By Elisheva Liss
As we wind down the scholastic year, label the socks, and pack up the duffels, we scan the e-mails about the “pre-camp safety talks” and try to arm our kids with a specific type of safety awareness. Thankfully, our communities have been making progress in the area of educating children towards body boundaries, appropriate vs. inappropriate touch, reporting to safe adults, and general safety. There is still a lot of room for improvement, but I would like to add a piece that I’m not sure gets as much attention, but could help this cause.
We often tend to focus on trying to make efforts to protect our children from becoming victims, which is vital. Yet, it is equally important to educate our children to minimize the likelihood of their becoming perpetrators as well. And I’m not only talking about the teens.
Very, very often in therapy, we hear that a child’s first experience with sexual touch was with another child. Sometimes the other child is a bit older, but other times, they are peers—friends, neighbors, cousins, classmates, or bunkmates. Sometimes these touch experiences register as consensual and exploratory, but sometimes they register as confusing, shameful, upsetting, or traumatic. Even when it does feel enjoyable for them, often their underage bodies and minds encode the episodes with guilt, shame, disgust, and other mixed feelings and associations. These feelings and memories can create problems and impact sexual, emotional, or relational functioning later on in significant ways. What some may not realize is that a child who either knowingly or unwittingly takes advantage of another child in this way is also at risk for psychological damage and other repercussions—both kids are.
So when you are sitting with your children and reading and discussing how no one is allowed to hurt them, touch their private parts, be secluded with them, ask them to look at or touch them in sexual ways, etc., please take the extra minute or two to teach the reciprocal message as well: You, sweet child, are likewise not allowed to touch, hurt, or stare at anyone else’s private parts, or ask them to do that to you.
The thought of one’s own child being at risk for victimizing another is difficult to imagine, but this goes on in most camps and schools, often right under the noses of caring but sometimes oblivious adults and young counselors, and frequently involving children from wholesome families. Sometimes (though definitely not always), children acting out sexually with one another can be an indicator that one or more of the kids involved has been touched inappropriately by an adult or older teen and is mimicking the behavior.
If you have teen children who will be responsible for younger children, encourage them to be cautious to not allow themselves to even get into situations where they are isolated one-on-one with a younger child. This decreases the likelihood of secretive, inappropriate interactions and the danger of mistaken or false allegations, both of which can ruin lives. They should also be careful to lock, hide, and/or filter their devices so that they are not used deliberately or unintentionally to view explicit or troubling material.
While we need to continue to educate children for their own protection, we should also add education and instruction that promotes the safety of others around them too, and hopefully reduce the epidemic of child sexual abuse to whatever extent possible.
Wishing everyone a healthy and safe summer.
For suggested reading on this subject, see the resources section on my website, elishevaliss.com.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her blog, her book—“Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking”—digital courses, and a new virtual wellness program. All can be accessed at ElishevaLiss.com.