Equipping our children with accurate information about their bodies is an easy first step in abuse prevention that can and should be done with children of all abilities.
A simple but important way to reduce a child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse is to teach the proper names for private parts. We teach children the correct names for pretty much everything from head to toe, but often skip over the anatomically correct words for genitals. Using the proper names for private parts takes away the unnecessary shame and embarrassment associated with the words penis, vagina, and breasts. More importantly, teaching correct terminology means kids have the ability to accurately and confidently describe if someone touches their private parts inappropriately. While some parents express concern that teaching these terms might encourage children to use them a little too freely in public or around other children, the opposite tends to be true. When we speak of our bodies in a matter-of-fact way, the words lose novelty and are viewed as just something everybody has and needs!
Use the correct terms for genitals when bathing and dressing your child. Read books to your child that address all parts of the body. I’ve listed some of my favorites here. Don’t be ashamed if you need to practice reading the book beforehand in order to feel comfortable! The more comfortable you are with discussing ALL parts of the body, the more likely your child will come to you with concerns or questions. Talking openly sets the stage for your child to feel safe enough to ask about confusing situations that could lead to abuse.
Our little ones with Down syndrome might take longer to show interest in identifying body parts, but they are perfectly capable of learning about their own bodies. Children with developmental disabilities often have very little agency over what happens to their bodies. Anything we can do to instill a sense of body ownership will help reduce vulnerability. Talk to your child when helping with hygiene: “I’m going to wipe your penis now so you don’t get sore” or “time to wash your vagina. Mommy will help you rinse off the soap.” This sounds simple and may be annoyingly repetitive, but the communication goes a long way in helping your child understand that their body belongs to them, and they have the right to know what is happening to it and why.
Along the same lines, when you leave your child in the care of another adult during a time they will need help with diapering/toileting, be very clear who is allowed to meet this need and tell your child what to expect: “________ is going to help you wipe when you go potty.”
My son will be in diapers for the foreseeable future. Each time I leave him with a caregiver I remind him, “_________ will be changing your diaper while Mommy is gone.” Even though Ben displays zero modesty and could care less about who is changing him, my hope is over time this will instill in him a sense of ownership over his body. If he comes to expect that a particular person is designated to take care of his diapering needs and he is always told who that person is, then we are setting the foundation for him to be able to recognize when that boundary has been violated.
Many of our children with Down syndrome have limited verbal skills and are not able to ask the same questions about their bodies as a typically developing child. This doesn’t means they aren’t curious or shouldn’t be given the correct vocabulary. It just means we have to be intentional with our words and remember our kids are worth the conversation!