For many, the holidays in November and December are a time of family gatherings, vacations, and travel. These gatherings can include family, friends that are like family, blended families, kids’ friends, other adults. Teaching our children that our doors are open and generous can be a benefit to the season: there is a lot of love, graciousness and gratitude during the holidays.
Hopefully during these times parents and caregivers can have opportunities to relax a bit! Perhaps others will help with the kids, and we let our guard down. The kids are with their cousins, Uncle Shaun is going to take a few to the park to shoot hoops, Grandpa mesmerizes them with magic tricks. They run wild and free in the backyard. I love all of the above. I support our kids having these life long bonds with their extended family, creating memories for a lifetime.
To safely enjoy the holidays to their fullest, we must be aware that Holidays can be a higher risk time for children being harmed. The holidays can increase people’s stress level, which often leads to increased physical and emotional abuse as well as higher rates of domestic violence. A more secretive and silent type of abuse children fall victim to during the holidays is sexual abuse. Time and again, when talking with adults (friends, relatives, coworkers) about the holidays, we have heard many stories of their traumatic sexual abuse at the hands of a cousin, a family friend, an uncle/aunt, a grandparent. This subject is always hard to hear, and perhaps you have already dismissed this as something that only happens at certain people’s homes. But the more awareness we have about sexual abuse, the better we can prevent. Sexual abuse crosses all borders – no one is immune. Sexual offenders need access and opportunity to do harm to children. Family gatherings are an opportune time.
I am not suggesting that we don’t participate in these gatherings! The holidays are actually a perfect time for you to revisit your family’s safety communication and take the time to prepare your children. Just like on the drive to visit people you will wear a seat belt because you know it is a safe and smart choice, there are skills you can teach your children of all ages to help keep them safe. I do not recommend tethering your children to you during the holidays–freedom within limits is how our children learn to make good personal safety decisions.
Children deserve to be taught body boundaries, their right to say no, and how to access help when needed. Teaching personal safety isn’t scary, it is empowering.
Personal safety is not a “birds and bees” one-time conversation. It is, in fact, a permanent way to communicate with children that encourages them to gain confidence and clear conversations about their own safety (For skills to teach your kids visit www.kidsafefoundation.org)
Here are a few tips for you to consider for your next holiday gathering.
- Supervise use of technology – especially if older kids are playing with younger kids. (You would be amazed to find what tweens and teens can expose the eight-year olds to.) Remember to include some tech-free holiday fun for children and adults – take out the board games and play some twister.
- Do not force children to hug and kiss relatives and friends. Support children’s choice in how they want to greet people. See blog on Consent.
- Listen to your intuition. If something doesn’t seem right it probably isn’t. Speak up and set limits.
- Be aware of where and with whom your children are. Often it only takes a few minutes for an older child/tween/teen or adult to separate a child from the group and have them alone.
- Note if there are any adults that prefer to hang with the kids. Often they are the most fun for the kids, and everyone is appreciative of their ‘help’ and entertainment. But this is also a common grooming behavior(hyperlink?).
- Have an open door policy for children and adults when playing in the various rooms of the house. Children report that they make different choices with the door open. This is not foolproof by any means but it certainly serves as a deterrent for potential poor choices.
- Let your children know that they have the right to get up and walk away. If they feel uncomfortable, confused or pressured by anyone, they have the right to get up and move away to where they feel comfortable. Explain that it might not be easy, but you will support them in their decision.
- Have regular check-ins with your kids. Eye contact, verbal check-ins, or even a fist bump as they run through the living room lets them know they are not alone.
Ninety percent of the time a child is harmed by someone they know and trust. Most often it is a family member. Break the cycle of family abuse. Preparing yourself and your children by opening the lines of communication about their personal safety is the best way to empower your family and keep them safe.