How to Keep Kids Safe From Harm
by Empowering Them
“Empower your children to own their space and their bodies and their boundaries, and to put into practice the things you have so carefully and lovingly taught them. The benefits will be powerful and long lasting.”
The author has worked with abused and neglected children and their families for over 25 years, with much of that time spent working with victims of sexual abuse. Currently, he works for a Children’s Advocacy Center, educating parents about what they can do to help their children recover from the trauma of sexual abuse. In this position he has specialized in learning how to help keep kids safe, and what parents can do to educate their children about “grooming” behaviors.
As parents I know you always want to keep your children safe. Especially in today’s world, where technology facilitates accessing all sorts of information at any time, we all need to be vigilant in trying to prepare our kids for the world around them. As parents, we need to work with them, on their level and in their worlds, to try and equip them for what is out there.
While no person and no single effort can guarantee your children will never experience harm, there are a few steps you can take to try and reduce the level of risk, reduce the severity of what may occur, and increase the resilience in your kids and hence their ability to heal from a traumatic event.
Because parents ask me what they can do to protect their kids, I want to share what I think are some of the most important steps you can take.
Teach your children
1-Teach your children that there are bad people who do bad things.
Teach them it’s okay to not want to be with or around someone, even if they are in a position of trust. Think teachers, sports coaches, even relatives.
I’m not talking about hating or fearing everyone; I’m talking about a “healthy paranoia.”
2- Teach children that they need to be prepared for how to get out of bad situations. Let them know that everyone makes bad choices sometimes; it’s called learning and growing up.
Help them to plan ahead of time, to have a way out or a way of calling for help.
There is an episode of the police drama Blue Bloods where the sister is taken hostage. In an effort to save her, the brother meets with her and the captor. He says to the captor, “Please don’t hurt my family.” As he says this, the sister falls down quickly as the brother shoots the captor. This was obviously a situation the family had anticipated and prepared for. It is a great example of preparing ahead of time.
3-Teach your children that no matter what they do, they can ALWAYS come home to talk to you about it, no matter what “it” is.
Statistics say that it will take a girl 3-5 years to disclose an incident of sexual abuse. 3-5 YEARS! As sad as that is, it takes boys 18-20 years. That is a very long time for a child to try and deal with something he or she does not have the skills to deal with.
I have worked with so many children who say they waited to tell anyone because they were afraid they would get in trouble with their parents.
Make sure your kids don’t feel this way (I’ll share more about this later).
4-Teach your kids about boundaries and about consent and about respect.
These can be tough concepts, but they are important to talk about and to teach.
I know many girls, even teenagers, who have said, “I didn’t say no, so I guess it was consensual.” This is wrong on many levels, and actually places blame on the victim.
Teach your children that THEY can say no, to any one, any time.
In fact, teach your children that they can say “yes” one minute, and “no” the next, and teach them that no means no and silence is NOT consent.
Many, many times a boy will ask to touch a girl sexually and the girl says no. Rather than respecting that boundary, the boy will continue to try and coerce or cajole or even “guilt” the girl into doing something she already said no to, maybe even more than once.
Teach your children to own their personal boundaries and bodies and decisions and space and to respect that with others.
With all of these, DON’T preach to your children; teach them. They don’t need a pastor and they don’t need another friend. They need a parent, who has the wisdom and love and acceptance to help them learn and be safe.
Listen to your children
1-Give your kids a safe space to talk to you.
Kids, especially kids who have been through a traumatic experience, need to feel safe. I am not talking about physical safety, although that is important. I am talking about emotional safety. This safety will become apparent in how you respond to the conversation.
For example, if 10-year-old Timmy comes to you and says, “I saw a naked lady on Jeff’s (his 10-year-old neighbor) computer,” how are you going to respond?
Most parents I work with will immediately start to ask questions such as, “When did you see this? Where was Jeff’s mom? How many times did you see it? Who else was there? Why didn’t you tell me (before now)?” etc., etc.
If you add to this a (scared/worried/angry) tone of voice and possibly a call to Jeff’s mom, then you just taught Timmy, “Well, I can’t talk to mom/dad about this stuff. They just totally freak out.”
