Wednesday, July 30, 2008

How Can I Talk to My Children About Molesters?

by Robin Sax

I can’t tell you how often I am asked, “What should I say to my kids about keeping their bodies safe—without scaring them to death?”

As a prosecutor and a mom, I struggle with the same questions. But I have an added one: Are my kids going to be forever jaded because I work in the tragically real world of child sexual assault crimes?

Actually, the key to keeping such talks from being scary is for parents to assume that body/personal safety discussions are not scary! Just because we, as adults, are terrified of what we know about “the world out there,” we don’t have to convey our fears to our children.

However, there are lessons that kids must know if we expect them to delve into the world as functioning independent adults.

As trite and over-used as the expression seems, “Knowledge truly is power.” I am not suggesting that parents need to tell their kids the gruesome details of every case in the news, or pound statistics into their heads. But youngsters need to have a solid understanding of specific safety skills appropriate to their age and their own personal level of understanding.

The California Department of Justice Web site reminds parents that CDJ representatives “provide safety information to our children in a number of other areas that may seem pretty scary, such as 'drop and roll' if your clothes catch on fire, or 'Look both ways when you cross the street so you don’t get run over.' ”

When it’s time to discuss sexual abuse, the best way to combat the fear associated with such talks is to just start the discussion! It’s never too early to begin giving children information that can help them stay safe. However, treat personal safety like any other parenting lesson—find appropriate times, don’t tackle too many lessons at a time, and consider the child’s own level of development and understanding.

The most important quality is directness, from parent to child, and then back again from the child to the parent. When I speak to my kids, here are some principals that I keep in mind:

Always use the anatomically correct body part names: It is very important that children know and use the correct names for their genitals and “private parts.” I had a case where a child referred to her vagina as her “bread.” It took three different disclosures for the girl’s teachers to realize that when she was saying that “someone touched my bread” she meant her vagina, and not the bread on her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

A conversation should be a two-way dialogue: Parents should begin talking with children to invite a discussion. By beginning the discussion in a dialogue format, it will encourage both children (and parents) to feel comfortable talking, and allow for the discussion to develop naturally, in a free-flowing manner.

If it accomplishes nothing else, the safety conversation should at least cover these points:

If anything makes you or your child feel uncomfortable, it should not be allowed!

If something uncomfortable happens at home, tell a teacher.

If something uncomfortable happens at school, tell a trusted grownup.

And while we’re on the subject of fear, parents should not use fear or scare tactics educate their children on personal safety. Teaching from scare tactics can often backfire because it goes against the objective to empower the child.

By empowering them, we’re helping them handle any situation that arises, while fear tends to make them freeze and may actually inhibit their ability to cope in an emergency.

The bottom line is: The only thing that should scare you is NOT talking to your children about personal safety!


Susan Murphy Milano's Journal said...

Robin-Great advice for parents.

I was happy to see you include the "fear factor" information for parents.

And you are the expert-as you deal with this cases on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

Great post Robin. Back in the day when I was growing up, I remember conversations with my parents about being kidnapped but not about sexual predators. Those were the days when you stayed outside from sun up to sun down and had a lot less worry about something happening to your children. There were a lot of stay at home moms and everyone looked out for everyone else and their children. And the older brothers and sisters were always close by. Not an easy feat these days.

Felicia Donovan said...

Robin, great post. I would add that these days the conversation needs to expand to include on-line sexual solicitation and exploitation:

"If someone says something to you on the Internet that makes you feel uncomfortable, tell an adult."
"If someone sends you a picture you didn't ask for, tell an adult."
"If someone asks you where you live, tell them you're not allowed to say and tell an adult."

The opportunities for a child to be approached on-line are numerous. There is no software program, no magic wand that can substitute for parental oversight and monitoring in the virtual playground of cyberspace.

Felicia Donovan

Mississippi Nature said...

That is good advise. As a cop, I wonder the same thing at times! BTW, Tell Kathryn Casey I love her lastest book!

Kathryn Casey said...

FTP: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the new book! That's wonderful to hear.