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Encouraging Healthy Sexual Boundaries In the Foster Home

SHERYL OVERBY  MS  NCC  LIMHP  www.sheryloverby.com

Woodhaven Counseling Associates  402-592-0328

All humans have to learn boundaries, either by modeling or teaching in early childhood; it simply is not something hardwired into the brain.  It would be nice if all the youth who come to your home had good boundaries, but chances are, you will have some work to do.    Since part of the definition of healthy sexuality is that it happens in private, most children and teens simply do not know that there is anything other than what they have seen in their history or via our current American sexualized culture.  Families are the perfect place to offer an alternative and healthy view of sexuality.  Here are my best tips on how to help the kids in your home.

#1 Create an Atmosphere of Sexual Respect

Sexual Respect

  1. Do not allow suggestive or obscene language from anyone of any age. This includes sexual innuendos and jokes that creates the message that sex is an everyday thing.
  2. Do all you can to avoid objectification, which is seeing a person as an object, most typically a sexual object.
  3. Sexually explicit materials such photos, videos, catalogs, music, computer games or TV programs should be completely eliminated from the household, and the garage, and underneath the seat in your truck.
  4. Reinforce healthy messages like: “every person, young and old, deserves to have their body respected and sex is a great and wonderful thing for adults, when they think and think about when to share their bodies” or “sex can be a special way to connect to another person, but now is not the time for you”.
  5. It is difficult to traverse the wide gap between clothing fashion trends and sexual respect, but you gotta try. It is important for both girls and boys to know a) That even if a girl wears something sexually provocative, it does not give anyone the right to abuse her AND b) That boys (especially age 11-14) have erections at seeing even the slightest bit of cleavage and the girls can help them out by not wearing sexually provocative clothing AND c) That even if something is in style, it is not allowed if it contributes to the objectification of that person, male or female.

Sex Education

  1. All children need basic information about how they develop sexually. Make sure they have an age appropriate book that they can keep in their room and look at any time to answer their questions about sex.
  2. They also will benefit from an atmosphere in which it is OK to talk about sex, but you will have to bring up the subject often so they know it is OK to talk about it. Sometimes, you will be the one doing all the talking.
  3. Appropriate words for body parts, such as penis, vagina, breasts, and buttocks, will give the youth helpful words to use to describe themselves, especially if they have to talk about sexual activity or sexual abuse.

Saying NO

  1. Youth need to learn that they have the right to assertively say “no” when someone touches them ANY WHERE or in ANY WAY they do not like. Help them to practice this with peers, siblings and adults.
  2. A youth should NEVER be pressured into touching someone or showing affection if they are not comfortable.
  3. For teenagers, both young women and young men need to know that NO MEANS NO.
  4. Remind everyone that all sexual activity is consented by both parties every single time, even between a couple who has been together for years and years. Both parties have the freedom to say yes, and both parties have the freedom to say no.

 

#2 New Rules to Prevent Future Problems

Being Alone With One Other Person

  1. If your youth has problematic sexual behaviors or if they behave seductively or aggressively, they need direct supervision! This means they are never alone with another child and sometimes this includes older children and other adults.
  2. You may need to be able to both SEE and HEAR everything your youth does and says when they are with others. This eliminates any anxiety when confused or ambivalent about the intent of a behavior.
  3. Consult a therapist to decide the supervision needs of a child with a history of sexual abuse. Some youth need very little, others need very firm limits and structure.
  4. The goal of supervision is to have “in the moment coaching” for problem solving, social skills and to help them manage feelings.
  5. Siblings are not allowed to provide supervision; this alters the family dynamic and creates an unhealthy balance among siblings that could facilitate additional problems.
  6. Remember, children do not need “foreplay” in order to have a desire for sexual behavior, it only takes a child about 12 seconds to invade another child’s boundary or body.

