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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?
Who are your favorite people at (name of location)?
Who are your least favorite people at (name of location)?
Which activities do you enjoy most at (name of location)?
Which activities do you not like at (name of location)?
If you were in charge today what would you do differently?
What was your favorite part of today?
What was the worst part of today?
What/who made you laugh today?
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?
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?
When were you the happiest today?
When were you bored today?
Did you need help with anything today?
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?
What do you think you should do/learn less of at school?
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?
If you could change one thing about today what would it be?
To keep the conversation flowing and to help you dig deeper, add a phrase like “tell me more”. I hope these examples will inspire you to come up with more questions that fit your kid and their situation. 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.
As parents, we must do our own due diligence and not rely solely on others to keep our kids safe. Youth-serving organizations, including schools, after-school programs, camps, sports, and businesses that cater to children are Mandatory Reporters and must report any suspected or disclosed abuse. However, parents cannot and should not rely on that to protect their children.Read More