- At Home
As mothers, we often teach our young children about “Stranger Danger” and how to deal with the creepy man down the street. We instruct them on how to react to the man in the car who offers them candy or what to say to the person on the other end of the phone asking if their mommy or daddy is home. If our children are older, we are confident they will tell us if something is wrong or if somebody makes them feel uncomfortable.
We often stereotype this somebody as the “dirty old man” or the “Internet predator” or anybody who is obviously bad or evil. This somebody is portrayed as a stranger -- an adult who our child does not know or at least does not care about. He’s a faceless person that has had no positive impact on our child. That’s what many of us tell our children…and ourselves. After all, it’s easy to vilify people we don’t know or like.
But what if that somebody is not a stranger at all but is, in fact, our child’s beloved teacher, coach, babysitter, friend, or family member? What if it’s the person we wholeheartedly trusted with our kids? What do we do and say then?
With two boys of my own, I realize how tricky that balance is of wanting to protect my children from the evils of this world but still inform and equip them to deal with those realities. When and how do we shift their perspective about their world without sacrificing the beauty of their innocence? This is a question that many mothers ask, and so I interviewed Danise Johnson who has investigated sexual abuse regarding children and families for over 14 years. Danise is a licensed clinical social worker (MSW, LCSW) and is currently a forensic interviewer, teaches social work at the University, and counsels families about all realms of sexual abuse -- from education and prevention, to communication, therapy and support services.
Our conversation unveiled important misconceptions that parents often have about child pedophiles. For example, the term “stranger” is over-used; at least 80% of child predators know the child and have already established a trusting bond with him/her. That dirty old man may actually be the charming young coach or a female babysitter. It may be the older sibling of our child’s friend or a relative. It may be the person we least expect.
I’m not going to lie: It’s a very hard conversation to have. It’s hard to hear that there are people who victimize children. It’s hard to accept the fact that my children will eventually come to know this. It’s a hard article to write. But, there are easy ways to protect our children and yet enlighten them…while empowering ourselves as parents. The key: actively communicating with our children.
The following are 10 action steps that will enable parents to more effectively engage with their children:
1. Start early with the “bathing suit” conversation.
A lot of the literature will tell you to explain sexual abuse in terms of “good” and “bad” touch, however as Danise points out, those terms are often misleading to children. The “bad” touch may physically feel good for the child who cannot yet comprehend the sexual inappropriateness of that certain touch. With two young children of her own, Danise advises parents to instead have the “bathing suit” conversation. It’s far easier for a child to understand that his or her bathing suit covers all the private parts and that nobody (except the child, mom, dad, and/or doctor) can see, touch or clean them. The bathing suit is a great visual reminder and is an effective age-appropriate way to explain boundaries to young children as well as the differences between boys and girls. According to Danise, it’s never too early to teach children about their private parts. An 18-month old child, for example, may not be able to verbalize much, but he or she can still start to absorb the message.
2. Educate them and use age-appropriate terms.
It’s important to always be mindful of what your child knows and doesn’t know not just in terms of concepts but in names of body parts, sexual terms, and other verbiage. A nine-year-old child will have a different vocabulary and comprehension level as a five-year-old child. You know your child the best and what he or she is capable of understanding, but sometimes you’ll need to double-check. For example, having interviewed so many children involved in sexual abuse, Danise makes sure that any young child she interviews knows the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie. “If I say that you’re a girl, am I telling the truth or a lie?” Danise will often ask the child. If he or she does not understand the difference, it can affect the child’s answers. Again, you know your children and what you feel comfortable telling them. Some of the literature, for example, says to teach young children the official names of their body parts, but Danise would disagree and point out that it really depends on the child. Her young son, for instance, calls his private part a “peanut” and Danise is fine with that. The point is that both you and the child have a common language.