Touching

  1. All children need NON SEXUAL touch. If a youth’s only form of affection in the past has been via sexuality, they will need to learn how to show and receive affection in non-sexual ways again and again, and again.
  2. Do not be afraid to touch your child or teen, however, it is advised that the touching be interruptible or observable. Please consult with the youth’s therapist to identify what types of touch will be the most helpful.
  3. Help your youth learn the appropriate use of all different types of healthy touch. They include: affection, brotherly love, comfort, friendship, encouragement, comradery, greetings, praise, nurturing and playfulness.
  4. Be cautious about wrestling and tickling, as common as these behaviors are, they are often tinged with sexual overtones and can put a younger child in a weak or humiliating position.
  5. Do not allow other children to sit on the lap of a youth with sexualized behavior.
  6. Adults in the home should also show NON SEXUAL affection towards each other in front of the children (hugging, holding hands, light kissing). They can learn that affection is a part of sexual activity, but not always, and there is a way for a couple to show affection in public that is NON SEXUAL.

Privacy

  1. Everyone has a right to privacy. All the youth in your home should be taught to knock when a door is closed and adults need to role model the same behavior. Modesty is the best policy.
  2. Young people also deserve to have privacy with their thoughts, feelings, personal belongings, personal space and time.
  3. Children and teens who have been abused or who have sexually harmed another person deserve the right to privacy when determining who needs to know about their history.
  4. Don’t forget that adults need privacy too, especially if engaged in sexual activity. Lock the bedroom door always and make sure children cannot hear sexually related noises.  This is extremely overwhelming and arousing for a youth who may not have a healthy understanding of sexuality.
  5. In general, it is recommended that youth who are already confused about sexuality have separate bedrooms and bathroom time. Every child needs a place and time when they can be alone and have personal time.
  6. If a youth is scared at night, work out a plan to help them feel safe without sleeping in bed with another person.
  7. Post and enforce the list of PRIVACY RULES for children and older youth; see handout attached.

#3 Interrupt Patterns of Unhealthy Sexual Behavior

Manage Arousal

  1. Help children and teens differentiate between feelings and behaviors. It is normal to have all kinds of feelings, including sexual feelings.  However, everyone does not always act on all the feelings he or she has.
  2. Remember girls gets just as aroused as boys, it’s just not visible. Both boys and girls need to understand what is happening in their bodies and to know how they should react.
  3. Some children and teens need very specific instructions on how to distract themselves when aroused and how to decide when it’s OK or not OK to touch themselves or masturbate.
  4. Youth who have been sexually abused may have trauma related flashbacks associated with arousal. It is very important to change this pattern if they are to have a healthy sex life with a partner as an adult.  Please seek the assistance of a therapist if you think this is happening.
  5. If a child (before puberty) is touching their own private parts, it is for very different reasons than a teen or adult due to the lack of hormones and sex drive. I prefer the term “self touch” rather than “masturbation”.
  6. Young children really benefit from having relaxing activities or physical activities that will change the body’s arousal pattern. Give them a list of things that they can do without permission.
  7. Both children and teens need to know the dos and don’ts regarding touching themselves, proper hygiene and how to properly care for the private parts of their bodies.
  8. Helping your child with arousal will go along way to prevent child on child sexual assault or problematic sexual beheavior (psb).

 

Understand that sexuality fills an emotional void; then fill that void in non-sexual ways

