This past Wednesday, August 2, was my second appearance on WMNH Radio. Matt Connarton wasted no time in bringing up the issue of protecting children from predators. I appreciate Matt’s interest in always talking about balance. He wanted to know how parents could strike a balance between teaching our children how to be wary and skeptical, and yet still allowing them to live a life that isn’t paranoid and anxious. Right after this conversation, I was alerted to a news story about a Philadelphia day care owner who has been accused of sexual assault, that motivated me to change my writing schedule and address this issue today.
My reading of the best literature on protecting children from predators, as well as my own experience as a parent, is one that should give every father and mother pause. There is a recent article by Jensen and Jensen, the abstract of which I’d like to quote entirely, which says that:
“The FBI estimates that here is a sex offender living in every square mile of the United States. One in ten men has molested children. Most child molesters are able to molest dozens of children before they are caught and have a three percent (3%) chance of being apprehended for their crimes. Boys and girls are at nearly equal risk to be abused and almost a quarter will be molested sometime before their
18th birthday. Fewer than five percent (5%) will tell anyone. The overwhelming majority of child victims are abused by someone they know and trust, someone most parents would never suspect. No one can protect your children but you. Educate yourself and your family about child sexual abuse. Don’t let a child molester do it for you!”
My interview can be accessed here. In it, I discuss the importance of talking regularly with your child about the fact that there are people out there who may try to do things that are not appropriate. While it may seem uncomfortable to talk with your child about sex and inappropriate touching, it is important that you make clear that those topics are safe topics to discuss with you. I really like the four strategies for protecting children from predators that you can find on kidpower.org.
According to an article by the North Carolina School of Public Health, the outcomes for children who are victimized by predators include aggression, depression, anger and anxiety. Another article in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, says that:
“Aside from post-traumatic stress and dissociation symptoms, a significant number of other mental health and behavioral disturbances have been linked to CSA. High levels of mood disorders, such as major depressive episodes, are found in cohorts of children and teenagers who have been sexually abused [56, 57]. Sexually abused children are more likely than their non-abused counterparts to present behavior problems, such as inappropriate sexualized behaviors . In the teenage years, they are found to more often exhibit conduct problems  and engage in at-risk sexual behaviors [60, 61]. Victims are more prone to abusing substances, to engaging in self-harm behaviors, and to attempting or committing suicide [62, 63, 64, 65]. Adolescents sexually abused in childhood are five times more likely to report non-clinical psychotic experiences such as delusions and hallucinations than their non-abused counterparts .”
I wish to emphasize that there are many reasons to create a positive relationship with your child, and to treat her with warmth and empathy. One of those reasons is because you don’t really know anything about the people you encounter, except what they tell and show you. Sexual predators know that their behavior is deviant and criminal. Therefore, they will not be sharing anything with you to tip you off. The perversions and fetishes that are playing in their minds are not being broadcast to anyone but themselves.
The predator will use strategies with a child like buying them gifts or rewards, telling your child that they understand him better than his parents, and intimating that, if she tells anybody about what has happened, no one will believe her, or that she will get in trouble.
Predators can use grooming tactics that slowly build toward an ultimate goal. They may touch your child’s hair, or shoulder, or “accidentally” touch their buttocks as they walk past. They may try to create a routine that involves giving them a hug or kiss whenever they encounter one another. These tactics are meant to get your son or daughter used to being touched. And they are intentional.
As a parent, it is your job to be worried about these things, so that your child doesn’t have to be preoccupied with them. Protecting children from predators means that they need to learn the difference between good touch and bad touch, that they need to know that their body is their own, and that no one can touch them in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
Your child needs to know that you want to know if anybody every talks to them or touches them in a way that feels wrong. Tell your son that it doesn’t matter if that person is your best friend, or his uncle, or his teacher. Let your daughter know that, if someone does something, and then tells them they won’t be believed, or that they will get in trouble, that they are lying to try to get away with what they’ve done.
Once again, it is not your child’s job to be wary of sexual predators as much as it is YOURS. If you see another adult interacting with your child in a questionable way, you should intervene. Predators are like bullies – if they see that a potential victim is empowered, and sheltered by a strong family structure, they will move on.
I would suggest that you have these conversations in small snippets. Little soundbites every so often that mention the strategies that predators use. Questions about what their school has taught them about the topic. Brief comments about how much you love them, and want to protect them, and that you want them to know that they can always come to you and talk about anything.
Protecting children from predators starts with making your home the safest place your child knows. The home environment you create, built on warmth and empathy, respectfully and lovingly teaching your child how to survive and thrive, will be implanted in their minds as they grow. If and when, God forbid, your child encounters an umcomfortable situation or inappropriate person, those messages and the self-regard you have given them, will be their best defense.
Happy parenting! It’s a tough job, but you got to do it! I will be appearing on the Matt Connarton show every other Wednesday at 4:30pm to discuss other aspects of effective parenting. My next appearance is on Wednesday, August 16. I look forward to your comments and questions. Thank you for your support.