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.

Lesson from day 2 of the Sandusky trial: One victim wept, the other deadly calm

The most cunning predators choose a victim who can’t speak up.  The drug dealer robs a junkie who can’t call the cops; the hooker robs the john who doesn’t want to be caught. These scenarios describe victims who put themselves in precarious positions; they took a risk and  lost.  The only risk a child victim of a pedophile took was to accept the friendship of an adult and they find themselves  forced into a devastating silence that leaves scars as deep as the actual abuse.

The vastly different reaction of first two victims to testify the Sandusky trial show how individualized the effect of victimization can be. Fear, anger, and shame take their toll on developing psyches.  The horrifyingly confusing double messages about right and wrong wreak havoc on a budding personality.  Some victims bury their horror so deeply that internal walls come crumbling down when the secret is revealed; others act out in ways that we’ve come to recognize as cries for help.

The young men providing testimony are heroes.   They should be hailed as trailblazers, lighting the way for other victims to come forward and helping everyone to see the predators hiding in plain sight.     Lance Armstrong couldn’t have been thrilled at the thought of the entire world discussing his testicles;  he moved millions to action with his frank disclosure of testicular cancer.  We can and must show these brave young men taking the witness stand  the same admiration we show for celebrities who shed light on deadly diseases, paving the way for predators to be caught and other victims to rid themselves of the undeserved shame.

Today’s lesson from the Sandusky trial: How to ‘groom’ an entire community

Last night, I joined a community of adult survivors of abuse as a guest on Bill Murrays blog talk radio show   sponsored by the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse.  After presenting the point of view of the Sex-Wise Parent , I turned the tables and asked the panel of experts to share how the current and constant coverage of the Sandusky trail was affecting them.

” Watching the Sandusky case on the news is very triggering for me, many of the things he’s accused of doing to the boys was done  to me” replied one man who had been a long term victim of a pedophile as a child.  “His story is my story”.    “Do they have an instruction manual?”  asked another man only half  joking  “It’s as if they’ve studied the art of seducing a child and share the secrets of the trade with each other — the stories are just so similar!”

By now, only the most  sheltered among us have not heard about ‘grooming’ the term applied to the seduction process a pedophile uses to get close to a child, gradually moving from friendship, to affection, to physical affection to sex.  Thankfully, parents are learning to be vigilant for signs of grooming behavior from an adult directed towards their child; a special friendship, extra attention, excessive time alone without the parents or other adults present and other activities more appropriately  shared among peers rather than between adult and child.

Then, one of adult survivors made a comment that left me breathless:

“He not only groomed the kids, he groomed the whole community”

What an important insight!  How does one seduce an entire community?  Think of the attributes Americans typically apply to an upstanding citizen, and how they were allegedly bastardized by Sandusky;  charity (The Second Mile) and professional status (his position at Penn State) to name the two most obvious.  His good deeds brought  citations from a President and a US senator and  seem to have bought him enough good will that initial allegations were brushed off as impossible.

We’re all going to learn a lot of lessons as this trial progresses, and this is an important one to consider:  How does a pedophile groom an entire community?  Would we recognize the signs if we saw them?  Weigh in!

Mandatory Reporting….. Mandatory Prevention??

Penn State announced today  that they now require all employees to report suspected child abuse to state authorities.   Many advocates will express raging ambivalence that this is too little too late, and there is some truth to that.  But consider the fact that Pennsylvania laws specify one of the most limited groups of mandated reporters of suspected child abuse of any state in the country.  The only people required by Pennsylvania law to report  suspected child abuse are people who “in the course of their employment, occupation, or practice of their profession”,  come into contact with children; many states require anyone who knows or suspects abuse to contact authorities.    Very few institutions anywhere adopt policies that go beyond the state requirements; Penn State is certainly to be commended for doing that.

 As a prevention advocate I feel compelled to use this opportunity to emphasize my strongly held belief that we need to spent as much effort educating the public how to prevent child abuse as we spend educating the public on reporting child abuse.  What might happen if everybody who comes into contact with children in the course of their occupation played a role in prevention?   Physicians could follow the suggestion of the American Academy of Pediatricians and provide parents with anticipatory guidance so they know how to interpret and react to their child’s moods and behavior.   Health teachers could provide accurate information about the human body so pedophiles couldn’t trap kids lacking understanding of autonomic arousal.  Crossing guards might receive in-service training to help identify predators.  The list could go on!

Penn State did a good thing by adding all of their employees to the narrow list of mandated reporters of child abuse in Pennsylvania.  But can we please start looking at what else we all might do so that there are fewer cases to report?

Use the news!

