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Chapter Three: Considering the Right Time to Talk to Your Children About Sexual Predators & Encouraging Them to Share
It is important to consider your child’s age when discussing the topic of sexual predators. You want to protect them rather than scare them. Depending on the age of your child, they may become traumatized, not fully understand the idea of sexual predators, or they may even take it as a joke. This sensitive topic must be explained in an appropriate manner catered to the right age group and the right parent-child relationship. From an early age, it is important to keep a calm, open, loving approach when it comes to communicating with your child, as the way you approach them will ultimately determine whether or not they share important information with you.
Talking to Pre-school Children
The best time to start teaching your child about their private parts is between the ages of two and three years old. It’s important to first establish an open relationship with your child so that they can be comfortable sharing private information with you. Learn to be comforting and accepting of your child and their decisions, so as to not push them away. Let your children mature and become curious about different things in life, like their bodily functions and the differences between boys and girls. This sort of curiosity tends to occur between the ages of 3 and 4. Children of this age can bite, hit, or kick one another for ownership of toys or the playground, and at this time it is important to teach your children that their bodies are their own, and no one else should be touching them. If they continue to ask why and question your instructions, let them know that you will talk about it when they are older.
If you begin to talk about private parts at such a young age, children may not understand or could become fearful to go out or even sleep at night. On that note, it is important to bring up these issues and differences with your child when you are engaged in a more serious conversation with them. It might not be a good idea to initiate such a conversation out of the blue because they most likely won’t be as engaged and understanding of the topic at a very young age.
At the young age of 3 and onwards, teaching your child a sense of "self-worth" is imperative in order for them to understand when they are being treated disrespectfully or when they are engaging in acts that they find to be uncomfortable or against their instincts. Studies show that the most sexually abused children are those that may not have the best family life or feel lost and lonely in the world. If children gain a sense of empowerment and worth from a young age, this feeling will grow with them throughout life and help them stay away from abusive situations on their own.
It is important to cater to your child’s age appropriately by modifying the conversation for their level of understanding. At the age of two or three, most kids begin daycare or preschool and begin to interact with others. Prompt your child to tell you if anyone touched them inappropriately or even appropriately while away to get them used to sharing information with you. The best time to do this would be right after picking them up from daycare or seeing them for the first time since being away, so as to create a comfortable environment. Make sure to tell them that they are not in trouble, and that you will be there to love and support them no matter what to help create a trusting relationship. It is essential that you do not ask these types of questions in front of the person you suspect may be touching your child inappropriately. This does not create an open environment and may actually intimidate your child, leading them to not tell you the truth out of fear.
Talking to Elementary & Middle School Children
For young children, specifically school-age children, it is important to make sure they know their full names, addresses, and phone numbers as well as your workplace and neighbors’ numbers. They should also know how to call 911 in an emergency and how to call the operator. It is also vital to constantly remind them to not give away this information to anyone they do not know. You must explain that giving personal information away puts them in an extremely risky situation and may result in danger.
Learn your children about human body
As children begin to get older, it is essential that you teach them about their bodies while they are still fairly young. You should be open to teaching your child about body parts, including the vagina, penis, and breasts. It is important for them to understand that these parts are private, and no one should be touching or even talking about these parts with them unless it is an immediate family member or doctor. A troubling piece of information that young children must be aware of is that not only do strangers pose a risk to them, but family members and friends are also capable of harming them. This information can get tricky to word to young children, as to not invoke vast amounts of fear in them. Approach this subject in a calm, yet serious manner without explaining the topic in immense detail. Make sure to tell your children to be wary of friends and family if they begin to offer candy or toys to them. Warn your children to alert you of any such situations right away. Teach them at a young age that certain body parts are private, and if anyone approaches them asking to touch them or even talks about these parts, they should alert you or a trusted adult of the situation immediately.
