A new mother wrote to me wondering what she could do to protect her child from abduction and/or sexual perpetrators. Sadly, many good parents find their children victim to sexual perpetrators regardless of their best efforts. But the good news is that many tragedies that befall families are preventable.
Parents need to teach their children about predators and safety, but it takes more than simply saying, “Never talk to strangers.” The statistics are clear. More often than not, the predator is someone the child knows – a stepparent, stepsibling, other relative, babysitter, teacher, or coach.
A first step in preventing abuse is teaching children early on that no one has the right to touch their private body parts without their permission. It doesn’t matter if the person is a stranger or someone familiar to them. The few exceptions are obvious such as unwanted baths and frightening shots at the doctor’s office. Toddlers won’t fully understand what it means to “grant permission to touch,” but by age 3 or 4, a child will get the idea and these words will be a part of their vocabulary.
Don’t put children’s names on their clothing or backpacks where it is easily visible. If someone calls a child by his name, the child assumes the person knows him – therefore, he isn’t a stranger. Skip that potential problem by concealing labeled clothing and backpacks.
Teach your child to be brave enough to ask a grownup for help if she is afraid. Don’t tell them to “find a policeman.” While policemen are there to help us, predators aren’t stupid. They won’t attempt to abduct or abuse a child in front of a police officer. They do, however, count on bystanders minding their own business. If your son or daughter yells to a nearby grown up “I’m afraid of this man…” it will get attention. When I work with groups of children on safety, we have screaming practice.
Get references from other parents you trust about coaches, teachers, babysitters, or church workers. Be especially cautious about an adult who seems over-eager to babysit or spend time alone with your child.
If you are a single woman, you have to know that the risk of your child being molested rises dramatically in the presence of a stepfather. It is even higher if alcohol abuse is present in the home. I’m not suggesting that you never remarry or that stepfathers can’t be good dads – that is ridiculous. I am suggesting that some predators pursue single moms specifically to gain access to their children.
I am a big fan of nanny cams, too. Consult the law in your state regarding videotaping, but in Georgia, it is perfectly legal to set up a hidden camera in your own home. Be aware, however, that it is NOT legal under Georgia law to video tape in a bathroom, shower, or similar areas of “expected privacy.” While nanny cam video is legal, you cannot audiotape.
Remind your child often that he can talk to you about ANYTHING. The bigger risk than strangers is the secret that an abused child keeps. Not telling an adult about a case of abuse almost guarantees that it will happen again. Many children I’ve seen over the years were sexually abused for months or even years.
Listen carefully to your child if she seems reluctant or anxious around a caregiver, relative, or neighbor. Children who are molested often don’t know how to articulate what has happened to them and they do not know that they should tell someone. They just know that they feel bad and dread such encounters.
Believe your child! Their biggest fear if they have been touched inappropriately is that they won’t be believed and many predators threaten them – “Nobody will take your word over mine. I’m an adult.”
Finally, supervise your child. Nobody cares about your kid like you do. Make sure you keep open communication with your child so he/she will be willing to tell you if a family friend, relative, or babysitter does something. Good supervision and these basic survival skills will help ensure your child never falls victim to a perpetrator.
Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.