I am a trainer for my local Safeguarding Children Board and it is a subject I am passionate about. One of the people who inspires me, as a mum and and as a trainer, is Emily Martinello. Emily is a Sexual Development Consultant in Nova Scotia, Canada and here she talks to SNJ about the importance of teaching our children to know how to say "no".
What research shows us is that up to 80% of women and 30% of men with intellectual disabilities are sexually abused before the age of 18. That is more than four times the rates of their typically developing peers. What we also believe to be true is that more than half of these abuse situations are chronic, meaning by multiple people, or on multiple occasions. There are many components contributing to this high number, and there are opportunities for learning throughout the lifespan that can hopefully reduce each one.
No means No
There’s a stage everyone seems to dread, the “nos”. When children say “no” to everything. I guess no one likes it because it’s annoying. I, frankly, love it. (Full disclaimer: I don’t have my own kids yet- so I love these “stages” more than most!) I love it because I love that children are learning to exert their independence. They’re learning the building blocks to consent.
I was at a dance camp a few weeks ago for children and youth with special needs, and listened to a volunteer fight the “no’s” to trying on a costume. My Sexual Development brain was screaming “who cares? It’s a costume”, but I can see where the volunteer’s helper brain was going “it’s camp, we have costumes, it’s fun!” Luckily, I was saved by the dance teacher who said “it’s okay, she doesn’t like costumes”. PHEW! But how many times does this girl get her no’s rejected on a regular basis? And what is she learning each time? I’ll tell you: that her “no” means nothing. That she doesn’t have the right to say no to something. And really - it’s a costume! If she can’t say no to that and mean it, how is she going to know to say no to the big things?
Of course there’s a second part to “no”- the hearing part. There’s a new trend in caring for children, where saying no is a no-no. Instead, care givers are supposed to say things like “first you need to”, or “not right now”, or “gentle hands”. The problem with this is that children aren’t hearing “no” enough in a meaningful way.
When we think about sexual development, knowing “no” is one of the most important skills we can teach. Saying “no” to things like “do you want to clean your room?”, “can you help me out?”, or “do you want Grilled Cheese for lunch?” is just the beginning. Eventually, there may be bigger “no’s”- whether it be “sex” as a relationship, or maybe it’s some building blocks to keeping children safe. Things like “NO, you can’t come in the bathroom”, “NO, you can’t change my clothes”, “NO, I don’t want your help in the shower”.
There’s some good news, too! We want children to be able to say YES!!! There are many opportunities for healthy, loving choices to be made. This can be things like “do you want to play blocks with me?”, “will you be my friend?” YES! YES! YES! Later on, this could include saying yes to things like, “can I take you on a date sometime?”, “will you kiss me?”, “Can I see a Doctor?” YES! YES! YES! Likewise, hearing “yes” is also valuable. YES, I want to be your friend! YES, I want to play with you! YES, let’s go see the Doctor!
Finding opportunities for teaching yes and no are everywhere - it’s the listening to the answer that’s the hard part. Sometimes it’s all in the way the information is presented, “are you all done?” becomes, “it’s time to clean up now”. “Let’s go outside, okay?” becomes “we’re going to go outside!” Be prepared, if you are the one who asks the question, you’ve got to be the one who accepts the answer.
Knowing the No
The thing is, children with special needs don’t always get the chance to really know the no. Sure, there may be a brief stage of “no’s”, but the stage is often accompanied by a lifetime of "yes’s". As part of education and therapy, compliance is pretty key. But in the real world, over-compliance is dangerous. This raises the concern about children being liked- that being non-compliant might look like being unfriendly, unwilling, or unable. However, typically-developing children don’t typically need to prove that they are friendly, willing or able. At least not by being testing with compliance. Children with special needs shouldn’t need to prove this either - in fact, I’d go on a limb and say they just shouldn’t answer that test. If there’s someone in their life who needs the child to prove who they are, there’s the proof that they’re not welcome.
There’s also another bonus, once a child learns that they can say “no” and mean it, they don’t need to try it out so often. We can use the “no stage” as a platform: to listen to, honour, respect, and admire a child’s ability to be a self-advocate. And ultimately, to set the stage for knowing themselves, No-ing themselves and no-ing others."
You can find Emily on Facebook Sexual Development Consulting or you can ask questions here. Emily is happy to write more posts for us regarding sexual development for our children so what would you like advice on?