I thought my daughter would do the right thing if she was put in an uncomfortable situation. We had talked… and talked and talked. I had role played scenarios with her and so I thought she would know exactly what to do. But I hadn’t considered the feelings of guilt and shame she would have, or that she’d be afraid to tell me. Read why we created a safe word for our family as a no-judgment, no-penalty, safe way to communicate.
“Mom, something happened at school yesterday.”
“Mmmm hmmm” I said as I put the car in reverse and pulled out of the garage.
“A boy put his hand in my pants and touched my private parts.”
I felt nearly every vertebra in my neck pop when I swiveled around to look at my daughter in her car seat. I slammed on the brakes and my car jolted, rocking everyone forward. My heart was pounding so loud everyone in the car must have heard it.
I had enough foresight to pause and breathe. And breathe again.
So many thoughts were spinning in my head in those five seconds – which felt like minutes – before I was able to find my voice.
What’s the right way to handle this?
Don’t sound angry, or mad or upset. Be calm.
Who is this boy?
Oh My Gosh, how OLD is this boy?
What happened to everything we’ve talked about?
Why didn’t she say no?
Why did she let him?
Don’t react the wrong way. What is the right way?
I’ve been with her nearly every minute of the past 24 hours, why didn’t she tell me before now?
She’ll shut down if you don’t approach this the right way.
“Can you tell me what happened?” I was trying to keep my voice from giving away tells of strain and revealing just how scared I was. I was absolutely terrified of what she was going to say next.
I was picturing a hundred worst-case scenarios and my grip on the steering wheel was turning my hands white.
“He stuck his hands down my pants…. He did it to my friend too.”
Part of me felt a tinge of relief that it was another four-year-old at school and not some older child or adult. Four year olds, I tried to tell myself, were in a really inquisitive, exploratory stage and body anatomy of the other gender is somewhat of a mystery. It was mostly innocent, but still not OK. Never OK.
“Did you tell any teachers?”
“Where did this happen?”
“It was on the playground.”
And then I was angry. And upset. And eyes-burning-red, smoke-coming-out-of-my-ears-furious.
What happened to all of the conversations we had about unsafe touching and how to say no?
What about the rules that body parts underneath a bathing suit can’t be touched by anyone?
Did she forget?
Will the peer pressure break her and let it happen again?
Why did she let it happen at all?
“Did you forget that we don’t let anyone touch our private parts?”
She shook her head No.
“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday after school when it happened?” My own voice sounded pained, and it was. I wasn’t able to hide it because I couldn’t.
“I didn’t know how…. I thought you would be mad.”
She looked so small in her car seat. And right then I could see all the bad things that could happen to my innocent, naïve, sweet and trusting little girl who was still small enough to fit in a car seat with her legs dangling down and kicking side to side.
A thought popped into my head and before I could filter it, it had launched itself out of my mouth.
“We need a safe word.”
“What is that?” Both of my kids asked in unison.
“This is a very important word that you can use anytime you don’t feel safe, anytime something happens like it did at school and you don’t know how to tell me or Daddy or if you feel afraid to tell us. This can only be used when you need help or someone tries to hurt you, or touch you in a wrong way, or asks you to keep a secret that you need to share with your parents.”
I could see the kids staring at me with big eyes, eating up everything I was telling them and chewing it around in their brains, processing it.
“You can just tell me or Daddy this word and we’ll know to stop whatever it is we’re doing and listen. We can help you. This is a special word, only for our family to use. You can’t tell anyone this special word, it’s only for Daddy, Mommy and you guys to know. You can’t share it with anyone, not your friends, not your cousins and not even your grandparents.”
“And you know what you guys? We won’t ever be mad if you use this safe word and whatever it is you have to tell us, we’ll do our best to help you and make sure you are safe. Always. Always. Always.”
“Ok,” they both chimed in from the back seat and nodded their heads.
We drove to school where I had another conversation about body safety and personal boundaries. Once I kissed and hugged them both goodbye at the door to their classroom, I marched straight to the Director’s office and told the story about how my daughter was inappropriately touched at school.
That night during our dinner conversation, we chose a family safe word.
- Common Tricks Predators Use to Groom & Lure Children
- How to Choose a Safe Word
- Educating Children on Body Safety
- Warning Signs of Physical, Sexual and Emotional Abuse
- Safety Rules Every Child Should Know
- 10 Prevention Tips for Parents