  1. Need for love and belonging. Help each youth create connections with adults in non-sexual ways, so they feel attachment and caring from others. Remember that sexuality imitates the feeling of closeness and love in the brain.  Many kids in foster care are horribly lonely; but convince themselves that they don’t need friends.
  2. Need to feel competent.  Help the kids in your home find something they are good at and encourage them. Help them fit in with at least one friend or join a club or team with a shared activity.
  3. Need for comfort when upset or stressed. Many children’s first choice of comfort is self-touch, please help them learn other ways to comfort themselves without feeling shame or embarrassment.
  4. Need for power. A person who has been abused will naturally want to compensate my controlling something else.  Give your youth something to be “in charge of” and ask for their advice regarding this subject. Teach the appropriate use of drawing straws, taking turns and rotating responsibilities so the foster youth have equal power with other siblings.
  5. Need for play and fun. Playing and having fun is one of the best ways to release stress or simply enjoy yourself.  The second best way to release stress and enjoy yourself (at least for adults) is by having sex.
  6. Need for sensory pleasure. Let’s face it, sex feels good, your body feels good and your brain is filled with endorphins.  But there are other ways to also get pleasure through the senses.
  7. Need for affection. Sometimes the need for affection is directly confused with feeling aroused and what the youth actually needs is nurturing or cuddling.  This is a little tricky in a foster home setting, as cuddling may be confused for sexual intentions and advice from a therapist or service provider is recommended.
  8. Need to avoid feeling intense pain. Being pre-occupied with sexuality fills the empty spaces in your brain so you don’t have to think about the pain in your life. Help the youth find other ways to fill this space with hobbies or other interests; better yet, help them learn to tolerate the pain in small doses and express emotions in healthy ways.
  9. Need to feel safe. In order for a child to develop emotionally, they must feel physically and emotionally safe. That means there is no threat of further abuse, shame or guilt.  Sexuality can become a coping skill by manipulating others; which also protects the youth from feeling vulnerable or weak.

Stop/Limit use of Pornography

  1. Computer and internet time should be monitored to the best of your ability. Remember, the youth has more time, energy and motivation to break through the parental controls software than the parent has to maintain it.
  2. The absolute best defense is your relationship with the youth in your home, not punishments. Talk, teach, coach, and help your youth manage what they are exposed to on the internet and how to interact with others in safe and healthy ways.
  3. Girls are just as likely to get involved in pornography as boys. In my experience, boys tend to search for porn online and girls tend to find it by accident.  But once they get exposed, they can’t resist wanting to see more.
  4. Please be willing to talk to them about what happens online and in social media, or find someone who will.
  5. 93% of teens use the internet every day and 24% use it “almost constantly”. It’s almost a full time job to manage the social media the youth in your home will have access to.  Even if it’s only via friends’ phones and the internet at school. So, welcome to your new hobby.
  6. Be informed about Cyber-bullying and sexting, which are both much more common than sexual predators online. This directly ties into emotional needs as described above.
  7. It’s a whole new world. Studies in 2013 found that 59% of children are using social networking by age 10 and 75% of children age 0 to 8 use mobile devices that can access the internet.   Children and teens have no idea that the sexual images that they will see online do not happen in real life, in healthy relationships.  This has the ripple effect of damaging future relationships.
  8. Pornography is the exact opposite of sexual respect. Healthy sexuality means ADULTS have sexual activity in a RELATIONSHIP with a REAL LIVE PERSON, not an image on the computer screen, which may or may not be real.  Make sure the adults in the youth’s life model this message in their own behavior.

 

Let’s be honest, the rules about private parts are usually not talked about and not talking about them makes a child vulnerable.

You know there are unspoken rules about all sorts of things: what to do in church, when and where to pass gas, how to pick your nose, and when to ask a lady if she is pregnant.  If you didn’t know, the rule is to NEVER ask.  It’s hard figuring out all these rules as a kid, especially the rules about private parts.  This makes children vulnerable to participate in sexual behavior because they simply don’t know what the rules are.  Even when older children do know the rules, they might not have the sophistication to know how to handle stress, control sexual urges, or respond to unintentional exposure of explicit material (which by the way, will happen to 70% of them).

Kids get mixed messages about sexuality.

To complicate things further, kids simply don’t know the difference between acting sexy and acting sexual.  Think about the messages given by you, friends and family, or society at large.  Young girls are applauded for twerking during a dance recital but are promptly told they are being “nasty” by prancing down the hallway.  So, what if their piano teacher wants them to act sexy? Or their cousin tells them to play strip poker? How will they know what to do? Well, hold on to your hat, you will have to talk about sexuality and teach them the rules.

