Why it’s never OK to scare kids…. Even at Halloween!

A video of daycare workers terrifying toddlers as they chased them while wearing a frightening mask made the rounds on the evening news last week. They were arrested and charged with child abuse. These staffers may have thought Halloween made this behavior acceptable, but decades of science have taught us that terrorizing child is a form of psychological maltreatment, and like other types of child abuse it harms a child in many ways, especially by disrupting their relationship with the adults they desperately need to trust. 

While this case is extreme, it’s far from the only time adults have decided to have Halloween fun at the expense of children. Celebrities like Jimmy Kimmel urge parents to prank their kids at Halloween and submit videos of the children in distress.  “We’re seeing increasing instances of parents and caretakers perpetrating different kinds of  psychological maltreatment and posting it on social media,often to a strong positive response,” Amy Baker, an expert on psychological maltreatment and member of The Psychological Maltreatment Alliance board, told me.  

Clearly, parents need to understand more about how these behaviors affect their children. 

The most important developmental task for preschoolers is to learn that the world is safe, and their grown-ups are there to protect and support them. Developing trust is a critical building block to both curiosity and independence, which are key attributes of successful adults. But the damage of psychological maltreatment is a form of trauma that can have lifelong health effects, according to a field of research focused on how adverse experiences during childhood affect our health as adults. 

How can you judge what is OK during the Halloween fright season? We can turn to developmental psychology as a guide. Infants are just learning to trust, but are often startled by new faces, noises – and certainly a scary mask. Toddlers and preschoolers, like the children seen in the day-care center video, are learning autonomy. Pre-schoolers are developing independence. Frightening a child in a way that causes them to doubt their own perceptions of reality can interfere with these key developmental tasks and may do lasting harm. When the perpetrator is a caretaker, it can disrupt bonding, another key element of healthy development. Developmental psychologists believe children must complete one phase of development before being able to fully move on to the next; a trauma, especially perpetrated by a trusted caregiver, can be a roadblock to completing a developmental phase. 

Older children may be better able to discern whether a masked person is a real threat. But there is never a good age for a parent or caretaker to prank a child.Fooling older children who are learning to be more independent and finding their internal compass  may make them feel stupid and ashamed both for being scared and for not seeing through the ruse. These are very strong emotions and are magnified when caused by a trusted parent or caregiver. 

So does that mean Halloween is canceled? Celebrate the Halloween season by starting off any activity with younger children by clearly asking the child if they’re ready to play ‘make believe’.  If the answer is no, don’t do it.  For kids of any age, ask how they would like to observe Halloween and make a plan with the following points in mind:

  • If you decide together to visit a haunted house or similar holiday attraction, maintain your role as the safe person for your child. Hang on to their hand and do not join the cast of characters in efforts to scare your child. 
  • Involve your child in making age-appropriate decisions. Make sure you are recognizable to your child if you dress up. Keep the infant’s involvement to a cute attire like a onesie or cap. Include toddlers and preschoolers in making costumes or masks together.
  • Remember how quickly school aged kids and adolescents feel deep shame  or humiliation if they feel they’ve been duped. Research has shown that humiliation can be just as damaging as physical abuse. 

Most of all – remember how critical it is that our kids truly be able to trust their beloved caretakers so they can grow into loving and trustworthy adults.

Janet Rosenzweig is an author, educator and researcher who has worked in child welfare for more than four decades. She is a Senior Policy Analyst with The Institute for Human services, teaches at The University of Pennsylvania, and is a member of the Research Committee of The Psychological Maltreatment Alliance

THIS POST ORIGIONALLY APPEARED IN THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, OCTOBER 2022

Teaching the difference between privacy and secrecy can improve parent-child relationships

Teaching the difference between privacy and secrecy can improve parent-child relationships

Great relationships are built on trust — just think about who you choose as a confidant or list as an emergency contact.

Trust involves feeling safe to share anything with someone without fear of painful consequences. Most of us can think of very few people with whom we feel that way, yet parents and primary caregivers ideally want their children’s trust. Trust can help keep children safe and strengthen relationships with parents and others raising children.

