High-profile news stories about children and teens being sexually abused by trusted teachers, religious leaders, neighbours, and family members continue to shock parents, educators, and other caring adults across the country. These sad stories are classic examples of how individuals can misuse their positions of trust and power to abuse and coerce kids and of how adults in responsible positions often fail to take adequate action to stop them.
Parents and other concerned adults are left wondering, “What do I need to watch out for? How can I protect my kids? What can I teach them about protecting themselves?”
The safety and self-esteem of a child are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. If you suspect that there is a safety problem, especially involving children, take personal responsibility for doing something to address it. This means speaking up persistently and widely until effective action is taken to fix that problem. Don’t just tell someone, even if that person is in a position of authority, and assume that your responsibility is at an end. Follow up to see what is happening. Realize that children and young people who are being abused need help and protection – and that anyone who is abusing them needs to be stopped.
Don’t just trust people just because they are part of a reputable organization, place of worship, or school. Check each person out for yourself, especially if he or she is going to be alone with your child. Check references. Don’t assume that someone will tell you if something bad happens. Trust your intuition if something feels uncomfortable to you. Watch out for someone who seems to single out certain kids for special attention and private relationships, who seeks social and recreational opportunities to be alone with kids without other adults there, or who is not open to parents and other responsible adults being fully informed about and comfortable with what is going on. When in doubt, check it out!
Once in a while, in a calm, conversational way, at a peaceful moment, ask, “Is there anything you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?” Thank the child for telling you and listen with interest to the answers. Don’t tease, even if what the child says seems silly. Avoid scolding at that moment, even if the child has done something wrong.
Be very clear with all children in your life that secrets about problems, touch, favors, gifts someone gives them, photos or videos, privileges, time alone with anyone, and games are not safe. Their job is to tell you and other adults they trust instead of keeping secrets, even if someone they care about will be upset or embarrassed.
4) Prepare young people to take charge of their safety by practicing skills. One quick action can stop most abuse – pushing someone’s hand away, ordering someone to stop, leaving as soon as you can, resisting emotional coercion, and telling. Kids are more likely to be able to take actions like these when they need to if they understand their safety rules and have the chance to rehearse following these rules in a fun, age-appropriate way.
Using non-sexual examples such as tickling or roughhousing, role-play with kids skills for setting boundaries on touch and teasing with people they know and care about even if someone tries to pressure them. Using non-sexual examples such as someone hurting their feelings or playing a scary game, give kids practice on how to interrupt a busy adult with a safety problem and tell the whole story. Practice what to do if the adult doesn’t listen by persisting and, if need be, how to keep telling different adults until someone helps solve the problem.