Keeping your children safe from child predators sounds like a scary proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. We used to teach children about “stranger danger”, but studies have shown that most sexual abuse occurs at the hands of someone known to the child. He might seem like the friendliest teacher, neighbor, uncle or coach. Unfortunately, this person, who is always showing an interest in your child and working to develop trust, can sometimes be a child predator. It is difficult for adults to recognize these people for who they really are, and of course, it is even more difficult for children. Just as we teach children about the dangers associated with crossing the street or going near a hot oven, we must talk to them about recognizing and avoiding threatening encounters with child predators. I have a short list of “tips” that have helped me talk to my children about safety. Here are some suggestions:
1. No secrets. Period.
Encourage your children to tell you about things that happen to them that make them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to something suspicious before it becomes a problem. The way I effectuate this rule is as follows: If someone, even a grandparent, were to say something to my child such as “I’ll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret”, I firmly, but politely say “We don’t do secrets in our family.” Then I say to my child “Right? We don’t do secrets. We can tell each other everything.”
2. Don’t dress children in clothing or accessories with their name on it.
Customized clothing breeds familiarity, which can create a false sense of trust. If a stranger comes up to your child and says “Jenny, your Mom told me to bring you home so you can have dinner”, your child may be more inclined to go along because this person knows their name.
3. Teach your child the correct terms for their body parts.
This will make them more at ease if they need to tell you about a touch that made them feel uncomfortable. Additionally, if a child uses a word like “cookie” or “peanuts” to describe their private parts, a disclosure might be missed. A busy teacher who hears a child say, “He touched my cookie” might just offer the child another cookie instead of offering help. Inform children that the parts of their body covered by their bathing suit are private and are for no one else to see or touch (noting the necessary exceptions for bathing, potty issues and medical exams in the presence of Mom or Dad). Keep in mind that children may be confronted with another child who touches their private parts. Explain that private parts are private from everyone – including other children. Reinforce that the same rules apply –if someone touches them inappropriately they should tell a parent or teacher right away.
4. Practice “what if” scenarios.
Say to your child, “What would you do if someone offered you a treat, or a gift when I wasn’t there?” Help your child arrive at the right answer, which is to say no, and ask you first. Many parents also encourage children to walk or run away in this situation.
5. Teach your child their name, address and phone number at an early age.
Start teaching children at an early age their name, address and phone number. When young children are separated from their parents, even for a short time, they are potential targets for child predators. If a child has their parent’s cell phone number, the child can be reunited with the parent more expeditiously.
6. Prepare a child with what to do if they get lost.
Teach your child to find a safe person if they become lost. A safe person is a police officer, someone in the store with a store uniform or nametag, or a mother with children. It is quite helpful toward a speedy reunion, if your child knows his name, address and your cell phone number. Children should also learn to stay in the general area where they last saw you so you can find them when you retrace your steps.
7. Internet Safety:
Install a safety browser on your computer so that you can make the decisions about which websites are appropriate for your children to view. Teach your child never to give out their last name, address, or phone number to a person on the Internet and never to meet Internet friends in person without a parent’s supervision and consent. Parents should help children choose a screen name that does not disclose information about their location. Teach children not to post pictures with identifying information such as a school uniform. Ideally, children should not post pictures on the Internet at all. Always keep your computer in a public area of your house – not in a child’s bedroom. If multiple computers for multiple children are necessary, consider laptops with wireless Internet.
8. Let children decide for themselves how they want to express affection.
Children should not be forced to hug or kiss if they are uncomfortable. Even if they are your favorite aunt, uncle or cousin, your child should not be forced to be demonstrative in their affection. While this may displease you, by doing this, you will empower your child to say no to inappropriate touching.
9. Teach your child that adults do not need to ask children for help.
Predators use tricks to lure children, for example, asking them to help find a lost pet, give directions, or help carry something. When you are sitting down talking to your child, use these examples as part of your “what if” scenarios to reinforce the lessons about safety.
10. Teach children the buddy system.
Children should learn it is safer to be with a friend or trusted adult than to be alone. Encourage children to trust their feelings – if something doesn’t feel right, they should get away and tell you about it immediately.
Young children respond well to these tips and they should be revisited often. We can teach our children about water safety and not make them fearful of the water. We need to do the same when it comes to keeping their body safe. If a child does disclose any type of abuse, it is important to take the disclosure seriously and report it to the appropriate authorities promptly. By following these tips and talking to our children, we can help keep them safe from sexual abuse and break the cycle of silence.
About the Author
Jill Starishevsky is a mother of two and has been a prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes in New York City for over decade. Jill is also the author of “My Body Belongs to Me”, a children’s book written for 3-8 year olds, intended to prevent child sexual abuse by teaching children that their bodies are their own. www.MyBodyBelongstoMe.com. In October 2006, Jill launched www.HowsMyNanny.com to support parents and their children. HowsMyNanny.com is the first online nanny reporting service that works to keep children safe by enabling parents to receive positive or negative feedback on their child’s caregiver.