As parents, watching the news or scanning Facebook feeds can often lead us to believe that danger at the hands of sexual predators awaits children as they walk to school or play at the park. However, what I have seen as a trauma therapist is that child sexual abuse typically occurs at the hands of someone children already know — a relative, family friend, child care provider, neighbor or older child.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention month and regardless of whether or not we are parents, everyone can play a role in educating children about what they need to know to protect their bodies and stay safe. We cannot guarantee safety for children at all times, but we can teach them to recognize when they are vulnerable and at risk of abuse.
Gavin De Becker is an expert in predicting violent behavior and his book, Protecting The Gift, provides parents with many practical tools to increase their children’s safety at all age levels. His research and insight has challenged me to take a step away from what many of us think we know about “stranger danger” and consider where we should focus our energies in protecting ourselves and our children.
De Becker proposes that reinforcing the rule of “never talk to strangers” suggests to a child that a stranger equals danger and therefore a friend equals safety. Parents teach kids this common rule with the intention of their child using it when lost and not with a trusted adult. Yet De Becker suggests that this is exactly the time that children need the ability to reach out and speak to a stranger. All children need the skills to ask for assistance, describe their predicament, give a phone number, AND to say “No” to someone, if necessary. Teaching children not to talk to strangers gets in the way of learning what to do IF they need to reach out to one.
Instead, De Becker provides other ideas of what children need to know about personal safety:
• It’s not strangers that are the danger, but strangeness. As adults we interact daily with people we don’t know without having our warning bells go off. However, strange behavior, like someone who stares at us too long or keeps talking to us despite our lack of encouragement, will raise our suspicion. Children who regularly practice communicating with strangers learn to exercise their intuition. They learn what feels comfortable and what does not.
• Teach children that if they become lost to ask a WOMAN for help. When it comes to the safety of children, we don’t need to be politically correct. We need to give them practical and simple rules that reduce their risk of harm.
• Teach children that they should never go anywhere with anyone before telling their parents or caregivers. And if that person suggests that informing the child’s parents isn’t necessary, that should be seen as strangeness by the child.
• Fully resist ever going anyplace out of public view with someone. Sexual abuse rarely occurs in the middle of the playground, a school dance or the supervised play date. It takes place in the shadows of the bushes, behind dark buildings or closed bedroom doors. Children need to know that anyone who is trying to persuade them to go from public to private is not following personal safety rules.
• No one is to touch your private parts AND you are not to touch anyone else’s private parts. Sexual predators will often trick kids who often blindly follow concrete rules, by asking them to touch their bodies.
Personal safety is an ongoing conversation between parents and their children. I encourage families to talk early and frequently about family rules, tricky people and strangeness to provide a strong foundation of intuitive self-protection, well before our children leave the safety of our constant supervision.
Britney Journee is a licensed clinical professional counselor who provides trauma informed therapy for children and adults at Terry Reilly SANE Solutions.