Conversation Starters: More Important than Parents May Realize

Untitled design.jpg

Building confidence and self-esteem in your kids will give them a solid foundation they will benefit from for a lifetime. One way to do this is by asking them questions and listening earnestly to their answers. Let them know you truly value their opinion and what they have to say matters. I teach child sexual abuse prevention to parents and one of the methods I believe is the strongest to predict, prevent or catch child sexual abuse is to use conversation starters before and after you drop off your kids anywhere they will be in the care of others. This includes family members, pre-school, daycare, neighbors, school, and sports because 90 percent of abuse is at the hand of someone they know and trust. Of that 90 percent, 30 percent of the perpetrators are family members, 60 percent are perpetrators are people the family knows.

Asking your kid point blank if they have been touched inappropriately is confusing, scares kids, and can cause emotional harm. Using conversation starters is an effective method to build a bond with your kids. Their answers will shed light on any issues they may be struggling with such as bullying, eating disorders, anxiety, or homework. Their answers will also highlight all the positive interactions in your kid’s life. You may learn what their new interests are, what are they excelling at, what is motivating them, who their new friends are, or who is their favorite teacher.

Have you ever been frustrated when you asked your kid how their day was and the answer you got in return was “good”, “fine”, or “it sucked”? Asking kids how their day was can be confusing to them because they can experience a range of different feelings throughout the day. They may have hated P.E. but loved art. They could have made a new friend and failed a test. Their excitement and emotions can ebb and flow throughout the day.

The key to getting your kids to open up is to ask open-ended questions and then wait for their answer. If they are quiet just allow the quietness to hang in the air. One of two things will happen, they will either speak to fill the void or they will remain quiet but possibly reflecting on your question. Wait awhile and try a question about a completely different subject. If they don’t answer that question, tell them you respect that they might not feel like it right now and that you are there for them whenever they do feel like talking and leave it at that. Overwhelming them with too many questions will make shut down or assume they are in trouble. Pick new questions daily and rotate them over the month instead of asking the same questions every day.

Here are conversation starters to help parents get more insightful answers from their kids:

Before drop-off:

What are you most looking forward to today at school/camp/sport?

Who are your favorite people at (name of location)?

Who are your least favorite people at (name of location)?

Which activities do you enjoy most at (name of location)?

Which activities do you not like at (name of location)?

If you were in charge today what would you do differently?

After pick-up:

What was your favorite part of today?

What was the worst part of today?

What/who made you laugh today?

What was the nicest thing someone did for you today?

What was the nicest thing you did for someone today?

What class was your favorite today?

Who did you eat lunch with?

Who did you play with at recess?

What is the most popular thing to do at recess?

Who is your favorite team mate?

When were you the happiest today?

When were you bored today?

Did you need help with anything today?

What interesting thing did you learn today? Who taught you?

Were there any questions you were afraid or embarrassed to ask?

What do you think you should do/learn more of at school?

What do you think you should do/learn less of at school?

What is your teacher’s/coach’s number one rule?

Does anyone have a hard time following the rules?

Did anyone push your buttons today?

If you could change one thing about today what would it be?

To keep the conversation flowing and to help you dig deeper, add a phrase like “tell me more”. I hope these examples will inspire you to come up with more questions that fit your kid and their situation. Listening and accepting their answers without diminishing their responses will help to build trust so they feel safe when they need to tell you something you might not want to hear.  

Attention Parents: Make Time For This Critical Back-to-School Tradition

Jaiden 1st day of 3rd grade.jpg

I love the start of the school year and shopping with my kids for back-to-school supplies. I get as much joy as they do buying simple things like new pencils, paper, backpacks, and lunch bags. It is an exciting time full of new classrooms, friends, and teachers. The best part is seeing the first day of school pictures my friends post of their kids on social media. Their shiny new shoes and clean clothes that probably didn’t make it till the end of the day without scuff marks.

This photo is my daughter, Jaiden, on her first day of third grade. It is a bittersweet picture because while it’s one of my favorite pictures of her, it was also the picture used to show the jury in the molestation case against her teacher.

Two weeks into third grade, Jaiden was molested by her teacher. I taught her from the time she could form sentences to speak up if anyone had touched her inappropriately. Thankfully she did just that.  Unfortunately, the many victims that came before her were not taught to speak up, which resulted in the teacher molesting students for seven years before getting caught.

I have been teaching child sexual abuse prevention for the last ten years and what I find most disturbing is that parents and schools would rather not discuss the topic because it makes them uncomfortable. In the book, The Socially Skilled Child Molester, author, and psychologist Carla van Dam, says child predators deliberately target families and organizations that are too uncomfortable, too polite, or too shy to discuss inappropriate behavior or have not been trained in child sexual abuse prevention.

Having that critical discussion with your son or daughter should be the number one tradition on your back-to-school list every year. Make it a part of your annual traditions just like shopping and pictures. The discussion should evolve as your kids age to include age appropriate information. The purpose is not to instill fear or make your kids feel like they can’t trust anybody, but to empower them to speak up when something happens. Knowledge is power and educating your kids makes them able to discern what behavior is worth trusting and what isn’t.

Before you have the discussion with your kids, do your own homework on the topic and be sure you are not relying on myths. While stranger danger is real, 90 percent of victims are molested by someone they know and trust. Predators are very good at their job of being the favorite teacher, fun coach, helpful neighbor or friend’s older sibling.  

Given how common it is for the offender to be a known and trusted individual, it’s imperative to focus on behaviors and boundary setting. Here are three key areas to cover:

1.       Teach your kids how to identify their “gut” instincts, trust them, and have the courage to act on them. Start by using examples of scary things such as rattle snakes, animals with sharp claws, or fear of heights. Explain that uncomfortable feeling they get when they look over a cliff or see a scary animal is their body’s way of telling them they are not safe.

2.       Establish body autonomy and consent. Your child should feel confident that they are in charge of their own body. Letting kids choose their own clothes and hairstyles is an easy way to empower your kids to feel they are in control and will give you one less battle to fight. Do not force your kid to hug or kiss anyone including relatives and teach them to ask others before hugging and kissing them.

3.       Explain inappropriate touching and boundaries. Always use the anatomically correct names for all body parts. Give very specific examples of what is allowed and what is not allowed. When something happens that makes them uncomfortable they should remove themselves from the situation and tell a trusted adult.

No child is safe from the vulnerability of being preyed upon. We can’t be there all the time to protect them. Help them learn how to protect themselves. Empowering your kids with the knowledge to set boundaries, speak up when they are crossed, and know they are in control of their bodies are valuable lessons they will use the rest of their lives. This is what I did for my daughter, Jaiden, and we are both forever grateful I made the effort.