One of the greatest horrors of the Larry Nasser story is that parents were often mere feet away from these girls while they were being molested. The people most invested in a child’s safety had no idea that anything violent was occurring, and these girls did not reveal their discomfort at the time. These parents are beyond distraught now, and often filled with guilt. I do not blame them for what happened. They were deceived by Nasser and their children weren’t able to communicate their distress or confusion.
Parents who read these news reports are wondering how they would react; would they recognize abuse? And they are wondering what to say and do to prevent this from ever happening to their own children.
My strong belief is that there will always be people like Larry Nasser in the world, and that children who have experience with being touched with respect could be more likely to recognize and report abusive touch, even when it comes from an authority or a family member.
I would like to share my best suggestions to teach children the difference between healthy touch and invasive touch, drawn from my practice as a pediatric occupational therapist who treats children with ASD and sensory processing disorders. I would also like to say very clearly that there is never any reason for any occupational therapist to make contact with a child’s genital area. Ever. But since parents and caregivers perform diaper changes, dress children, and provide bathroom assistance, it is important to me to teach the following strategies for respectful contact in therapy so that children have a sense of what type of touch is unacceptable:
With non-verbal children of any age, I use a combination of observation, use of my own body language before I begin physical contact in therapy. If children can make eye contact, I use visual regard to establish a connection, and I do not initiate physical contact quickly. If they cannot meet my gaze, I read their cues, and often wait for them to come closer to me and reach out. I use intermittent touch that avoids hands, face and feet initially. Deep pressure is less alerting to the nervous system than light touch, so my contact is stable, slow and steady. I will describe what I am doing therapeutically, in simple statements with calm tones, even if I am not sure that they will understand me. I remove my contact when I see any indication of agitation, and before a child protests strongly. What I am communicating is “I get you. I see you and I respect you. I will not force you, but I will invite you to engage with me”.
With children that can communicate verbally, I do all of the above strategies, and I ask permission. Not always in complete sentences, and not always using the word “touch”. I constantly tell them what I am going to do or what movement I am going to help them to accomplish. It doesn’t matter if they fully comprehend my words; they can read the tone in my voice. If they protest, I will voice their protest without criticism “You want no more _______; no more __________. OK.” I reconsider my approach, adjust, and either begin contact again or shift activities to build more tolerance and trust.
With slightly older children that can understand my question and can respond clearly, I will teach them that they have a choice about greetings. I teach “Handshake, Hug or High-Five?“. Children get to choose what kind of physical contact they wish to have when greeting me or other adults. I must agree to their choice. I encourage parents to teach their family members to offer this choice and to never force a child to kiss/hug or accept a kiss or a hug from anyone. Children need to feel that they have agency over their bodies without criticism.
Anyone who remembers enduring a sloppy smooch or a crushing hug from a relative can relate. You may or may not have actively protested. It doesn’t matter. Allowing an adult to have this form of contact with a child is not just an irritating experience for them. It is a serious message that children of all genders are given: The people that are in power have the right to do things to your body that you don’t like, and you have no right to complain.
Is this the message that parents intend? Of course not, but that doesn’t make it any less a clear communication. Larry Nasser and his kind depend on a combination of authority, status and compliance to perpetrate abuse, even if the child’s parents are in the room. I believe that children who know that any uncomfortable touch from any adult, even those closest to them, can be refused, they are more likely to recognize and report abuse. They will be believed and they will not be shamed.