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)

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

Back to School in the #MeToo era: Sex Ed and Sexual Climate

Back to School in the #MeToo era

Well, the kids are back at school, and whether they’re just starting to read or learning the Pythagorean Theorem, they’re going to be learning something about sex.

Don’t look so surprised. Regardless of your children’s age, many of the behaviors they will learn or face as they navigate the jungle of the corridors and playground have their roots in sexual behavior both instinctive and learned. As parents you can help with each for the benefit of your children and everyone around them.

First, there’s sex education itself. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia including New Jersey, mandate some sort of sex education, but it’s up to the states to determine what to teach. Twenty-seven states, including both Pennsylvania and New Jersey require schools provide STD and HIV/AIDS education, and the school’s curriculum must be available to parents for review.

While  there are  highly regarded professional  standards  available to educators,  curricula as taught may not be medically accurate, may teach abstinence-only and only two states – California and Louisiana – specifically prohibit the teaching of religion as part of sex education. So, parents should be engaged enough to know what, if any, sex education curriculum is taught in their children’s schools.

Then there’s what I call the “sexual climate” of a school, how it feels to be in that specific building, among those specific faculty, staff and students.

Generally, scholars describe a healthy school climate as having 4 components:

  • A physical environment that is welcoming and conducive to learning
  • A social environment that promotes communication and interaction
  • An affective environment that promotes a sense of belonging and self-esteem for all; and
  • An academic environment that promotes learning and self-fulfillment

A healthy sexual climate in a school addresses these issues as they pertain to sexuality.   A school with a healthy sexual climate promotes tolerance and respect and responds’ quickly to real or perceived threats including rumor, innuendo and bullying. Responses by school personnel to teasing and touching offer teachable moments early in the year, and opportunities to show the consequences of ignoring rules as the school year progresses.  Little ones learn not to tease, and older ones learn that even high-status kids don’t get to grab anyone’s breasts or genitals.

Here’s where parents can play a most important role:  teaching children about empathy. It doesn’t always come naturally to a child, and in fact, it is developmentally normal for  young people to  see the world as revolving around him or herself. But a healthy regard for what other people are feeling will help   your child resist the impulse to snap a girl’s bra strap, tip over the books she’s carrying or call her names when she starts to develop physically. It will help them from shunning the unpopular student, or making fun of their looks, manners of speech or interests, or posting anything on-line without the expressed permission of the subject.

It’s too easy for parents write these behaviors off as “kids will be kids” or to recall one’s own childhood behavior. After all, you turned out all right, didn’t you? But if you look back, what did those inconsiderate and bullying actions mean to the boys and girls at whom they were directed?  How did you learn empathy, and how should your children learn? Does your child stop and think about how his or her actions or words will make the other person feel?

Living an empathic life takes a conscious effort for everyone, but one only has to look at how society is roiling over sexual abuse, sexual harassment and the decline in civil discourse to understand how important it is.

The highest standard for promoting sexual health and safety is for parents to send their children out in the world filled with age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality, wrapped up in their  family’s values. If you haven’t had the conversation about empathy you haven’t finished the conversation about sex. Empathy is certainly a subtext of a great deal of what’s taught in school, but if your children are really going to learn this most important lesson you’ll have to start by teaching it at home.

 

 

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig 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, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group

 

 

Conspiracies of silence endanger sexual health and safety

The news that more than 300 Pennsylvania priests may have sexually abused more than 1,000 identifiable children during the last 70 years is shocking for the enormity of the accusation, but by now there have been enough of these tragic accusations against so many of our institutions that parents should be neither unaware of the risks to their children nor unwilling to confront those risks before their own child might be abused.

The grand jury indictments accuse the Catholic Church of covering up the abuse with criminal conspiracies of silence. Healthy institutions – and the family is the most basic institution of our society — need to break the silence about sexual health and safety, and there is never a better time than the present to do that.