A vital step is understanding, teaching and respecting the difference between privacy and secrecy.

What’s the difference between privacy and secrecy?

Secrets are knowledge someone feels they cannot share. ‘Good’ secrets might be about a nice surprise for someone, like a special visitor or gift. Good secrets are time-limited — they’re not kept forever. But children should not be asked to keep any other kind of secret, and it’s important they know to tell a trusted adult if they are told to “just keep this between us.”

Privacy, meanwhile, means that a child can do something on their own, without observation, but with the caregiver’s knowledge. We want children to learn that as they grow, we will respect their privacy more and more as they earn our trust. We also want our children to trust us enough that if something uncomfortable happens in a private experience, they tell us.

Knowing the difference between privacy and secrecy is key in preventing child sexual abuse. Predators often start a relationship with a child that seems fun and innocent, but gradually becomes sexualized. Similarly, teens may date someone who pressures them for sex.

How can I teach my kids to not keep secrets?

Develop family rules about secret-keeping, with a clear definition of a “good” secret.

Consider a family rule that a child can spend private time with people, but what happens can’t be secret. Of course, the amount of detail we have a right to expect decreases as our child gets older.

We want children to learn that as they grow, we will respect their privacy more and more as they earn our trust. Getty Images (custom credit)

Discuss why kids should tell a trusted adult about other secrets, even if they’re worried about the reaction. Too often children — and adults — keep damaging secrets out of fear, guilt or shame.

One way to ensure that your child doesn’t feel the need for secrecy is to let them help set boundaries for how you will react if they share a secret. For instance, you could agree to first respond to a request of any kind by offering immediate help and refrain from sharing your own opinion (or launching into a lecture) for at least 12 hours.

For example: Your teenager is at a party that got out of hand, and they call you for a ride home. If you start to lecture on the ride home, the teen may invoke the 12-hour rule. You’ll have to sleep on it overnight, but your child will be safe and you will be able to broach the topic with a clear head in the morning.

When can children have privacy?

When our children understand that they don’t need to hide things from us, they can start to earn the right to privacy. We can explain to our kids, “Privacy means you get to do something by yourself; secrecy means no one knows about it.” With younger kids, toileting provides a great analogy. “When Mommy knows you’re big enough to get on and off the toilet and clean yourself, you can go to the bathroom by yourself, with privacy. But if something hurts or doesn’t feel right, I trust that you’ll tell me. If something is wrong, we don’t keep it secret.”

With older kids, peer sleepovers provide a good example: “I will give you privacy and uninterrupted time with your friends because I trust you and know you respect our family rules, including not keeping a secret if something goes wrong.”

And the great thing is, the stronger the trust between family members, the fewer secrets there will be and the happier and more fulfilling their relationship will be as the child grows up.

Janet Rosenzweig is the author of “The Sex-Wise Parent” and “The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.” Follow her on Twitter at @JanetRosenzweig.

 

 

This post first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer at this link:  https://www.inquirer.com/news/privacy-secrecy-children-adults-trust-20220914.html

Parents: How to Pick a Summer Camp with Safety in Mind

Parents: How to Pick a Summer Camp with Safety in Mind

The school year will end before you know it, and now is the time to make summer plans for kids. Regardless of the program you choose, one thing should be certain: that the camp is run in a way to keep children safe.

Long before my career working with child abuse prevention, I spent summers during high school and college as a camp counselor. I’ve seen the potential ways children can feel unsafe, and the ways they actually can be unsafe. A well-run program, with well-prepared staff, that is monitored by supportive parents can help ensure safety.

Here are some important points to consider:

Supervision. If the children will be transported, will there be someone other than the driver to provide supervision? Excited kids can get unruly and distract a driver; an older child assigned to lead songs and keep order may be enough if no staff member is available. If parents drop off the children, are there procedures to ensure that the child passes from the parents’ supervision directly to a staff member? Is there a safe path to travel when the child leaves the car?