Yes, I know it will be hard, but you can do it.

You will have to teach your child about Privacy Rules; the rules about the private places on their body.

You will have to tell them about sexual behavior and the rules that go with it. You can call it touching rules or privacy rules or just the rules.  Telling a child what is OK and what is NOT OK concerning their private parts goes a long way in preventing sexual abuse.

You can be casual.  Talk about the rules concerning your child’s body in general.  Say, “brush your teeth, use a Kleenex when you pick your nose, and oh, here are some rules about your private parts.”  Or, bring up the rules during bath time, when you encourage your child to wash their own private parts.  Mention the rules when you see someone breaking them (or following them) on TV.

Or, do it formally. Sit everyone in the family down, including teenagers, and have a family meeting.  Go through the rules and explain that you, as the parent, are there to help them follow the rules.  Make a poster of the rules and put it up somewhere.  Don’t forget to add that all grownups are supposed to respect the rules that kids have about their private parts.  If you don’t want to make your own poster, you can download these examples Privacy Rules Cards    Please pick whichever way works best for you, just do it.

Rule # 1   It is NOT OK to touch other people’s private parts.  

If needed, explain to very young kids that private parts are the places on their body that are covered by a swimsuit.  Pretty simple and straightforward, right?  Except nothing about sexual abuse is straightforward.  That is why you will need to have more than one, maybe even dozens, of conversations about privacy rules.  To be more specific with this rule, you may add:  If an older person makes you touch their private parts, it is not your fault and you will not get into trouble.  The older person is almost always to blame for breaking this rule since they are older and know more about what is OK and not OK.

A case in point is the 7 year old child abuse victim who is forced to “do things” (sexual things) to a much older youth. For years, the victim was asked if anyone had “touched him inappropriately,” and of course he responded with the technically correct answer of “no.”  Even worse, was that he felt responsible for his abuse, and his own traumatic memories, since he was the only one “doing the things.”

         broke yours off2

Rule # 2  It is NOT OK for anyone to touch your private parts.

This rule has an exception:  Sometimes, very rarely, it’s OK for someone to touch your private parts.  If you are not sure, please ask me or someone you trust ( also rule #8).  One way to tell if a type of touch on private parts is OK, is to think about secrets.  The times it is OK to touch private parts is when it is NOT a secret, like when someone is changing a baby’s diaper or the doctor checks them for medical reasons.  If someone touches your private parts and you feel like it should be secret, then that is NOT OK, and this is called secret touching (thank you Jan Hindman and the Very Touching Book).

Side note: I also like to use the term secret touching instead of bad touching so kids don’t associate sex with something “bad.”  Their future spouse or partner will appreciate it.

Rule # 3 It is NOT OK to look at other people’s private parts (in real life or in pictures).

This rule gives you (and me) a chance to talk about pornography.  I believe it is especially important to enforce this rule as generations of kids become more advanced with technology and even toddlers know how to access the internet.  Unfortunately, the internet is filled with billions of inappropriate images and pornography, mostly homemade.  However, it is natural and healthy for children to be curious about the difference between the private parts of boys and girls.  There are lots of good sex education books available with cartoon drawings of private parts that are appropriate, healthy and positive for children. Please visit the book store and find one that matches your family’s values and place it in your child’s room.  Then remind them: it’s OK to look at pictures of private parts in this book that I gave you since it will help you know how bodies are made.

My advice about pornography for adults :   Please don’t have pornography in the house or on any electronic device your child even touches.   Or in the car, or the attic, or the box in the basement leftover from college that actually belongs to your old roommate. I haven’t met a kid yet that didn’t find the “hidden” porn collection. Let’s be real, kids have more motivation, time, and energy to go looking for porn and other “adult” items than adults have the motivation, time, and energy to keep the same items locked up and hidden.  Please just think about it, even if you think it’s OK for adults to look at porn, it is really damaging to kids.

Rule # 4  It is NOT OK to show your private parts to other people.