Imagine the drive to soccer practice; no sooner do you get your child to remove the earphones which seem permanently implanted in their ears then the radio announces the latest development in the clergy scandal or Sandusky case. Great, just what you had in mind!

But please, resist the urge to pretend you didn’t the newscaster. Take a deep breath, turn off the radio and ask your child their thoughts about what you just heard.

“That’s gross” is a likely reply. “I think so too” you could answer. “How much do you understand about what happened to the victims?”

Then listen to your child’s reply carefully. Depending on their age, they may understand exactly what sex abuse is, or have a terrible misconception. I recall one family I counseled years ago where the younger sibling of a victim mistook the word ‘rape’ for ‘rake’. She thought all of the family trauma was because someone hit her sister with a rake! Prompt your child with an age-appropriate version of a question such as “what do you think the bad guy did to the child?” Explain your questioning with an (also age-appropriate) version of a statement like “I want to make sure you understand so we can be a team working together to keep our family and friends safe.” That’s a little less threatening than saying “I want to keep you safe” but parents know their own kids and can judge  what they can be comfortable hearing.

Use this as an opportunity to tell your kids that people who sexually abuse children put their own  pleasure above the pain they cause children. Remind them that sometimes they dress it up like a friendship or a love relationship to confuse the child (or teen!). Remind them that anyone who wants to be sexual with a young person is selfish at best and a criminal at worse. And if your child protests the conversation, take the opportunity to remind them that being able to speak  with you about sex helps keep them healthy and being able to speak with you about sex abuse can help keep them safe.

Abusers count on the fact that kids don’t like to speak to their parents about sex, and you don’t want that to be true on your family.

So use the news —with the Sandusky trial starting in a few weeks and on-going clergy trials in many major media markets,  there will be plenty of opportunity!

Free Range Kids need Sex-Wise Parents!

According to the popular blog Free-Range Kids, “Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts—safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school-age kids go outside, they need a security detail.”

I couldn’t agree more. I wrote The Sex-Wise Parent because I believe that giving kids information and language about sexuality is as important as buying that helmet or car seat. When my child takes off on his bike and runs into a family friend, I want him to know exactly what to do if that person’s hands end up in the wrong place.

If you’re shocked, you shouldn’t be. The pedophiles I interviewed for my book told me—in no uncertain terms—that they look for unaccompanied children. Is this a reason to turn into a helicopter parent? Absolutely not. What I believe is any child old enough to ride her bike to the playground is old enough to be given accurate information about the male and female sexual anatomy. The child should understand how to set and hold boundaries and know that they can and must share anything out of the ordinary and all adult interactions with their parents. While no one can diagnose “grooming” behavior from a single anecdote described by a child, parents need to be aware of every adult in their child’s life and draw their own informed conclusions.

Giving your child information about sex requires a different skill set than providing them a well-fitting bike helmet (a trained clerk in a sporting goods store can help you with the latter form of protection). When it came to providing my child with the tools about sexual health and safety, I knew I was the best source of information. It’s not easy and yes, it may even be uncomfortable but find the courage to talk to your child and explain what you want them to know. This parent-to-child communication is better and more effective that if the information comes from a third-party.

Free range or not a child needs language and information about sex to help keep them sexually safe and healthy. Free-rangers believe in “common sense parenting in uncommonly overprotective times” and so do I.

T-ball and sex-ed?? 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 for a teachable family moment.

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!

Before long, sex-wise parents will see how spontaneous, frank discussions with children as issues come up render THE TALK unnecessary!

 

Not everyone who sexually abuses a child is a pedophile; what parents need to know

Parents of young kids spent a lot of time worrying about pedophiles these days, as well they might. We read articles about how pedophiles ingratiate themselves into the lives of children, like ‘coach’ Sandusky allegedly did with the vulnerable young boys served by a charity he helped found. Many parents have heard the term ‘grooming’ used to describe the way that pedophiles seduce a child through friendship and affection, then use that trust to coerce a child to keep their dirty secret. Once the seduction is complete, pedophiles trade on shame, guilt and fear. They threaten to remove privileges the child has earned, and instill shame by convincing young victims that their physical autonomic response to stimuli meant that they were complicit in the sexual acts.

But adults who sexually abuse children are not all pedophiles! There are other predators in our midst who find themselves sexually attracted to older kids and teens, the ones who no longer look like children, but certainly, in many respects still are. This recent story about a teacher/student relationship provides an example of a reason for parents to be vigilant about all adults in their child’s life; a 40 year old teacher acting on his ‘crush’ on a high school girl is a predator, no matter how he wants to dress it up. In contrast to the dark tools used by people who seduce little children, these predators gain compliance by offering prestige, status and romance!