Keeping kids safe. The camp should have policies designed to prevent abuse. These include regulations restricting out-of-camp contact between staff/volunteers and campers, social media contact between staff/volunteers and campers, and explicit rules about physical contact. I’m all in favor of group hugs after the first few weeks once people know each other, and a camp counselor hugging a camper in public, but physical contact when one-on-one should be discouraged, and the campers should always be asked their opinion first.

Parents need to know how children are monitored as they move about the camp — for example, if a child needs to use the restroom. If the policy is to let children go alone, a time limit of no more than 5 minutes should be set. Tight supervision is a must for field trips; assigning buddies and performing constant head counts are basic tools of the trade. And, camp managers should be aware of the prevalence of child-on-child sexual abuse; that five minute rule should also apply if two campers go on an errand together.

Parent involvement. Parents should always be able to observe a camp day. The camp should have a procedure requiring parents to sign in, and parents should be respectful and not interfere with camp activities.

Emotional safety requires attention. If swimming is offered, have the staff been prepared to handle potential discomfort about changing clothes? If there is a focus on sports, are all children encouraged to participate? Is competition kept to a healthy level? Is the discipline consistent with parents’ values? And, how do they stop bullying?

A parent could learn about these issues by interviewing the camp director or talking to parents who sent their children in prior years.

Communicable diseases have been an issue in group activities with kids since long before COVID. Now more than ever, camp counselors have to be willing to promote and model good health habits. Ensure that the camp you choose knows the current local COVID guidelines and is committed to adhering to them.

You can find a checklist to take on your camp tour here. If the program doesn’t measure up, gently speak up — the administration may be willing to take your suggestions.

Summer should be a time of relaxed fun for children, and parents will be able to relax themselves when they know they have chosen a safe summer program.

This post appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, print June 5, on-line at  How to pick a summer camp with safety in mind l Expert Opinion (inquirer.com)

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month:  Access to accurate information is a key protective factor in prevention!

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month: Access to accurate information is a key protective factor in prevention!

Access to accurate information is a key protective factor in preventing child sexual abuse

It’s a tough world, and we want to protect our children from the people and concepts we think will hurt them, right?

In a sense that we could generously call misguided, the “Don’t Say Gay” bills, the first of which was recently signed into law in Florida, would seem to have that aim. But its impact could easily be the opposite, and its true aim really seems to be to help politicians grandstand on the shoulders of our children.

Here’s why: The Florida law prevents public institutions like schools from presenting any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity, possibly through high school. The folly in this will be clear to anyone who remembers being even slightly curious during his or her youth. “Just Say No” did not solve the nation’s drug problem. Prohibition didn’t end the misuse of alcohol.

Just because a school isn’t supposed to teach something doesn’t mean that a child isn’t going to want to know about it, especially if the child has questions about their own identity or sexuality. Making this information forbidden will simply drive children to what they might consider the next best source of information.

Maybe that’s the Internet, which can be its own cesspool. Or it could be that sympathetic-appearing coach who has something ugly on their mind.

High profile tragedies have shown us how vulnerable children are to this most insidious violation. We now know that the majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone a child knows, and that a significant proportion of sexual abuse is perpetrated by other youth. It is also now clear that access to accurate information from trusted adults is key for a child to protect themself, and learning tolerance, respect, and self-control helps ensure our children don’t hurt others.

Recognizing the import role of schools as the one resource all children can access, standards for sexual health education were prepared by the national professional societies for health educators and offered to districts as a basis for curricula. Similarly, professionals and the government responded to the need for resources to help stop bullying in schools also developing comprehensive resources. In Florida, a lot of those resources could  be locked away.

Without educated, trusted adults as a source of  information, children will satisfy their natural, and sometimes overwhelming need for information by going to the internet, which brings risks.  A national study found that almost all boys and two-thirds of girls over age 13 have been exposed to online porn. More kids have access to on-line pornography than have access  to a trained and trusted adult.

