Vetting Adults in Child’s Life, Trusting Inner Voice Are Essential To Helping Protect Against Harm, Abuse
There's no single type of abuser who can cause harm to a young person. It can come from family members, friends, people who know the child well, and those who don't. It can also appear in many forms, from undermining their self-esteem to outright physical or sexual abuse.
As a result, it's critical for parents and guardians to be aware of who is in your kids' lives so you can protect them from harm, wherever and whenever it arises. Raising children who know how to trust when appropriate, but who also understand how to be cautious, is equally important.
Michael Turner, associate director of community-based services at Great Circle, says the first lesson in protecting children is to teach them how to keep themselves safe.
"Have a conversation with your kids about what is and is not OK in terms of body safety," he advises. "Explain that no one should see or touch any private part of their bodies unless it is a trusted figure like a parent or health care professional who is helping them to stay healthy, clean or safe."
Turner says most child abuse cases are at the hands of an adult who is known to the young person, so parents and guardians need to understand what a potential perpetrator's "grooming" behavior looks like.
"The abuser usually knows how to influence parents, families, even entire communities to believe they are safe and trustworthy so they can gain access to children," he says. "This is why, when an abuse case comes to light, neighbors and friends often express disbelief. Chances are, they thought the perpetrator was normal and harmless. This is a sign the abuser has done their work well."
According to Turner, abusers often scout out vulnerable family situations and neighborhoods where they can blend in. There might be single parents with young children in the area, or grandparents raising kids, and especially if finances are strained, adults may respond positively when a potential abuser offers to pay bills, babysit, help with car or home repairs, or buy gifts for the children. Abusers also may try to contact a child online or via smartphone applications.
"Potential abusers have many methods of working their way in," Turner says. "They prey on people's fears and needs, and the parent or guardian often ends up feeling beholden to them. Of course, there are many good people who may offer help as well, but it's important to know the difference."
Turner says the key is for parents and guardians to trust their intuition.
"If someone is trying to become part of your child's life, but you don't have a good gut reaction to it, pay attention to that feeling," he advises. "Then, put distance between your child and the adult, reach out to authorities if needed, and note how the adult reacts. Do they become angry, irrational or panicked? Do they threaten retaliation or continue making unwelcome contact? Do they seem desperate to find out what you know? If the answer is yes, then chances are, your protective instincts were on target. A normal, nonthreatening person would not behave in that way."
To help kids stay safe in environments outside the home, parents and guardians should always ask in advance about the protocols a facility or organization has in place.
"If your child is attending activities after school or in the community, don't feel bad about asking what the safety rules are," he notes. "Is there glass in classroom doors so the inhabitants are always visible? Does the facility require two adults to be always in the room with children? Are all areas of the facility covered by security cameras? If there is an off-campus trip, will multiple responsible adults be attending? If you understand the policies that are in place, it's much easier to call them out when they are not followed."
If you suspect your child is at risk, it's important to look for alterations in his or her behavior and physical self. Have there been any changes in mood, friendships, schoolwork or normal enjoyment of activities? Are there any unexplained marks on the child's body? And just as importantly, do you notice improvement in the child's behavior, mood or communication once the potential abuser has been removed?
“If you do uncover a potentially dangerous situation, don't blame yourself,” Turner says.
"The family may feel like they have failed the child by not catching the problem earlier," he notes. "Instead, focus on teaching the child how to be careful in the future. And don't hesitate to take action."
Once you call a child abuse hotline, it sets in motion a multidisciplinary program of services. A team of providers can help ensure that your child and family get the short- and long-term help and counseling they need.
“Hotline conversations are anonymous, and abusers cannot find out who placed the call, so there's no reason to fear the reporting process,” Turner adds.
"It's important to start the healing right away," he says. "Ignoring the situation puts your child at risk and sends a message that he or she will have to get through it alone."
Instead, emphasize that while there may be challenges, you will navigate the process together, and trusted adults will provide support.
"Kids need to be able to work through traumatic events and move past them," Turner says. "You are your children's most important advocate. It's your right and responsibility to know who is around them."