INFORMATION FOR adults who care about INFANTS & TODDLERS
The infant and toddler years can be really challenging. You’re sleep-deprived, trying to manage life generally, and suddenly in a role where job one is keeping your kid safe. Maybe you're a childcare provider with a few babies you're trying to keep on the same nap schedule. Talk about overwhelming!
We are here to help you get started with language you can use right now, things you can do, and ideas to think about. As always, we are just an email away if you don’t find what you’re looking for, if you know of a cool resource we don’t have listed here, or if you need support.
CONSENT & BOUNDARIES
Parents and caregivers can start teaching children about boundaries and consent far younger than most people think! In fact, we recommend modeling safe boundaries and consent when your baby is just a few days old. You might be thinking “What?! How on earth do I do that with a baby? They don’t know anything about sex!” Consent and boundaries aren’t just about sex. They are the basis for healthy, safe relationships of all kinds.
You can model consent and boundaries without even approaching the topic of sex.
Help your child understand
If you notice your kid hugging another person who seems uncomfortable, you can help them understand those cues. You might say, “Do you notice how Allie is pulling away a bit? That might mean she doesn’t want a hug right now. Let’s give her some space. Let’s play with these cool blocks.”
Tell your child that they’re in charge of their body.
Talk to your kid early and often about who is in charge of their body: “You are in charge of your body and who touches it.” You can offer something along the lines of: “Unless it’s about keeping you healthy or safe, you can say no to someone touching you. Tell me anytime if someone makes you uncomfortable.”
Ask your kid before you give them a hug, or kiss, or rub their back. Respect their response if they say no. (We’ve been there when that “no” stings your heart a bit!) This helps model respect for consent and helps them grow confidence in talking about what they need.
When they say stop, listen.
When you’re having tickle time or playing around and your kid says “stop!” or “no!” stop immediately. Then say, “Okay! You said stop, so I’m stopping!” Both stopping and saying that you’re stopping helps identify that you’ve done what they asked. It also helps kids understand that you will listen to and respect them, and models behavior for them if they are playing and a friend says “stop.”
Respect and support your kid’s boundaries with others.
What if Aunt Meg wants a hug and your kid isn’t having it? Respect your kid’s boundaries and be supportive. When kids are forced to show affection, they get the message that they’re not in control of their body. You can offer some alternatives: “Seems like you’re not sure about a hug! That’s okay. Do you want to wave or give Aunt Meg a high-five instead?” If Aunt Meg still goes in for the hug, you can gently but firmly say, “We don’t make Robbie hug anyone. Sometimes he’s just not into it!” Follow up with Aunt Meg later if you need to.
to social media.
Respectfully ask family members to check in with you before they post a photo of your baby or toddler to social media. As your kid gets older, if you snap a cute photo you can say something like: “This is a super cute photo of you and I’d love to share it with our friends and family. Would it be okay if I send it/post it to social media/post it to our shared family album?” This helps build your skills around consent and gives your kid some agency in deciding what is out on the internet about them.
Set and respect your family boundaries.
Talk openly about how everyone in your family must be able to privately dress, take a bath or shower, and do other personal things. If anyone in the household does not respect these rules, an adult should clearly tell them the family rules. This could sound like: “Amelia, in this house we let people have their private time. We need to respect Mommy’s privacy when she is in the bathroom.”
You can also reaffirm the rule with everyone else later, maybe at dinner time: “I want to be sure everyone understands one of our family rules. Who can tell me what we do when someone is in the bathroom? That’s right! We let people have private time!”
Follow your baby or toddler’s cues for what they find uncomfortable: “It seems like you don’t want to say hello to Grandma just yet? That’s ok, maybe we can wave! You can sit with me until you’re comfortable. I’m going to talk with Grandma and you’re welcome to listen.” This helps model for them that it’s okay not to immediately engage and you respect their feelings. It also helps signal your family’s boundary to other adults, and helps grow your child’s confidence in you as their safe person.
Step in if someone isn’t respecting your kid’s boundaries.
Sometimes enforcing boundaries is uncomfortable. AND it’s important to show your child that you will stick up for their boundaries and teach them how to do it. If your child is crying or seems uncomfortable with another adult, it’s your job to step in and say something like, “Our family’s rule is that no one touches anyone else’s body unless it’s about health or safety. Seems like Annie is uncomfortable. I’m going to pick her up/pull her aside with me now.” You can follow up later with the adult in question if need be.
Kids who are raised in a family where empathy is taught, modeled, and
encouraged is important prevention work for bullying, sexual violence, and more! Researchers are clear that teaching kindness isn’t about good manners.
It’s about empathy: when you understand and care about how someone else is feeling.
You can teach empathy to very young children through everyday moments.
Teach kids to recognize others’ feelings and connect to their actions when appropriate.
This is something you can do early and often: notice others around you and narrate how you know they might be feeling a certain way. You can do this with a soft tone and with a hug, so no one feels ashamed. “Hey buddy. Ben started crying when you hit him. That hurt his body and made him really sad. We don’t want him to be sad or to hurt other people.” Then you can ask your child how they would feel if someone hit them.
Whether someone bumps their head on a cabinet or is hurt by someone else, teaching your child to stop and think about what is happening is important. This builds empathy and it also helps teach them early that they can be an engaged bystander.
You can say things in the moment like: “Ouch! Daddy just bumped his head on the cabinet! Daddy, that must have hurt! Are you okay?” or “Oh that character in the movie looks really sad that the other kids left her out! What would you do to help her?”