Worse yet, when trusted adults are unavailable, untrustworthy adults (and older kids) are ready to satisfy a child’s curiosity while satisfying their own nefarious needs. Convicted pedophiles I interviewed while writing The Sex-Wise Parent were clear that satisfying kids’ curiosity was a reliable first step to molestation.

Kids are at risk of being denied access to critical resources that can promote sexual health and safety, prevent sexual abuse and bullying. The so called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills, as passed in Florida and being contemplated in more than a dozen other states terrify teachers , deprive children of an accessible  trusted  adult, and ignore years of evidence showing that accurate information delivered by trusted adults is a vitally important protective factor for our children.

Accurate information and teaching of tolerance are vital to the prevention of sexual abuse. While I and others in my profession are committed to supporting parents to be the primary sexuality educators of their children, we know that that’s not enough. Parents must do their part – by being  a prepared and trusted adults who can discuss sexual health and safety, (find help here  or here)  and ensure their children attend a school staffed by trained and trusted adults wo can use the tools at their disposal to create a safe and tolerant climate for all children to learn and grow.

Observe Child Abuse Prevention Month in your home and community by promoting kids’ access to accurate information provided by trained and trusted adults. It’s a tough world, but codifying ignorance and intolerance through “Don’t Say Gay” laws makes it tougher for our children, not safer.

A New FREE Resource for Parents – Download this Booklet for Ideas to Promote Sexual Health and Safety and Help Prevent Child Sexual Abuse!

Parents — click here to find a booklet written just for you! Find ideas to promote sexual health and safety for kids from infants through teens.  Send this link to your friends, and practice having these important discussions with each other!

Remember, raising sexually safe and healthy kids is a strategy to help prevent sexual abuse and promote healthy relationships throughout the life cycle.

Questions?   Email  DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com!

Lots of Ways to Help – 2022

Sex Abuse Prevention Advice for Parents Planning a Family Getaway

Sex Abuse Prevention Advice for Parents Planning a Family Getaway

The long-awaited vacation is almost here; you’ve spent months researching, planning and saving, and you can’t wait to have some well-deserved down time. Vacation 2021 plans will have a focus your physical health and safety;  if you’re traveling with kids,  spend a few more minutes planning for overall safety including  keeping your family safe from predators.   Consider this advice  from an expert in sexual abuse prevention as you plan your summer getaway!

Safety starts at check-in: Good desk clerks never announce a room number; they will hand you a key or card and point to the room number. You have no idea who in the lobby may be observing a member of your family or your possessions with a special interest. No one should know exactly where you are unless you decide to tell them.

Daytime fun: Many family-themed resorts offer a kids program, but parental vigilance is required as these programs are rarely subject to the same standards as child care centers. Ask the same kinds of questions you’d ask about a camp — Who are the staff? How are they screened? What kind of training do they receive from the hotel?

You can feel more secure if your hotel contracts with licensed child care providers for programs and parents should always know where their children are. Younger ones must be kept within eyesight; adolescents and older kids should be given a time limit to report back to parents. The limit can range from 15 to 30 minutes for younger adolescents; older kids may earn the right to be gone 60 to 90 minutes. These same time limits apply if parents chose to leave an adolescent in charge of younger siblings while the parents enjoy resort life. This can be a risky proposition — parents deserve privacy and vacation time as well, but it’s not easy to combine romance and family time. Safety first, couples’ time second.

Beach safety: Adolescent girls in bathing suits often can appear to be older than they are. When sunbathing without a chaperone, they may attract attention from adults  or older teens. A young girl may be flattered by this attention and equally unprepared to respond. This topic makes a great pre-vacation conversation and is a wonderful opportunity to share family values and beliefs about topics ranging from respect to puberty.

