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Originally Published on TODAY Parenting:
How To Protect your Child from Predators at Holiday & Family Gatherings
I’m sure that this is the last thing you want to read about during the holidays. I realize I am putting a damper on “the most wonderful time of the year”. Over the last ten years that I have been speaking on child sexual abuse prevention, I have had numerous people share their stories of abuse with me. So often it was at the hands of their relatives at family gatherings. An older cousin forcing himself on his younger cousin. An uncle who always had candy in his pockets to share with the kids and would sit them on his lap. Someone sticking their hands in your pants while you are watching television.
People generally don’t want to talk about abuse until it happens to someone they love. They can’t believe that their own husband, father, brother, uncle, neighbor, favorite teacher, scout leader, or coach would do this. After all, that person was the greatest, most loving, and fun person who was always so great with the kids. The last person you would ever suspect would harm your child. AND that is also the typical profile of a child pedophile.
Many people believe it will never happen to their kids because they only allow their kids to be around family or close friends. Sorry to burst that bubble, but that is exactly who the perpetrators are. More than 90% of the time a child is sexually abused by someone they know and trust. Thirty percent of that is by their own family members. Sixty percent is by people surrounding the family such as neighbors, friends, teachers, coaches and clergy. All stats per D2L.org.
Holidays are filled with laughter, food, and family fun. There are rooms full of people, kids running in and out of the house, and the alcohol is flowing. Everyone is trying their best to get along, so they won’t ruin the holiday. All the makings of a perfect setting for a pedophile.
In the book, The Socially Skilled Child Molester, Carla Van Dam says that pedophiles target those who are uncomfortable to talk about abuse or too timid to speak up when boundaries are crossed. When you have a house full of family and friends, nobody wants to be the person to cause a conflict. You might have a family member that always makes you uncomfortable, maybe he is a little handsy, invades your personal space, or makes racy comments. You just do your best to avoid him, never calling him out because you don’t want to upset your family. You had no idea that he was abusing little Susie on the back porch when nobody was looking.
When I was a little girl, I had a grandpa that would make me give him a kiss. He grossed me out so bad I would do everything I could to avoid having to kiss him. When I did kiss him, I would give him a quick peck on his cheek. Then he would say the words that haunt me to this day, “that’s not a real kiss”. Then he would force me to kiss him on the lips and he would shove his tongue in my mouth.
All it takes is one small act to have a negative life-long effect on your child. You owe it to your children to know what the signs of grooming are and how to set and reinforce boundaries that apply to everyone, including family. Here are some situations to be mindful of this holiday season.
These are the biggest risk to the safety of your child. No matter how inconvenient, avoid situations where your child is alone with other adults or older or more powerful children. Recently, a parent came to me after her ten-year-old had a twelve-year-old stick his hand up her shorts and grab her bottom. It happened in a split second when someone stepped out of the room.
Volunteers to Take Care of your Child
When someone swoops in to save the day or volunteers to give your child a ride home or any activity where they will be alone or physically touching, such as riding on their lap. A teacher volunteered to tutor his third-grade student who was struggling with math. The mother would drop her off early before school where he would molest her every day. The poor mother had no idea until years later when her daughter disclosed.
Tickling and Other Physical Touch
Boundaries are crossed and abuse happens in plain sight. Tickling, poking the stomach, patting the butt or knees, rubbing shoulders, these are all part of the grooming process. They are often done in plain sight because they are testing the victim, parents, and everyone around them to see if anyone speaks up. If not, they know they can take it to the next level because the victim now thinks that what is happening is ok since nobody is telling the perpetrator to stop.
Breaking Rules & Special Treats
Letting minors break rules, drink alcohol, giving them candy or presents, are all part of the grooming process. At first those are used to make the child feel special. Once the perpetrator has further abused the child, then those are used to make the child feel guilty or shame. A child who has broken a rule or taken gifts will not want to speak out against the perpetrator for fear of getting in trouble themselves and they are ashamed and feel like it is their fault because they broke the rule.
There is no need to be paranoid at family gatherings. Instead, be prepared by setting and reinforcing boundaries that apply to everyone including all family members. When someone crosses the boundary, calmly let them know, that is not allowed in your family, redirect and remove the child from the situation if necessary. You do not need to worry about offending anyone because those with good intentions who care about the well-being of your child will not be offended. It is more important to protect your child then worry about offending people. The safety of children takes priority over the feelings of adults.
World Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Day
Today, September 15th is World Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Day. Child advocates around the globe are wearing purple, tweeting purple, and posting all over social media #PurpleFriday to create awareness about an epidemic that is killing the future potential of our children every day.Read More
Building confidence and self-esteem in your kids will give them a solid foundation they will benefit from for a lifetime. One way to do this is by asking them questions and listening earnestly to their answers. Let them know you truly value their opinion and what they have to say matters. I teach child sexual abuse prevention to parents and one of the methods I believe is the strongest to predict, prevent or catch child sexual abuse is to use conversation starters before and after you drop off your kids anywhere they will be in the care of others. This includes family members, pre-school, daycare, neighbors, school, and sports because 90 percent of abuse is at the hand of someone they know and trust. Of that 90 percent, 30 percent of the perpetrators are family members, 60 percent are perpetrators are people the family knows.
Asking your kid point blank if they have been touched inappropriately is confusing, scares kids, and can cause emotional harm. Using conversation starters is an effective method to build a bond with your kids. Their answers will shed light on any issues they may be struggling with such as bullying, eating disorders, anxiety, or homework. Their answers will also highlight all the positive interactions in your kid’s life. You may learn what their new interests are, what are they excelling at, what is motivating them, who their new friends are, or who is their favorite teacher.
Have you ever been frustrated when you asked your kid how their day was and the answer you got in return was “good”, “fine”, or “it sucked”? Asking kids how their day was can be confusing to them because they can experience a range of different feelings throughout the day. They may have hated P.E. but loved art. They could have made a new friend and failed a test. Their excitement and emotions can ebb and flow throughout the day.
The key to getting your kids to open up is to ask open-ended questions and then wait for their answer. If they are quiet just allow the quietness to hang in the air. One of two things will happen, they will either speak to fill the void or they will remain quiet but possibly reflecting on your question. Wait awhile and try a question about a completely different subject. If they don’t answer that question, tell them you respect that they might not feel like it right now and that you are there for them whenever they do feel like talking and leave it at that. Overwhelming them with too many questions will make shut down or assume they are in trouble. Pick new questions daily and rotate them over the month instead of asking the same questions every day.
Here are conversation starters to help parents get more insightful answers from their kids:
What are you most looking forward to today at school/camp/sport? Why?
Who are your favorite people at (name of location)? Why?
Who are your least favorite people at (name of location)? Why?
Which activities do you enjoy most at (name of location)? Why?
Which activities do you not like at (name of location)? Why?
If you were in charge today what would you do differently? Why?
What was your favorite part of today? Why?
What was the worst part of today? Why?
What/who made you laugh today? Why?
What was the nicest thing someone did for you today?
What was the nicest thing you did for someone today?
What class was your favorite today? Why?
Who did you eat lunch with?
Who did you play with at recess?
What is the most popular thing to do at recess?
Who is your favorite team mate? Why?
When were you the happiest today? Why?
When were you bored today? Why?
Did you need help with anything today? Why?
What interesting thing did you learn today? Who taught you?
Were there any questions you were afraid or embarrassed to ask?
What do you think you should do/learn more of at school? Why?
What do you think you should do/learn less of at school? Why?
What is your teacher’s/coach’s number one rule?
Does anyone have a hard time following the rules?
Did anyone push your buttons today? Why?
If you could change one thing about today what would it be?
I hope these examples will inspire you to come up with more questions that fit your kid and their situation. Notice that I added “Why?” to most of the questions. Asking “why” will keep the conversation flowing, help you dig deeper, and keep them talking longer. Listening and accepting their answers without diminishing their responses will help to build trust so they feel safe when they need to tell you something you might not want to hear.
I love the start of the school year and shopping with my kids for back-to-school supplies. I get as much joy as they do buying simple things like new pencils, paper, backpacks, and lunch bags. It is an exciting time full of new classrooms, friends, and teachers. The best part is seeing the first day of school pictures my friends post of their kids on social media. Their shiny new shoes and clean clothes that probably didn’t make it till the end of the day without scuff marks.
This photo is my daughter, Jaiden, on her first day of third grade. It is a bittersweet picture because while it’s one of my favorite pictures of her, it was also the picture used to show the jury in the molestation case against her teacher.
Two weeks into third grade, Jaiden was molested by her teacher. I taught her from the time she could form sentences to speak up if anyone had touched her inappropriately. Thankfully she did just that. Unfortunately, the many victims that came before her were not taught to speak up, which resulted in the teacher molesting students for seven years before getting caught.