Let’s start with a few basic ideas:

  • Children should have medically accurate, age-appropriate facts about sexual anatomy and physiology. Little kids should know all the external parts; as kids age they need to know the internal parts and all kids need to know that sexual arousal is an autonomic reflex. Too many predators entrap kids by convincing a child they were not a victim because they became aroused. Parents can neutralize the pedophile’s devastating, all too-common tool with medically accurate information.
  • Parents can open a conversation by reminding children that many people will put their own interests above that of someone else. Children may have already experienced that by being bullied or lied to or experiencing someone taking something of theirs. Abusing someone sexually is but one of the many ways people put their own feelings above those of another, and it’s one that can leave most damaging scars. Especially if faith plays a role in your family, you will want to address the difference between a person who espouses or teaches the words of  your faith,  and the meaning of those words. Widespread allegations of abuse = can challenge the faith of both child and family, and this is a good chance to draw a defining line between the meaning of your religion and the actions of the accused priests and the people who protected them.
  • Focus on trust. Damage can cut the deepest when abuse is in the context of a trusted relationship. Pedophile priests are in our news now, but other trusted adults including physicians, educators, parental figures and coaches have been there too. Parents can support their children to trust their own instincts when something doesn’t seem right, and to trust that their parents will listen to them and support them when they share those concerns. I’ve heard stories from peers growing up in the 1960s whose parents smacked them for speaking ill of a priest when the child tried to tell about sexual abuse. I hope those days are long gone –children deserve better, and parents can do better.

Too many parents still feel uncomfortable talking to their children about sexuality, yet research shows that parents consistently underestimate the importance children place on their thoughts. Parents may feel as if they don’t know to what say, but other professionals and I can provide resources to help you. Information from the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Sex-Wise Parent books and website are but two of the places where you can find help. If you’re’ really uncomfortable, practice roleplaying with a friend, or ask your school or faith-based organization to schedule a parent workshop.

Our children deserve the very best from all the institutions designed to help bring them to healthy, productive adulthood. Parents can focus on their own children now, when headlines can be causing fear and confusion, but in the long term parents can focus on the policies, procedures and sexual climate  of the institutions that serve their children.

Support for your children’s sexual health and safety must start at home and spread out into the community. Use this current spate of tragic stories to ensure there is no conspiracy of silence around sex in your home.

 

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig 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 , follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group

 

Helping kids understand the meaning of Halloween costumes

Helping kids understand the meaning of Halloween costumes

 

Parents are in the final throes of preparing for Halloween, buying candy, decorating their houses and in too many families fighting over costumes that make a parent cringe.

Whether the costume makes a politically-incorrect statement or projects an image you can’t stomach (Miley twerking, anyone?) Halloween can present some important teaching moments.  Even if you ultimately ban the costume with a strong “because I said so” you can get a few points across during the debate.

Girls especially are pressured into appearing sexual at young ages, exposed by the media to baby bikinis and padded bras for eight-year-olds. Boys may need  help understanding what is really conveyed by the tough-guy looks or dressing  as a character known for violence.  A common problem among latency aged, pre-sexual kids is that they may know that a certain type of look is equated with being attractive without understanding that it has a sexual  or dangerously violent connotation. When a nine-year-old girl chooses a Halloween costume with a decidedly “hooker-ish” look, a parent needs to supplement their “no” with a justification.   Explaining to kids that certain kinds of  clothes carry a certain kind of message (one that is not always appropriate for their age) is a good place to start. Consider using  a uniform as an example.   “When you wear shin guards, I know you’re getting ready to play soccer”.   You can then continue on and explain to a school-aged child that a particular look is seen by some people as a uniform to “kiss” or “flirt” or some other term in that will make a nine-year-old think, “Yuck.”

Older kids may think they know exactly the message they are conveying with their costume and are happy to do so.  In that case a Sex-Wise Parent makes it clear that “this is not a message we allow in our family.  It does not support your sexual health and safety, which is very important to me.”