Sleep arrangements: This is a good time to remember some basic physiology. Sexual arousal is autonomic and occurs in response to conscious or unconscious stimuli. People do not choose when to get aroused any more than they choose when to blink. Most sexually mature (and maturing) human beings experience all or part of the sexual response cycle while sleeping. This simple fact of life should be considered when making sleeping arrangements for vacation. It is best for people who do not mean to share accidental arousal not to share beds. Put the adolescents on the floor with sleeping bags if there are not enough beds to go around.

Don’t forget the basics: Be cautious, use common sense, supervise little ones at all times and always know the whereabouts of adolescents and teens.

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the author of “The Sex-Wise Parent: The Parent’s Guide Protecting Your Child, Strengthening Your Family, and Talking to Kids about Sex, Abuse, and Bullying” and a 30-year veteran of child-welfare and youth-serving programs (www.SexWiseParent.com).

AN early version of this article appeared originally at  http://www.centredaily.com/2013/07/10/3682979/communities-that-care-discuss.html

A hidden gift  for families in quarantine time

A hidden gift  for families in quarantine time

Anyone raising kids during this pandemic is being stretched in every possible way. Parents now must add teacher, camp counselor and BFF and to their daily duties.

On the plus side, many families spending more and more time together are finding that their relationships have become closer and, in many ways, more meaningful. Working parents now have 60 hours each week of potential face time with their kids, bringing a new dimension to family life. This forced closeness can breed intimacy and current events have probably led families into a lot of conversations they might never have expected.

Now is the perfect time to add sexual health and safety to about the topic list.

Pre-adolescents are still open to their parents’ opinions and wisdom and will love the extra attention of a parent-initiated conversation. Even teens, who may try to brush their parents off like a fly on their ice cream cone, really listen, even when they seem to be trying not to. Research has shown that adolescents place more weight on their parents’ opinions than parents give them credit for.

The two things parents need to share with children of every age are accurate information about their bodies, and their family’s values.

Accurate information can come in many forms — with younger kids, we want to be ready to answer whatever questions they have resources like this booklet  from the American Academy of Pediatrics can be a big help!

With older kids, parents can suggest websites like www.sexetc.org for accurate information,  or leave a copy of a book like YOU: The Owner’s Manual for Teens: A Guide to a Healthy Body and Happy Life under their pillow.

Most important is helping a child understand that sexual arousal is an autonomic response. Understanding this fact can be key both in ensuring the child not confuse their own arousal for consent, and ensuring they know that no one else is responsible for causing or satisfying their arousal. You can read more about this  and related concepts  here.

The family’s values – everyone’s shared opinions about what’s right and wrong – is central to every meaningful discussion parents have with their kids. I’ve gotten great feedback from parents using the family values checklist   with each other, and these same concepts can be discussed with kids.

You don’t have to look hard to find openings to discuss issues about sexual arousal and family values; TV is a great catalyst.  From the crew hookups on Below Deck to Rory’s crushes in vintage Gilmore Girls episodes, parents have a great opportunity to highlight which behaviors fit in their values and which do not. Asking a child what they thought characters were doing, or why they were doing it, can start a great discussion, and cue a parent into what their child actually understands.

A family might want to get more formal and call a family meeting to consider rules for all being home together. Consider these topics:

Values concerning how everyone behaves inside the home; such as

  • What everyone wears at home, but outside the bedroom, focusing on privacy, modesty and self-respect.
  • How the kids want you to show affection. What do they like, and what makes them uncomfortable?
  • Having friends over with doors open or closed. How can everyone be comfortable with the family’s values concerning privacy, secrets and trust?

And for when COVID-19 has passed;

  • Kissing Relatives. How should your children respond to a request for affection if they would rather not, in ways they can be assured of their parents’ support?

In our expanded family time, parents can find a unique opportunity to strengthen their relationships with their children and work to promote their sexual health and safety. Eventually, the kids will all   be back among their peers, and with your help they will be better prepared than ever for many of life’s challenges.

 

 

Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA, is the executive director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children  and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and   The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.  For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.