Warn your children about sexual predators tricks
You can play "what-if" scenarios with your child to help them understand and know what a potential situation may feel like, so they are prepared if that were to ever happen. Warn your children about so-called "authority tricks" that many sexual predators employ. Explain to your child that sexual predators have a tendency to act as cops with fake badges and uniforms and try to lure children away or into their cars. Tell your child that real cops would never do anything like that without talking to you or a guardian before. Inform your child of these potential situations so they know to scream and run away if someone they don’t know or trust approaches them. It is also essential that they know to always ask for your permission to go anywhere, or with someone, and to alert you of a situation like this to protect themselves. As your children grow more mature, you can help them learn Internet and technology safety such as not sharing any personal information or photos, as well as identifying and reporting sexually suggestive advances.
Talking to High School Children
As children get older, it is important to understand that adolescents need their private space. Keep an open forum with them, but know to maintain some distance so that you won’t act as a "helicopter parent," hovering and spying over their every move, which could dissuade them from sharing information with you. Setting boundaries with teenagers becomes a key element to helping them understand the responsibilities of growing up while still giving them the "personal space" they desperately want.
Adolescents and teenagers learn best from example. While parents may take a more authoritative stance with younger children and teach and lecture them on safety tips, teenagers learn best by taking note of what those around them are doing. It is for this reason that it is very important to monitor your children’s behaviors with friends and family, and to act as a role model for your teenager, not a lecturer. Media and pop culture have a tremendous amount of influence on teenagers, so it is important to continue dialogue between you and your child to help them identify and avoid sexual pressures or and dangerous situations. Help them understand that the media is not a proper representation of life, and that they should follow your lead and examples. By this age it is important for children to know most, if not all, trusted adults in their family and friend groups.
As teenagers get to the age of going off alone with friends, the language and scenarios you use to warn them of danger tends to change. At this age, it is important to teach your children to not only be careful of older adults, but also to stay together with friends in groups, and to never wander off alone. One essential behavior that all teenagers should become experts in is never going to the bathroom or to the store on their own. During this time in their lives, children begin to feel a sense of independence and a want to do "adult" things. Teach your teenager to never go anywhere alone, and that it is never "cool" to put oneself in such danger. It is vital that you tell them that although they think they are old enough to do things on their own, they are still your children and just as vulnerable to getting lured and sexually abused by a predator. You can continue with "what-if" scenarios with your teenager, but with more realistic and age-appropriate language of situations they might encounter. These "what-if" situations should resemble more probable situations with friends, at group gatherings, and in public spaces like malls and movie theaters.
Monitor your teenager behavior
In addition to incorporating "what-if" situations with your child, you must also monitor your child’s behavior at home, with friends, and especially on the Internet. As teenagers are more likely to engage themselves in risky behaviors to be "cool," children of this age are extremely vulnerable to potential violence and abuse by adults. Children of this age may have a hard time discerning whether an adult they met online means them harm. If you suspect your teenager is communicating with sexual predators or people who are of bad influence, it is encouraged to install parental blocks and controls on televisions, computers, and cell phones. Again, be sure not to act as a "helicopter parent" watching over each and every activity of your child, but do set limits with your children and encourage open discussion whenever possible.
Establishing and maintaining open dialogue with your child is the first and most valuable step in encouraging them to talk to you and share important information in their lives.
Building a trusting relationship with your children
Building a trusting relationship with your child is not necessarily easy, and trying to get them to share the things going on in their lives with you can be even harder. This is why establishing an open and welcoming environment with your child from the beginning stages of their life is essential. With an open and supportive environment, children are less intimidated and more likely to discuss issues and topics in their lives. This type of sharing serves as a building block for times when your child needs to discuss more serious issues, and for when you need to bring up the topic of sex and sexual abuse.
Another good technique in asking your children these types of inquisitive questions is asking in nonjudgmental ways, using "I." As children get older and become adolescents and teenagers, they tend to become more defensive and less open to answering questions about themselves. Implementing techniques such as this one lets your child know that you are not shaming them or judging them, but instead you are discussing your feelings maturely with them. That way, children feel less pressure to answer your questions and concerns. An example of an "I" question can be something such as, "I’m interested in your life and I want to make sure you are happy and comfortable. How can I help?" These types of questions help the child feel comfort and support, making them less intimidated and more eager to gush out feelings when a parent is concerned. This is the opposite of placing the burden of guilt on the child with a question such as, "Someone told me you did something, is this true?" This type of question can make the child feel as if he or she is "on the spot," and will make them less likely to respond with the truth, if at all.
