Sad as it may sound, the painful reality is that you cannot provide your children foolproof protection from what are, in my opinion, the greatest physical and spiritual dangers that they might face during their formative years; abuse and molestation. Why? Because it is simply impossible to follow them wherever they go, all the more so as they pass through their pre-teen and teenage years. Furthermore, it is impractical and harmful to their sense of security to raise them to be frightened or suspicious of every adult that they meet. Finally, it is important to understand that although most of the high-profile abuse cases are school based, they are only a tiny percentage of the instances of molestation. Abusers are far more likely to be extended or close family members, older kids in the neighborhood, family friends, neighbors and peers.
With that in mind, I suggest that you view things from a broader perspective and think of protecting your children from abuse/molestation in the following four domains:
1) Training your children about healthy and appropriate norms for behavior between adults and children;
2) Equipping your children with the knowledge of what abusive behaviors are;
3) Empowering your children with the self-confidence to assert themselves when their personal space is violated; and
4) Supporting your children if and when they report to you that they are feeling that things are out of order.
In the broadest sense, the time for fathers and mothers to begin protecting their beloved children from abuse/molestation is the moment they begin their married life together.
Think of it this way. Children who are raised in homes that are havens of safety, love, mutual respect and tolerance are far more likely to immediately notice when they are treated in an abusive manner. Emotionally healthy, self-confident children who appreciate their sacred right to privacy and personal space are far more likely to hear the warning bells blaring whenever that space is invaded. Children who grow up with the notion that they can be comfortable discussing anything with their parents will, in all likelihood, inform them the very moment that something is amiss.
Conversely, children who are bullied into submission by their own parents or those who regularly view one parent being cowed into silence by the other may think that abusive behavior is quite normal. Children who are denied their personal space or whose individuality is crushed or suppressed by their parents or the educational system of their parents’ choice may not think much is amiss when outsiders do the same to them. In fact, as I mentioned in the previous column, most predators have a ‘sixth sense’ of which children have grown up in these trying conditions – and zoom in on them like a moth drawn to light.
Therefore, the most effective thing that parents can do to keep their children safe is to model healthy interactions between adults (that’s you) and children, and to empower them to speak up if they feel threatened or uncomfortable.
Here are some practical tips:
- Encourage your children to share the events of their day with you when they arrive home each day. Spend time with them, make eye contact, and listen – really listen – to what they have to say.
- Tell your children – early and often – that they can discuss anything with you, no matter how disturbing or uncomfortable those things are. Be aware that this means that you must develop true tolerance for their misdeeds if you want this to continue.
- One of the most effective methods of protection is to teach your children that no adult is ever permitted to tell them a secret that they cannot tell their parents. This is a huge ‘red flag’ for predatory behavior, since part and parcel of the depraved strategy of molesters is to keep things secret from parents. There is no acceptable set of circumstances where any adult should ever be telling a child to keep secrets from his/her parents. Teaching your children that this is wrong is a powerful tool in their protective arsenal. Likewise, parents who keep secrets from each other are also modeling poor values (the kids figure it out quite soon).
- Encourage the notion of personal space in your child’s life. Tell your children to knock before entering a room if they think that someone there may be undressed (do the same yourself). Give your children a drawer to keep their private possessions, and ask their siblings to respect that privacy.
- “Your body belongs to you,” (or, “Your body is on loan to you from Hashem”) is a theme that should be stressed with children. While bathing young children, for example, is often a good time to discuss privacy matters in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. Tell them about ‘good touching’ and ‘bad touching’. One way of expressing this concept is to explain to them that no one except for parents can touch them in a spot covered by a bathing suit. Please do not alarm them. Frame the discussion as one of safety, and use the same tone that you would use when informing them not to take candy from strangers and not to cross the street without an adult.
- Another supremely important thing to convey to children is that they should not ever be forced to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. Tell them that if they are asked to do something that “doesn’t feel right,” they have the right to say no – even to an adult. (Many, many victims report that they felt they had no choice but to go along with the demands of the abuser.)
If you suspect that your child was molested, please seek the counsel of a trained mental health professional, preferably before you speak to your children.
As I noted earlier, foolproof protection is virtually impossible. But implementing these practical suggestions will dramatically increase the odds that your children will remain safe and secure.
© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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