 

What every parent should know about the middle school crush

What every parent should know about the middle school crush

When the kids head back to school, parents hear a lot of new information, some offered up voluntarily (“MOM – I need $50 for supplies!”) some overheard while driving carpool (“I think Lakeesha has a crush on Mr. Smith”). Both kinds of statements are important for a parent to consider and if they choose, act on.

School crushes are as common as acne. They can be a normal, healthy part of development, teaching kids social and interpersonal skills that will serve them into adolescence and young adulthood. Or, they can be the platform for bullying and exploitation. The crush on the teacher is one of the trickiest for both parent and child.

During adolescence, kids start to learn who they are as a sexual person. This is reflected in their style and grooming choices, their choices of music, books and video, and their choice of friends. Young people will learn from and emulate people who have power and status. This could be an extremely popular peer, and it might also be a young teacher.

Teachers generally seek to be both liked and respected by students, which can put them in a tough and delicate position. They are in front of students all day, and adolescents are very prone to scrutinize and judge. Teachers judged to be “hot” are likely to attract unwanted attention. This can be particularly true for young teachers who may only be a few years older than the students. In many cases, they are wholly unprepared for the attention.

Well-prepared teachers have had pre-service training on understanding the sexual dynamics that can occur in the classroom. They will have learned that the pre-frontal cortex of an adolescent, the part of the brain the governs higher reasoning, is not fully developed, and adolescents can make poor choices that seem perfectly reasonable to them at the time. They will have learned that adolescents may develop crushes and behave in ways that may flatter or tempt a teacher. They will have learned that the looks or certain behaviors of students may indeed elicit sexual arousal in the teachers themselves; autonomic physical arousal is medically normal. Most important, they know that not acting on arousal is socially, psychologically, ethically and legally normal. But too few teachers are prepared in this way.

Students are even less likely to understand arousal they might experience if they find a teacher attractive. Their bodies may experience autonomic arousal, which is nothing more than an instinctual response to stimuli, such as getting goose bumps when cold, and kids need to understand this. It is too easy to confuse arousal with an emotional response, particularly for girls, for whom the physical sensations are less obvious than for boys. Predators of either gender often use the fact of this physical response to lure a teen into a sexual relationship.

Attractive teachers may also become the subject of stories, fantasies and gossip among kids, such as two young teachers dating, even if there is no truth to that at all. There is a vast difference between adolescent fantasies based on the way a teacher looks, and real reports of actual behavior. If you overhear your kids gossiping about a teacher, calmly ask them to describe the behaviors. Gently seek detail like where and when and determine if its observation or storytelling.

Troubling teacher behaviors include:

  • Breaking any rule the school has about out of school contact between students and faculty
  • Consistently spending unsupervised, one-on one-time with students
  • Using language that is inappropriate in any way, especially sexually
  • Sharing anything but the most superficial details about their personal life, and/or asking students questions about theirs
  • Singling out an individual student for special treatment like effusive praise or rewards of any type.

If you hear a credible description of troubling behavior, contact the school.

So, what’s a parent to do?

  • Keep in mind that while post-pubescent children may be out of danger from pedophiles (people whose primary sexual attraction is to children) hebephiles are attracted to young teens (generally ages 11 to 14) and ephebophiles are attracted to older teens (generally ages 15 to 19).
  • Make sure children of either gender understand the elements of sexual arousal.
  • Pay close attention to what your child has to say about the young, popular teachers. If kids are telling stories about the way a teacher behaves, ask them questions to confirm the reality.
  • Continue to monitor children’s social media. New Jersey law require that each district have a policy on student/teacher on-line line contact; Pennsylvania does not.  Many schools prohibit teacher/student contact on non-school platforms; if yours does not, watch your child’s pages and the pages of the teachers whose names you overhear.

School crushes are a normal part of growing up. They can provide a learning opportunity or become the basis for exploitation. The tried and true parenting tools of open communication and careful observation of children, and being prepared with facts and information, can help you keep children and their schools sexually safe and healthy and promote a great year of growth and learning.

This post first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer   https://www.inquirer.com/health/expert-opinions/kids-school-crush-teacher-20190910.html