3. Create a safe talking environment.
Whenever you want to check in with your children and find out about their life (what thrills them, what makes them feel uncomfortable) it is crucial that you preface these conversations with a few reassuring statements. For example, tell or remind them that if they ever want to share something that is very important that you will never be mad at them. Also, tell them that you and your spouse will be physically okay no matter what it is. Some of us assume that our child knows this or that this is common sense, but as Danise explains, many perpetrators tell the child that if he or she says something, then the parents will suffer. Children believe these threats, and so it is very important to set their mind at ease. Sometimes your kids may not feel comfortable telling you something, and that’s okay; make sure they know there are other safe people they can tell (a teacher, aunt, counselor, etc.). Also, have one-on-one conversations with your child at a time that is conducive for him or her…not you. Danise has found that children are often more communicative at night right before bed. They’re either relaxed or just stalling bedtime -- either way, they’ll want to talk openly, and that’s the most important.
4. Set ground rules.
Many of us have already set in place rules regarding our children’s hygiene, homework, bedtime, etc., and having rules (guidelines) regarding family conversations is just as crucial. Danise would tell you that one of these conversation guidelines should be the “no secrets” rule. Remind your children that they are not allowed to have secrets. Perpetrators and pedophiles often tell their young victims to keep “what happened” a secret from parents. No adult should tell a child to hide something from his or her parents; that is a major red flag. Set other rules such as “always tell the truth” and “always tell us when you don’t understand something.” Even some adults struggle with communication issues, which make it even more necessary for children to learn conversation fundamentals at an early age.
5. Ask open-ended questions.
According to Danise, children are highly suggestible up until the age of 10 years old. This means that if you suggest what “might” have occurred, the young child may be influenced or swayed in his perspective and/or answer. For example, asking your child if his penis was ever touched by Mister Davis puts the idea in the child’s head that this man might have done that. It is far more effective and appropriate to ask instead, “When you were with Mister Davis today, what did you two do during class? What are some things you liked? What did you talk about? Was anybody else there? Was there anything he did that made you feel uncomfortable?” Asking open-ended questions allows your child to better express himself. Even if you don’t suspect any sexual abuse concerning your child, it’s still very important to ask questions often just to make sure you’re on top of things. Some ideal open-ended questions that Danise suggests are:
6. Ask questions only once.
Don’t ask your child the same question over and over. Danise has noticed that it’s usually when parents have a legitimate concern that they become very anxious and “screw up” the conversation with their children by asking the same question too many times. Under the age of 10 years old, because children are highly suggestible, they will often change answers to the same question. Here’s a dialogue example:
Mom: Sarah, when you were at Uncle John’s house, did he do anything that made you feel uncomfortable?
Mom: Are you sure? Because remember it’s okay to be open with me.
Sarah: Yes, I’m sure.
Mom: He didn’t say something to you that made you feel icky?
Sarah: I said no.
Mom: Okay, but try to think about the entire time you were there. He didn’t say anything to you that mommy wouldn’t like?
Mom: Are you positive?
At this point, the child begins to feel she has said the “wrong” answer because her mother continues to ask the same question. Sarah sees that her mother is very concerned and is seeking an answer, and Sarah doesn’t want to disappoint and starts to change her answer to a “well….maybe…” The mother’s sudden interest to this answer validates Sarah that now she is giving an answer that pleases her mother. Young children tend to be people-pleasers and therefore it’s very important that if you ask your child a question and feel confident that she understands what you’re asking, then accept her first answer. As a forensic interviewer, Danise works at a multi-disciplinary child advocacy center where all the professionals are sensitive to this issue. It’s why they are careful to reduce the number of interviews with a child during the investigation process. The detectives, district attorney, therapist, and social worker usually stand behind a two-way mirror and observe one conversation between the forensic interviewer and the child, for they know that each subsequent interview causes details to change.