Encourage children to respond when someone is hurt physically or emotionally.
Learn more about empathy by visiting our resources page here!
SUPPORTING YOUR CHILD'S FEELINGS
When you show your kid that you welcome their feelings (no matter how much you internally cringe at that screech), you show them that their feelings are okay. You also show them that they can trust you no matter what kind of feelings or behavior they’re bringing to you. Building this trust early can help if your child needs to tell you about an unsafe or uncomfortable situation later.
Emotional health and feeling connected to others are two big ways we can help prevent all kinds of sexual violence, including child sexual abuse, in our communities. Here are a few things you can do to help your child feel connected and to help them grow into emotionally healthy people:
Narrate how your baby or toddler may be feeling: “Wow, seems like you’re really frustrated right now! Let’s take a couple of deep breaths together.” or “Oh this song seems to make you so happy! Yay clapping!” This helps children name feelings as they grow. It also may help them start to get some coping skills around feelings that may feel icky or scary to them.
Assure them that their feelings matter and you’re not going anywhere.
You can say something like, “I hear that you’re really mad right now. It’s okay to have big feelings. I’m here for you. I’m not scared of your feelings.” And just sit. This reinforces for them that you can handle their feelings, which is important at this stage of their life and later.
for telling you.
As your child shows you their feelings, thank them for telling you: “Thank you for letting me know you're mad! That’s really helpful for me to know.”
It’s best not to try to create a learning moment in the middle of Meltdown Town. You can always follow up later with things like: “You were really upset earlier. How can I help you when you feel that way?” or “Sometimes I get really mad when I feel like people aren’t listening to me. Was that part of what made you mad earlier?” These things help your kid feel seen, help them see you’re there to help and normalize their big feelings.
Learn more about supporting your kid's feelings by visiting our resources page here!
Part of keeping your kid safe relates to their physical body. We do what we can to manage what harm could come their way. We teach them that they need to look both ways before crossing the street. We talk about brushing teeth twice a day to stay healthy and strong. Talking about bodies is one way to help keep our kids safe.
And, we want to be clear: it is NEVER up to a child to prevent abuse. It’s up to the adults in a child’s life, and
up to all of us as a community.
Here are some helpful hints about body safety:
For younger children, teach concrete rules.
If you’ve ever tried to explain anything nuanced to a toddler, you know their brains aren’t developed enough to understand it. You can say something like: “Please talk with me if anyone - our family, a friend, or anyone else - touches your private parts.” Repeat this every now and then to help reinforce it.
Teach your child the proper names of body parts.
It’s helpful for kids to know that their leg is a leg if they need to tell you their leg hurts, right? They also need to know what to call their genitals. Help them identify body parts and use words like vagina, vulva, penis, and scrotum. This gives your child the correct language to understand and ask questions about their body. It helps reduce the shame we as a society have around genitalia and normalizes these kinds of conversations. Calmly and confidently teaching your child the names of their genitals can also help them tell you about any kind of behavior that could lead to sexual abuse.
Instead of asking “were you good/did you listen,” ask “did you feel safe?”
It’s tempting to ask “were you good for the babysitter?” or “did you listen to Aunt Penny while Mama was gone?” when reuniting with your child after some time away. However, asking your child “did you feel safe when I was gone?” helps your child understand that their safety is the most important thing to you. It also could open the door for them to tell you if they didn’t feel safe, giving you the opportunity to address it.
No secrets, only surprises!
People who abuse children may tell a child that the abuse is their secret and they can’t tell anyone. As a result, secrets aren’t safe. Surprises are different. You can explain that surprises are something exciting or fun: “We don’t have secrets in our family. A secret is when someone says you can’t tell anyone and it makes you feel icky or sad or mad inside. I need you to tell me if someone says you have to keep a secret. Secrets aren't safe. A surprise is different. It’s something you’re happy and excited about - like a birthday surprise! A surprise for Mommy’s birthday is good.”
The idea of our kids as sexual beings can be a tough one, especially when they’re young. And, children are curious about sex and sexual feelings. Healthy sexuality is someone's
ability to freely and responsibly understand, enjoy, and control their sexual and reproductive experiences.
We know that part of what helps prevent sexual abuse is changing societal norms about sex. This starts with all of us - including parents of young children.
Here are some things you can do!
Know what is age-appropriate for your child.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between what is normal, age-appropriate sexual behavior and what isn’t. This great resource helps break sexual behaviors down by age.
Talk about bodies in a positive way.
When you’re talking about bodies with your infant or toddler, you can talk about how everyone’s body is good and special. You can talk about how our bodies - and everyone else’s - deserve respect. This includes how we treat our own bodies. This helps build a foundation for you to have deeper conversations about bodies later in your child’s life.
Honestly answer questions about sex and bodies.
The more we can answer our kids’ questions and talk about bodies and sex confidently, the less shame kids may feel about those topics. If you’re not sure how to answer a question or need to think about how to word it, it’s okay to say something like, “Hmm. That’s a great question! Let me think about how to explain it and we can talk about it later.” Just make sure to follow up!
Respecting different gender expressions is part of healthy sexuality, too!
Leaving room for different gender expressions can help kids see the world in a sexually healthy way. You can talk about how some people are girls, some are boys, and some are neither, somewhere in between, or both.
You can also encourage kids to play with all kinds of toys instead of limiting them to “boys toys” or “girls toys.” We can talk about how clothes don’t have to be “boys clothes” or “girls clothes” and that it’s great for people to wear what they feel good and comfortable in.