That is not the message you want to give. I tell parents that in that moment of disclosure (and just in that moment), you need to be calm, almost nonchalant, and say something like, “Wow. Thanks for sharing that with me. Is there anything else you want to share?” and then address it appropriately.
This teaches the child that you are a “safe” person to talk to, that they can share provocative stuff with you (they don’t even know what provocative means) and you will not blow up. That is the message you want to send.
2-Give your teenagers a safe space to talk to you.
I mention teenagers separately because they are in a whole different space emotionally and cognitively. They truly believe they “know everything” and they are trying to be adults. As they are doing this it is essential that you be there for them, maybe even with them.
To that end, when your teenager comes home and says, “I smoked dope at school today” or “I had sex at my friend’s house today,” your response needs to be the same, even if it is a LOT more difficult. While I know every single parental cell in your body is screaming, “WHAT HAPPENED??!!” you still need to remain calm and let your teen know that you are a safe person to talk to.
And remember, even though they look like adults (my 16-year old could grow a beard and was 4 inches taller than me) they are not yet fully developed, emotionally or cognitively. This means they probably don’t even have the answers to your questions, which makes asking questions somewhat futile anyway.
3-Give yourself permission to create this safe space
There is a TON of baggage that accompanies being a parent. The problem is, no one ever does it perfectly. Therefore, know now that you are going to mess it up (sometimes), and it’s OKAY. You are trying to do the right things the right ways for the right reasons. Just keep that in mind.
The goal isn’t to fix the problem; the goal is to make a safe space for the child to talk and share. The goal is to make sure they come to YOU for help, support and healing, not someplace else.
I am NOT saying that you never respond to your child’s statements, especially if they were or are in danger. If your child is at risk or has been hurt then you absolutely must respond and get everyone and anyone involved that you need to.
It is just in that moment of initial disclosure you want to not “freak out” and scare them away from ever talking to you again. Do your “reacting” out of earshot a few minutes later.
So, when your kids come to you (and ALL parents want and hope their kids come to them) and share something, just let them share.
Do NOT ask questions. Do NOT lecture. Do NOT place blame. Do NOT label.
Just let them share. Celebrate the fact that they are sharing with YOU. They are sharing because they WANT your input. They are sharing because they feel safe with you, and you want that to continue.
If you question their choices or their behavior, you will shut down those lines of communication and they will go elsewhere (and not tell you) for support and answers.
Kids have so much going on, and they are trying to figure out life and their place in it. Be THE safe space for them to come and just share and be…
Empower your children
You have put all of the time and effort into educating your children. Now you need to support them in putting these valuable teachings into practice.
Tell your kids that THEY are in charge of their bodies and their personal boundaries, and then give them the power to exercise those choices.
Tell your kids THEY get to choose whether to hug, hold hands, have sex, or even talk to another person, and then let them make those choices.
This means – when grandma comes to visit and she says to your 4-year-old, “Come give grandma a hug,” and your 4-year-old says “No,” then you (and grandma) respect that.
When you force a child to hug or kiss or be with someone, even a close family member, you teach them that OTHERS have power over their choices and their bodies.Grandma (or uncle or cousin or whomever) may get upset when they are rebuffed from the hug, but you give your child POWER and teach an invaluable lesson about personal choice, space, and boundaries.
I do this with my own toddler-aged grandchildren. Just because society or family rules say, “Always hug grandma” doesn’t mean that a child should have to. This is a great way to teach little ones early on that they have power over their bodies and how they can be touched.
Another way to teach this is if your child doesn’t want to “eat all their vegetables,” they don’t have to. Think of how empowering this can be for a child, and how it teaches them they can have a say in what happens to them. (I know this is a delicate balance; just think of ways to teach this powerful concept to your kids.)
As parents, we need to “walk the talk.” We cannot tell our children to have boundaries, and then not respect them. We cannot tell them they can say “No” and then force them to hug a relative.
Empower your children to own their space and their bodies and their boundaries, and to put into practice the things you have so carefully and lovingly taught them. The benefits will be powerful and long lasting.
By Michael Meyers
Michael holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a Master’s Degree in Psychology.