7. Adjust your tone and voice.
I have to admit: It’s not easy having these kinds of “sensitive” conversations with my children, and yet I know they are so necessary. It’s even more difficult when there is a certain “bad” situation that directly or indirectly affects your child and that conversation becomes even more important. For example, his or her teacher is arrested for sexual inappropriateness and you wonder if your child was affected. In this case, what do some of us mothers do? We freak out. The adrenaline pumps, and we turn into Mama Bears on a rampage. With over a decade experience dealing with families affected by sexual abuse, Danise sees firsthand how an anxious or upset mom confronts her child who then picks up on that negative emotion. Therefore, always check your demeanor, tone and emotional state before you approach your child. Don’t make it a big deal or tell them that “we need to have a serious talk.” Casually ask questions so that they feel comfortable talking to you. Be conscious of your reactions. If you can’t control your emotions, ask your spouse to talk to your child.
8. Do not force children to kiss family or friends.
As moms, we continually try to enforce proper etiquette and manners. For instance, we tell our children to say “thank you” when somebody compliments them. We tell them to look people in the eye during conversations and to put napkins in the lap when eating. And, most of us really do excel at teaching this! But, as Danise warns, we should NOT force our children to kiss family or friends. If the child wants to express himself like that, then that’s fine. If he does not feel comfortable doing that, however, don’t force it. Why? Danise explains that forcing your child to kiss somebody (i.e., grandparent, aunt, etc.) goodbye sends mixed messages. Think about it. You’ve been teaching that it’s not okay for somebody to kiss or touch your children in a way that makes them uncomfortable but yet you instruct your kids to kiss a person regardless of how your kids feel. If the child wants to kiss Grandma good-bye and feels comfortable with the family norm, Danise would tell you that’s completely fine. It’s when the child doesn’t want to kiss the person that it becomes an issue. Your children should know that they don’t have to kiss a person to express respect; polite greetings, hugs, high-fives, etc. are great alternatives.
9. Validate the child.
It’s easy to vilify a person who intentionally harms children. But, what if that person had been a positive influence on your child for so many years? What if it was your child’s instructor or teacher or relative who your child respected and loved but who also did something incredibly bad that adversely affected your child? When Danise asked me this question, I could almost hear my “mama bear” growl when I answered that I’d tell my child solely that this perpetrator was sick in the head, needed help and that my child would never see this bad person again. However, according to Danise, this wouldn’t be in the best interest of my child. “Of course, our first instinct is to pull our child as far back as possible from this person,” she says. “However, you have to remember that he or she also taught the child many positive things and could have even been a role model. Telling the child that this mentor is an evil or sick person can make the child feel shameful or guilty for having trusted somebody like that. It’s better to validate all the great things the child learned from this person but then explain how bad choices lead to consequences.”
10. Continually check IN rather than check out.
Life is busy for any mom. We deal with schedules and drama basically every day. “How was school?” we ask our children. “It was fine,” they sometimes say. And we smile, grateful that at least at that moment we don’t have to hear about drama on the playground or have to reprimand. But checking in with your children involves…more. More curiosity. More questions. More open-ended discussions. And, we shouldn’t be checking in about only the negative things. Ask them how they like school. Who are their friends? When they participate in play dates, ask them what they did with their friend. What was the friend’s mom doing during that time? Where was the dad? Did anybody else come over? What did they enjoy? If you ask these questions in a nonchalant way, then you are not setting up any red flags…you are just checking in and asking questions because you care. Danise notes how moms daily check that their kids’ teeth are brushed, homework is done, piano is practiced, clothes match, etc. but some of us don’t check in on what emotionally or psychologically affects them. How do they feel about things? What makes them proud? What makes them sad? And then let them talk, uninterrupted.
Immediately after my interview with Danise, I couldn’t help but want to grab both of my boys and pull them in close. I wanted to shield their little bodies from the prospective bullies, girls who might break their hearts, coaches who could dampen their spirit, or adults that would harm them. And yet, I know that I can’t. I know that my arms can’t protect them forever and that it’s my job as a mother to teach them coping skills. I know that I need to actively empower them with the tools and knowledge so that they can develop into strong, confident, independent individuals. They will need to learn how to define their own boundaries and create their own realities. My role (and challenge!) will be to give them life’s drawing tools to do just that.