These types of questions are important in everyday settings, as it is widely known that more than half of sexual predators and abusers are people that the children know and are close to. Taking the feeling of blame off the children and opening up the conversation will make them feel less intimidated in answering questions or telling you about people that you both may know. This is especially true if you have already established a supportive and nonjudgmental approach with them, letting them know that you will not get angry with them for telling you such information.
Establish an open relationship with your teenager
As children get older and begin to transition into their teenage years, they begin to feel a sense of "independence" and a feeling that they can conquer the world on their own without anybody’s help, including their parents. Try to maintain and establish an open relationship with your teenager so that almost any time and place can be a good opportunity to ask questions. This is the age that puberty begins to set in, and children may feel uncomfortable answering or even asking you questions about their growth. If you create open dialogue with nonjudgmental views and behaviors, your teen will be less reluctant to tell you what is going on in their life. Teens feel more comfortable telling things to their friends, so if you begin to take on the friendship and supporting role with your child, they will be encouraged to talk to you. Being open with your teen yourself can help them feel a sense comfort and willingness to reciprocate and share things with you of their own accord.
Talking to Kids about Sex
As some parents may feel uncomfortable sharing details with their teenagers about sex or sexual abuse, they veer towards telling teens that "sex is bad," or they may even ignore the subject altogether. That is the opposite of what you should do with teenagers. Opening up the conversation to discuss real-life situations and circumstances can help your teens to feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics with you. A parent can open up the conversation with a soft subject such as, "how are things with your boyfriend (or girlfriend)? Are you feeling comfortable with them?" If they don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you can ask them how things are going at school with their friends, or see if they have interacted with any adults you might not know about.
As all teens mature differently, some may feel pressured to behave in more sexualized patterns than they’re comfortable with. It is important to reassure your child that it is completely normal and alright to be less interested in sex than their peers may be. Discuss with them the dangers of sexual pressures and circumstances of engaging in risky behaviors that they do not wish to participate in. Again, being open with your teens about real-life situations will help them understand the dangers and be more willing to ask and answer questions with you.
All of this advice may seem easier said than done – especially when you have a stubborn teenager at home. If you have a teenager, here are some quick tips from Talk Line for Parents to help you try to reach them:
Although it may seem like you and your teen are speaking a different language, it is important to keep the lines of communication open. Your teen may need you now more than ever.
Important tips for talking with your teen include:
- LISTEN more, and talk less. Listening helps parents to understand their teens better, work with their teens on solutions to problems, and show their teens they are concerned and interested.
- Keep your conversations respectful. Kids learn to speak respectfully by modeling the way you communicate. Also, teens are much more likely to listen if you treat them with respect rather than embarrassing, criticizing, or lecturing them.
- Create times for your teen to talk to you. Do things one-on-one. Eat dinner with the entire family. Sometimes it’s easier for teens to talk when they don’t have to look directly at their parents like in the car or on a walk.
- Reflect the feelings, and respect the ideas of your teen. You don’t have to agree with your teen, but when you show your teen you understand and respect his/her feelings, he/she is more likely to open up to you.
- Your tone of voice should show that you care and respect your teen. Yelling will only cause your teen to shut down communication. Take a break if you want to yell.
- Make limits and expectations clear. Writing down expectations and creating an action plan can help. When you give your teen instructions, write them down.
- Cool off before giving a consequence for rule-breaking or failing to meet expectations, and don’t shut out your teen when you disapprove of behavior. If you are too upset to talk in a reasonable way, tell your teen you need time.
- Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that will get a "yes" or "no" answer or questions to which you already know the answer. You will get much better responses.
- Admit your mistakes. There is a no better way to set a good example.
- Keep your sense of humor.
The real key to getting your child to talk to you is establishing a trusting and supportive relationship from the beginning. Being close without being overbearing is the perfect way to act with your teenager, and even younger children. Through all of this, it is important to remember that building a strong and trusting relationship can help you instruct and protect your children through everyday conversations.