This rule is the counterpart of “looking” at private parts in rule #3.  Younger kids need this concept split into 2 rules to cover all the bases.  I like this rule since it will help prevent your child from being used for child pornography.  It happens more often than you think.  Again, follow the advice in Rule #3 as to help kids with their natural curiosity to know what the private parts of the opposite sex look like.

Rule #5 It is NOT OK to take pictures of private parts.

As of 2017, the average age of a child getting a smart phone or internet capable mobile device is 10.3.  That means children as young as 4th grade have the ability to send and receive sexualized images of themselves or their peers.  Current research indicated that about 15 percent of kids age 12 to 17 had either sent or received a sexualized image from a peer.  So, besides hoping that your child will be in the other 85%, lets plant the seed early that this behavior is NOT OK.  Private parts are special and sharing them, even in a photo or an app on a smart phone is a big decision that needs to be made when you are much much older.  To read the research on sexting, look here:  https://cyberbullying.org/new-teen-sexting-data

Rule # 6  It is OK to touch yourself if you are alone and behind a locked door and do not take too much time.

OR

Rule #6A   It is OK to touch your private parts to keep them clean.

This rule doesn’t really have all that much to do with preventing sexual abuse, but since all human being touch their privates, even if it’s only to wash them, the rule about touching yourself needs to be explained.

OK, get ready, this rule is a tricky one; stay with me.  Many, many people have strong opinions about touching their own private parts, and you may already know how you will handle this topic.   But maybe I have some new information for you to consider?  I believe that kids need guidance.  You may not believe me, but before puberty, before the influx of hormones, children who touch themselves are most likely doing it for comfort, not sexual satisfaction.  Some children are very sexualized because of their environment or history and it would appear that they are trying to achieve a climax of sorts with their genital stimulation.  I have specifically chosen not to use the term masturbation, as I believe that word describes adult sexual behavior.  When children talk to me about their genital stimulation, their desire is to relieve stress, feel better, end anxiety, or cope with a difficult situation.  You will have to trust me that they are not thinking, “oh, I’m aroused and I want an orgasm.”    If you have a kid that seems to really be compelled (not the same as a sex drive) but very powerful indeed, to touch their own private parts, then please use balance in helping them understand themselves.  I know it’s tempting, but telling a child that genital stimulation is nasty, gross, or perverted can damage your child emotionally.

Rule # 7 It is NOT OK to make others uncomfortable with your behavior or language when it is sexual or wrong for the situation.

These rules are all about BOUNDARIES.  Very simply,every kid will be less likely to be sexually abused if they are not confused about acting sexy or acting sexual.  These boundaries are 100 percent learned, either directly or indirectly from a child’s environment and the people in that environment.  This rule is helpful when teaching your child what’s OK and what’s NOT OK if they or anyone else:  tells a dirty joke, says Uranus (the planet), makes sexual hand gestures, calls their sister butt-face, or imitates Miley Cyrus’ twerking. Let’s go back to the statistic that 70% of children will be accidentally exposed to explicit sexual material on the internet. It may seem like you are powerless, but you do have a choice.  The choice is if you will teach them about what they see and hear OR stay silent about what they see and hear.

 

Rule #8 It is NOT OK to talk about private parts for fun with other kids.  If you have a question about privacy or sex, please ask a grown-up.

Almost all kids are exposed to some sort of sexualized information or images via their phones, social media or plain ole TV.  They want to know what all the fuss is about, especially if these images are immediately removed without explanation.  The most likely source to discuss these questions is with their friends, and the most likely source of misinformation is their friends.   The age in which this occurs is age 8 or 9.  Yup, that’s about 3rd grade.  Your kids are talking about sexual things in 3rd grade, trying to make sense of it all.  And if they tell you they have seen pictures of “naked people doing things” aka pornography aka sexualized images, then you are in for a great big discussion.  Remember, if the rule is to ask a grown up, that also means the grown up MUST give correct and helpful answers.

