How To: Protect Your Kids From The Bad Guys

I usually don't like to write about this kind of thing. But I can't stop thinking about it.

We spend so much time trying to keep our kids safe. We research car seats and we shop organic and we don't let them play in the front yard without supervision. And our desire to keep our kids safe is so noble. It is so right.

But we are also getting it really, really wrong. 

Because in my office, working with trauma, I sit on the other side of those parenting decisions. I sit with those who weren't safe. The ones who have been hurt by the "bad guys" as my son would say. So although I don't often work directly with the bad guys, I feel like I've begun to form a picture of them. And... we aren't getting it right. And as a parent who wants your kid to be safe I feel like you need to know:

  • The bad guys are attractive.
  • The bad guys are clean cut.
  • The bad guys wear polo shirts and have fresh haircuts.
  • The bad guys are also women.
  • The bad guys are fingerprinted and background checked.
  • The bad guys are really charming and kind.
  • The bad guys have children of their own.
  • The bad guys are patient and good at blending in.

You see, we spend so much time looking for the bad guys "out there". We look skeptically at anyone who doesn't match their surroundings. I think this is evolutionary. We are looking for the outsider; the fox in the hen house. But that means we give everyone on the "inside" a pass. We stop looking at them.

Once someone has been deemed an insider:
  • We don't listen to our gut.
  • We don't listen to our kids' discomfort.
  • We encourage our kids to violate their instincts and "be polite".
  • We excuse questionable and revealing behavior.

The problem is, this idea that "bad guys" are easily identifiable turns out to be totally false. We are spending all our energy in the wrong place while at the same time ignoring what matters. The most dangerous bad guys are the best at looking just like their prey. Their camouflage is what we need to recognize.

People in our lives are always revealing who they are. There is an ongoing dialogue of interaction. Those who are truly damaging (and smart) will slowly push boundaries. They don't start with obvious behavior. This is called "grooming" and it is real. And it is extremely subtle.

"Grooming" can look like:
  • Prolonged and/or uninvited physical contact
  • Pressured emotional intimacy and "secret sharing"
  • Jovial mocking of boundaries
  • Disregard for the word "no" that looks playful
  • Defensive labeling of interaction as "loving" or "joking" when called out (instead of apology and respect)
  • Over-familiarity
  • Slow increase in time spent together to the exclusion of others
  • Physical contact that doesn't feel right but isn't technically wrong
  • Driving a wedge between parent and child (secret-keeping for instance)
  • Saying one thing and doing another

All these behaviors and more, are a type of "fishing". The attempt behind grooming is to see what reaction they get. The bad guy doesn't want to be caught. Statistics tell us that although bad guys are a small minority, they also harm a lot of kids before (or if) they ever get caught. And so... they test first. They are smart. They want to see what they can get away with. They patiently press in closer and closer, while seeing if they can get away with more and more behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable.

The truth is, NO kid is 100% safe from this. But there are statistics and experience that tell us who is more at risk:

  • Children with addicted parents
  • Children in volatile custody disputes or contentious homes
  • Children in the foster system
  • Children with communication challenges
  • Children with highly shaming families (including strict cultural or religious traditions)
  • Children with parents who were abused as children

Why are these children at risk? I believe it's precisely because of how grooming works.

As the "bad guy" edges closer and closer to harm, they are waiting to see if they will be called out. If they are busted by you, then they are *this side* of something inappropriate... and so they easily laugh it off as silly. They tell you that you're "taking it the wrong way" and they move on to someone else. Like a lion watching for the slowest gazelle, the "bad guy" is looking for the child and parent that will not speak up. 

So these children are at risk because they don't have a voice. They don't speak up, or they don't have anyone receptive to speak to. For different reasons, in each of these scenarios there is a barrier to open communication. And so that process of getting called out before it gets bad- it doesn't happen. And the grooming is allowed to continue until it turns into full-scale abuse.

So what can you do to decrease the odds that your child will be a victim?

1. Listen to your instincts-
Pay attention to your gut. Let me say that again. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR GUT. It will be quiet. It will be someone who looks normal. You will second-guess yourself if the bad guy is smart. Do not ignore the alarm bells. If you feel uneasy about someone, distance yourself from them. You do not owe anyone access to you or your children. You do not owe them an explanation.

It has to pass the "smell test". If it doesn't feel right- it isn't! 

2. Give your child a voice-
Encourage them to firmly say "no" to anything they don't like. Tell them they are the boss of their body. Respect their "no" in regard to their bodily autonomy. Enforce respect for the word "no" among siblings and even between parent and child. Teach them phrases like "stop" and "I don't like that" and "keep your hands to yourself".

3. Listen to your child-
If they look hesitant or uncomfortable do not force them to interact or touch someone. Do not label self-protection or reluctance as "rude". Give them a vocabulary for their instinct that includes the words: "Uncomfortable, unsafe, and funny feeling". Thank them for doing this with you and act on it. Take their concerns seriously. Children often have great instincts until adults teach them to ignore it.

4. Discuss good touch and "private parts"-
Children whose parents use the medically correct terms for private parts are statistically less likely to be sexually abused and more likely to tell if they are. Why? Because if parents are teaching their 3-year-old the word "vagina" or "penis" then you can assume they are openly discussing the body. Those children already know the difference between good touch and bad touch. They know they can talk about it and not be shamed. And they have a vocabulary (a voice) to speak about what they're experiencing. Predators take advantage of confusion. Children who have an ongoing conversation with their parents about their bodies are less confused.

5. Be Nosey-
Ask lots of questions about your child and to your child. Ask lots of questions without apology of the adults who are with your child (which indicates that you and your child are not easy targets). Good adults will get it. Bad guys will be deterred by it. Ask your child lots of open-ended questions about their time with others. Who joined them? What was their favorite part? Their least favorite part? Do they have any questions for you? Did they feel good? Even if you child doesn't have much to say, this facilitates dialogue and demonstrates to your child that they can always come to you with any inane detail of their experiences. 

Every day I sit with adult clients who are trying to heal from the trauma of childhood abuse. In my experience, it is not the one-time-abuse that does the most damage. It is the ongoing grooming, the pervasive feeling of being unsafe, and the failure of good adults to act on what they know- that creates the most long-lasting harm.

I believe that most adults mean well. I don't think parents purposefully set their kids up to be abused. I don't believe most adults really know that their child needs help. They excuse behavior that is inappropriate and they prioritize being polite over being safe.

It is my hope that information like this will mean I have less clients in a generation. Because there is more of us than there is of them. The good are many, the dangerous are few. But ignorance is allowing the bad guys to continue without challenge. It's time we stop being so worried about being "the good guys" and start worrying about defending the innocent.

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