to disclose.
Making sure your children know the appropriate terms for their body parts is especially important. If your son knows that he has a penis and suddenly starts referring to it with strange pet names, that is a great time to nonchalantly bring up where those names came about. Most predators are not going to use “vagina” and “penis” during abuse. If your daughter comes to you and says, “uncle hurt my vagina,” what occurred is more clear than if she approaches you with “uncle hurt my tummy” (a common term girls will use when they have been sexually abused).
Teach them their body is theirs
Between school rules, church rules, etiquette rules, house rules and the punishments associated, children can sometimes be left feeling as though they are not in control of their own bodies and others are free to dictate what is right and wrong. By living in a way that they have full say over their bodies and their choices (within reasons of safety), they will know their body is fully theirs.
Spanking children, forcing them to hug or kiss loved ones, making them comply to any adult as authority, no matter how well-intentioned, are all ways children learn that their body and their needs do not belong to them. These actions are all too easily skewed by the abuser. Consider the following common phrases parents use with good intentions:
“If you didn’t keep doing [X] then I wouldn’t have to spank you.”
“If you really loved Nana, you would give her a kiss.”
“It is disrespectful to not listen your teacher. She is the adult and in charge.”
“Be good and do whatever the babysitter tells you.”
Each of these phrases so closely resembles the methods used in classic abuse cases:
“If you didn’t keep doing [X] then I wouldn’t have to hurt you like this.”
“If you really loved me, you would let me kiss you here.”
“It is disrespectful not to listen to me as an adult when I ask you to [X].”
“Mommy said you have to do whatever I tell you.”
Now imagine if the child was taught that they have full control over their body:
“You deserve to be safe which is why I have asked you to stop doing [X].”
“Nana knows you love her whether you choose to give her a kiss or not. Only do what makes you feel comfortable.”
“You can always inquire ‘why’ when I ask you to do something. If you do not like my reason, we can talk it through and consider more options.”
“You know our house rules. Please follow them while the babysitter is watching you.”
Those phrases are much less likely to be twisted as they give the child safe control over themselves without shame or conditions to love.
While there is no guarantees that your child will not be met with an abusive situation, educating ourselves, educating our children and keeping communication open without shame, labels or manipulations can help them understand that the abuse is never their fault and lines of communication are always safely open. If you would like a catchy phrase to end your conversations about abuse with your children, may I recommend:
“I love you unconditionally and am always here to listen without judgment or shame.”
Be aware, not afraid.