Rule #9  It is OK to tell (insert name here) if you have broken a privacy rule.  They will try to help you.

So this is rule can help in two different situations in which a child knows that they have broken a privacy rule.  First, it could help when a child is coerced to break a privacy rule by an older youth or adult as a means of sexual abuse, and the child doesn’t understand that their cooperation is not the same as consent.  Second, it could help in situations in which a child has a problem following the rules and they are afraid to ask for help.  It may be that the child broke a privacy rule before they knew what the rules were or they have broken a rule and are afraid they will get into trouble if they ask for help.  There are many times when children need consequences for their behavior, but this is not one of them.  Consequences alone will not solve this problem if a child feels compelled to participate in sexual behaviors with other children.  If you learn that your child has this problem, or you are unsure if your child’s behavior is concerning,  please seek professional advice, read other articles on this website or go to NCSBY.org for more information.

Rule #10  If someone else breaks a rule, tell an adult you trust and keep telling until someone helps you.

The purpose of this rule is to encourage kids to talk about sexually inappropriate acts, not to make them feel bad for keeping secrets. Only 20% of sexually abused children report sexual abuse voluntarily and there is whole list of reasons why.    Children can be coerced, tricked, bribed, and threatened into doing things and keeping secrets EVEN THOUGH they sort of know it is breaking this rule.  Children are not fully developed human beings and are NEVER at fault for complying with abusive acts or not telling someone sooner.

 

Rule # 11  If you are not sure about something, ask someone to help you decide.

So even if we include the exception to every rule, you cannot really cover everything that could possibly happen.  Therefore, the 11th rule is the net to catch everything else that falls through the cracks.  One word of caution, you might be faced with some difficult questions, like your 10 year old asking about the word orgasm or worse, what “69” means.  You better be ready, ‘cuz it could happen.  And if you go back on your word and avoid the question, don’t worry, the internet won’t let them down, it has plenty of answers.

Main Points About The Rules

  1. Don’t wait, it won’t be easier or better later; you can start teaching the rules as soon as they can take off their own diaper.  If you want to download one of my versions of a privacy rules poster, look at this post Privacy Rules Cards
  2. Be simple; there are 11 rules and you want your child to follow them. You should pick the ones that are most important to you and your situation; if you child is very small, just pick two or three of the rules to start with.
  3. Talk about it, mention it, give examples, notice things on TV, make a poster, bring up the rules whenever you can.  You will need to go over these concepts again and again to be the most effective.
  4. There is a very good chance your child will accept these rules without question and be grateful that now they know what to do (and not do) about their private parts.
  5. You will have to follow the rules too if you are going to be completely effective in preventing sexual abuse.  Is your porn collection more important than that??  Just saying.
  6. Human sexuality is complicated and there are more issues to think about and talk about. But start with the basics. You can get into the other stuff as the child gets older and sees you, hopefully, as the best resource for his/her questions about sexuality.  Check out Dr. Laura Bermans’ book “Talking To Your Kids About Sex” for more great ideas.

 Sexual abuse is real, and now preventing sexual abuse can be real too.

When a kids knows what is OK and NOT OK, then they will know something isn’t quite right IF an older youth or an adult tries to convince them It’s OK, or no big deal to look at porn and wrestle in their underwear, or pose for a picture.  I know I know, it’s not a visual you want to have.  So have this visual, your child will say “NO!  My mom said looking at naked people is against the rules and it’s NOT OK, so I want to go home now.”  Wouldn’t that be a great thing?

For more information on sexual abuse prevention, problematic sexual behavior (PSB) or child on child sexual assault visit these websites:

www.darkness2light.org (sexual abuse prevention)
www.nctsn.org (National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
www.stopitnow.org (sexual abuse prevention hotline)
www.ncsby.org (National Center for Sexual Behavior of Youth)

Reference:

Silovsky, J.F. (2009). Taking Action: Support for Families of Children with Sexual Behavior Problems. Vermont: Safer Society Press.