This  is also a good time to remind our kids, particularly adolescents, that a persons attire NEVER is to be taken as an invitation for sexual contact.    If your teen reminds you that those two messages sound like they contradict each other  remind them that not everyone understands  or lives by the  latter point.

We must let our kids know that there are some rules we’ll bend on Halloween, like how much chocolate they can have in a single day, and other rules that are hard and fast.   They don’t get a day off from thinking about the messages they send  about their sexuality.

For more information, see The Sex-Wise Parent!

T-Ball and Sex-Wise Parenting?  YES!

T-Ball and Sex-Wise Parenting? YES!

Summer means sports and baseball gloves are being oiled up in homes round the country.  Thoughts are turning to runs, hits, errors, uniforms, caps and spikes.

And cups.   It’s standard practice for leagues to require boys to wear a hard protective cup over their genitals during practice and games.  One family I know had a golden teachable moment when their 5 year old wanted know why he had to wear a cup over his penis.  “I’m not going to pee during a ballgame!”

Some parents might have answered the “why” question with a simple “Because it’s the rules”, a close cousin to “Because I said so”.   These answers have a place when disciplining a child, but in this instance would only stifle curiosity and an opportunity to share values and facts.

It’s fairly typical for pre-school aged boys to think of their entire genitalia as their penis.  This boys parents explained to their son and his now-curious brother that the penis is the name for the skinny part in front that boys use to pee, but behind it the sac that holds the special parts that men have that makes their Daddy seeds. And those parts, (called ballies in some families, testes in others) would hurt A LOT if they accidently got hit with a baseball!  They grabbed their copy of The Sex-Wise Parent, turned to the line drawing of male anatomy on page 59 and gave both of their sons an age appropriate lesson in sexual health  and safety.  Because of T-ball!

These little boys learned the anatomy of their genitals and  that Daddies make seeds in their testicles and mommies make seeds in their ovaries.  They learned that we take care of our genitals and keep them healthy – a precursor to a condom discussion due in about 10 years!

And, they learned that they can talk to their parents about ANYTHING, including their genitals — an important protective factor in keeping pedophiles at bay.

Before long, sex-wise parents will see how spontaneous, frank discussions with children as issues come up render THE TALK unnecessary!  Get more information at www.SexWiseParent.com!

Honor the uncounted victims of sex abuse with action

Everyone knows someone whose life has been touched by sexual victimization. Look at the published numbers—different studies suggest 70,000 kids each year, others suggest 90,000 kids each year, some say one out of 4 kids; others, one out of 6. Regardless of the source, the number of affected children is huge. These findings have become the rallying cries of advocates, and many professionals remind us that these reports are only the tip of the iceberg.

Frankly, I can’t stand the statistics about child sexual abuse. Besides the obvious differences in definitions and counting methods that make statisticians cringe, statistics dehumanize the unbearable pain caused to children and those who love them. More meaningful than any statistic is the sad truth that almost everybody knows someone who was sexually abused—a sad friend remembered from childhood, a college friend who confided why they have lousy relationships, someone you dated, a friend of your child’s. Far from the statistics we find stories like Sugar Ray Leonard, who was sexually abused by a boxing coach, or  actor Todd Bridges, molested as a child  by a publicist. Maybe you shudder remembering the touchy-feely coach,  the school bus driver who  grabbed  kids  on their way off the bus, the “over-affectionate” step parent, aunt or uncle, or  the seductive baby-sitter who taught ‘grown up games’.

The vivid testimony offered by the indomitable victims in the Sandusky trial is causing long buried memories to surface for millions of people. Whether you’re chatting with a colleague over coffee, or a neighbor waiting at the school bus stop with you to pick up the kids, consider the fact that old, buried memories are surfacing for millions right now. We must be sensitive to their pain, and our own. If words fail you at thie sound of thier memories,  just listen with empathy, love and support.

Then, use your anger and rage to propel you into action to make your community one where this never happens again. To help get started, see http://bit.ly/LP4C4E.