I have been teaching child sexual abuse prevention for the last ten years and what I find most disturbing is that parents and schools would rather not discuss the topic because it makes them uncomfortable. In the book, The Socially Skilled Child Molester, author, and psychologist Carla van Dam, says child predators deliberately target families and organizations that are too uncomfortable, too polite, or too shy to discuss inappropriate behavior or have not been trained in child sexual abuse prevention.
Having that critical discussion with your son or daughter should be the number one tradition on your back-to-school list every year. Make it a part of your annual traditions just like shopping and pictures. The discussion should evolve as your kids age to include age appropriate information. The purpose is not to instill fear or make your kids feel like they can’t trust anybody, but to empower them to speak up when something happens. Knowledge is power and educating your kids makes them able to discern what behavior is worth trusting and what isn’t.
Before you have the discussion with your kids, do your own homework on the topic and be sure you are not relying on myths. While stranger danger is real, 90 percent of victims are molested by someone they know and trust. Predators are very good at their job of being the favorite teacher, fun coach, helpful neighbor or friend’s older sibling.
Given how common it is for the offender to be a known and trusted individual, it’s imperative to focus on behaviors and boundary setting. Here are three key areas to cover:
1. Teach your kids how to identify their “gut” instincts, trust them, and have the courage to act on them. Start by using examples of scary things such as rattle snakes, animals with sharp claws, or fear of heights. Explain that uncomfortable feeling they get when they look over a cliff or see a scary animal is their body’s way of telling them they are not safe.
2. Establish body autonomy and consent. Your child should feel confident that they are in charge of their own body. Letting kids choose their own clothes and hairstyles is an easy way to empower your kids to feel they are in control and will give you one less battle to fight. Do not force your kid to hug or kiss anyone including relatives and teach them to ask others before hugging and kissing them.
3. Explain inappropriate touching and boundaries. Always use the anatomically correct names for all body parts. Give very specific examples of what is allowed and what is not allowed. When something happens that makes them uncomfortable they should remove themselves from the situation and tell a trusted adult.
No child is safe from the vulnerability of being preyed upon. We can’t be there all the time to protect them. Help them learn how to protect themselves. Empowering your kids with the knowledge to set boundaries, speak up when they are crossed, and know they are in control of their bodies are valuable lessons they will use the rest of their lives. This is what I did for my daughter, Jaiden, and we are both forever grateful I made the effort.
As you leave home to start college, I feel desperate to give you nuggets of wisdom that will sustain you while you spread your wings and fly off on your own path. There are moments in my life when I’m confident I have taught you critical life skills. You proved that when you were eight years old and used what I taught you to stop a child molester who had been molesting his students for seven years. Then there are times I wonder if I have taught you enough or done enough to prepare you for life.
When I’m striving to do more, be more, or know more, I remind myself that if I never do another single thing in my lifetime, I can hold my head high and know I’ve done my part for you and humanity. I can literally say I have saved lives. I want you to know this is true for you too. You are enough. You have done enough already in this world, if you never accomplished another thing, you are still everything. We will never know how many kids you saved but we know you did. I want you to feel this deep in your bones.
My wish for you is that you leave all your insecurities behind, just leave them at home, I promise to keep them for you in a sacred place. I hope that when the world is mean and you feel like you have been punched in the gut, the fighter in you will show your strength and come out swinging. I hope that you will see yourself as a beautiful butterfly unlike any other. Your wings are spectacularly colored by the experiences of your past that prove how strong and courageous you really are. I want you to know that even in times when your caterpillar’s voice speaks to you harshly reminding you of your past, your metamorphosis to a butterfly is complete. Take a personal inventory of the facts that are your truth and tell that caterpillar to move his fuzzy ass along.
I wish I could do a brain dump and give you all my life’s experience and wisdom to absorb to keep you safe from harm and from making mistakes. But that wouldn’t be fair to you. You are your own person with every right to make your own mistakes. Mistakes are a gift of wisdom that only comes from personal experience. Don’t take too long to love and value yourself like I did, that is just wasted time.
I could say that I expect great things of you as you go out into the world. Instead, I want you to know how proud of you I already am. I am inspired by you every day. You have already done great things. You love with your whole heart. You are kind to others. You are giving. You are brave. You challenge yourself. You question the status quo. You seek equality and justice for all beings. You use your voice to stand up for others. You are enough. You have done enough. Enjoy this exciting time of self-discovery. Be selfish and self-caring. Put your needs first. Do what makes you happy even if it means disappointing others.
I hope that you will use the same tenacity you use to fight for others to fight for yourself. Love yourself, respect yourself, honor your greatness and listen to the butterfly voice that says I am a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.
Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arm,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman,