You're a good parent who wants to keep your children safe, right? Most of us are.
But far too often, moms and dads don't realize something devastating has happened to a child we love, until after it's too late.
1 - Educate yourself first.
Let's be honest, most of us have absolutely no idea what our children are doing online. If we closely observed the bullying, shaming, and toxic sexuality that is normal on Instagram, TikTok, Kik, Snapchat and the other places kids are hanging out — we’d be horrified. It’s a whole other world with a completely different set of rules and expectations, and if we don’t dive into it to see what’s going on, we’ll stay naively locked out of it.
Locked out of their digital world is not a safe place for our child to have us stay. Our children need us to be invading their digital space. Our children need us to be bossy and invasive about their electronics usage.
Chris C. is an assistant principal at a middle school. He says, "I can’t begin to describe how much time I spend every day dealing with issues that stem from unsupervised cell phone usage by our students. In the situations where I have to search a student’s cell phone, I often get sick to my stomach at what I find (highly inappropriate photos, videos, messages, social media usage, etc.). The things our students are willing to try and be a part of at such a young age gets worse and worse every year.
When I call parents to inform them of what is going on, I always ask them how often they search their kids’ phones. The shock gets even worse when 90% of them say hardly ever or never. And then they get upset at me, accuse me of lying to them about their kids’ roles in certain situations, or expect me to somehow fix the situation." (emphasis added)
Check out my idea list for internet-filtering and monitoring options at the end of this article.
2 - Porn is everywhere.
If your kids:
- have electronics,
- access of any kind to the internet,
- friends with online access, and
- they are age 8 or older... they have very likely been exposed to porn already. If they haven't been exposed yet, they absolutely have little friends who are watching it. Those kids' parents probably don't have a clue, either.
Don’t question it, count on it.
Today’s pornography is not pinup pictures. It is not what you may remember from your childhood exposure to someone's hidden magazines. Today's pornography is filled with violence, rape, incest, and assault. These themes are commonplace, it's not the excessively kinky stuff.
In today's world, if our children have online access of any kind, it is more likely than not that porn is providing our kids’ sex education, and teaching them what to expect as "normal". And if our family’s unspoken rules are “we don’t talk about private stuff”, they are never going to tell us what is secretly filling their eyes and their minds.
As parents — if we don’t talk about these tough traditionally taboo topics, if we don't educate ourselves on what our kids are watching online, if we don't implement strict online filters+precautions+supervision — we WILL be unwittingly raising the next generation of addicts, victims, and perpetrators of abuse... sexual, emotional, and otherwise.
You cannot overestimate the important of arming your children with the tools required to navigate the world in which we live.
3 - Don’t overreact at disclosures.
What if a child in your life starts talking about something you didn't expect? What if you notice sexualized play? What if you overhear a conversation that concerns you? What if they say something that seems shocking?
First — stay calm. Don't go crazy if a child reveals something you didn’t expect. Instead take a deep breath. Whatever you just heard or observed was revealed in your presence because that child trusts you enough to let it out. That's big. That's a gift. Also, overreacting can shut down communication before you've had a chance to hear the rest of the story. Don't destroy that trust with an overreaction.
Second — listen. Hear them out. Don't change your body language or shut the conversation down. It is possible that what you thought you heard was either much bigger or much smaller than you originally understood. Wait for more details to come out. Tell them you're so glad that you two can talk about anything together. Remind them that it's safe.
Third — ask lots of questions. I can't tell you how many times I've leaped to a mental conclusion based on one comment from my child, and then asked "Oh? Why do you think so?" and realized they were talking about something completely different than I first imagined. Ask questions. Lots of them.
Great non-judgmental questions for conversations with your kids include:
"Cool. Why do you think that is?"
"Oh wow, I hadn't heard about that. What makes it important to you?"
"I see. Was this your idea, or did it come from somewhere else?"
"Really? Did that surprise you or did it seem pretty normal?"
Oh ok... so is this what the rest of your friends think is okay, or did they have any opinion about it?"
"How did you feel about that when it happened?"
"Did your feelings change later after you'd had a chance to think it over?"
Fourth — believe them. Even if it seems bizarre or unreal. Even if they’re saying it about someone you think would never do “that”. Tell them you believe them. Let them know they have your confidence.
4 - Teach body consent from infancy onward.
Start extremely young with body names, body consent, and basic principles of safe/unsafe touch... and if you didn't back then, begin now.
This can start as young as age one or two with games, conversations, and general interactions. None of those have to be sexually focused at early ages to be effective.
Teaching methods can include things like the Stop Game, where you wrestle or tickle or roughhouse with your child until they say "stop!". At that moment, you immediately stop and raise your hands up high so they know you are not going to continue. Wait until they say "again!" before continuing the game. Do not re-engage unless they say "again!" If they don't, ask "wanna play again?" Respect their response.
Teach them to play in the same manner with siblings and peers.
Want guidance on those awkward parenting conversations?
Browse my top picks on protecting children from abuse, educating kids about body safety, and arming them against exposure to porn, RIGHT HERE.
5 - Educate sooner, not later.
Don’t wait until something upsetting happens to start discussions. That means you have no time to lose in order to collect healthy books for teaching aids, and have uncomfortable “taboo” conversations.
In addition, there are many ways you can educate your children on consent and boundaries without ever discussing sex or sexuality. Great phrases for this purpose can include:
"If it's not a 'yes!' then it's a nope."
"If someone doesn't seem excited about the idea, give them space and respect their opinion."
"You have the right to expect other people to respect your space."
"Boundaries are sacred, don't violate them."
"No doesn't mean try harder or ask again, it actually just means NOPE."
"If someone hesitates, don't push them."
"Nobody can ever make you do something you don't feel is right."
"If someone hurts you or tricks you, that's because something is wrong with them, not you."
Teach your children overtly that other people's feelings are other people's responsibility. State it out loud, don't just imply it. Model the same expectations for yourself and your family circle.
Teach them that their feelings and choices are their own responsibility, and no one else's. State it out loud, don't just imply it. Model the same expectations for yourself and your family circle.
In these ways, you are not only empowering your children to make safe choices when they encounter unsafe content, you are also taking steps to break the cycles that may exist in your own family history.
After all, isn't that what parenting is all about?