A teenager is developmentally incapable of being an equal in a relationship with someone expert on the matter of manipulating a young person to comply with his wishes. In fact, a predatory teacher is demonstrating is a tragic misuse of every developmental psychology course taken to earn teaching credentials!

Parents may breathe a sigh of relief when your child reaches puberty and ages out of the attraction range of pedophiles. But open lines of communication about all aspects of sexual health and safety can help your child have the strength not to succumb to the charms of more grown – up predators.  Learn more at www.SexWiseParent.com

Hot Weather Can Mean ‘Hot’ Clothes, So What’s the Dress Code in Your Family?

It may be snowing in Colorado, but it’s pushing 90 in LA, and the heat will reach all of us sooner or later. While lots of folks are worried about what these extreme weather swings mean for the atmosphere, (and I am thankful for scientists!)  I focus my attention on  a parents need to understand the effect the heat can have on kids. Let me explain.  Yes, dehydration from the heat is one issue, but some children have been waiting all winter for an excuse to bare their skin in clothes that are more suitable for a dance club than school!  Let the  battles begin.

Not necessarily.  For parents, a good  place to start is  determine your child’s school’s policy on dress code and how is it enforced.

At the very least, schools should prohibit children from exposing their belly buttons, breast cleavage, butt cleavage  and the wearing suggestive slogans on t-shirts by either students or staff. It is perfectly natural for teens and pre-teens to push boundaries and arrive in school wearing something that bends—if not actually breaks—the dress code rules. School staff should react firmly to any breaches in the rules, while not outright embarrassing or humiliating the student in any way. Consider calling a guidance counselor and asking about thier policies and procedures.

A common problem among younger kids is they may believe that a certain type of look equates to being attractive—without understanding that “the look” has a sexual connotation. When a nine-year-old girl chooses a bedazzled tube top with a decidedly “hookerish” look, her parents needs to supplement their “no” with an explanation beyond a “because I said so.” Explaining to kids that certain kinds of clothes carry a message (one that is not always appropriate for their age) is a good place to start. Try to use a uniform as an example and say something to this effect—“When you wear shin guards, I know you’re getting ready to play soccer.” This starts the discussion about how a particular look is seen by some people as a signal that you’re dressed for a specific activity. You could explain to young kids that certain items of clothing are seen as a “uniform” for people who like to “kiss” or “flirt” or an equivalent term that will make an eight -year-old think, “Yuck.”   What a great opportunity to discuss how people decide what they think is pretty, focusing on cocenpts like  choice and taste and individuality!

Girls are especially are pressured to appear looking sexual at young ages, by being exposed to promotions for  baby bikinis and padded bras for eight-year-olds. Boys may need help understanding what is really conveyed by the tough-guy looks. But all kids need to know your rules, your values and believe that you will enforce the dress code set by their school.

Learn more about how to support your child’s sexual health and safety from my book, The Sex Wise Parent by visiting www.sexwiseparent.com

 

Summer camp and safety – how relaxed is too relaxed??

It’s that time of year when we can smell summer in the air, and working parents thoughts turn to summer arrangements for their kids. Summer camps are a popular choice and can span the range from totally unstructured programs offered at local parks to seriously academic programs offered by schools and colleges. Your choice must be based on your child’s interest, the cost and convenience, and  the knowledge that the program is operated  in a way that ensures your child’s wellbeing. Limited adult supervision coupled with the joy of not being in school has been known to lead kids to act out in many ways– including exploring their sexuality —  at summer camp.

In many states, short-term summer camps are not subject to the same stringent licensing requirements as childcare centers, and some faith-based programs may be exempt from public regulation altogether, so it becomes even more important for you to do your homework before entrusting your child to a specific camp environment. To make sure your child will be sexually safe and healthy all day (and night) at camp, start with a typical day and consider all activities that your child will involve your child. Here’s some areas to consider:

The bus: If your children will be picked up by a bus or van, will there be someone other than the driver to provide supervision? Excited kids can become unruly and distract a driver. Often, an older child is assigned to lead songs and keep order on a camp-bound bus. This may be sufficient if a staff member is not available, but if the bus is carrying multiple teens, the supervising child may be unable to resist peer pressure and may join the commotion. And, huddled groups of  kids or high-backed seats  can hide  aggressive grabbing and  all  kinds of showing off !

Sports and swimming:  If the camp day includes swimming, ask camp administrators if the staff has been prepared to deal with children who get embarrassed changing clothes in front of others, and be sure you’re comfortable with the reply. If there is a focus on sports, are all children encouraged to participate? Is competition kept at a healthy level?

Moving around camp grounds: You should find out if your child will be supervised as she moves through the camp grounds and facilities. If a child needs to use a rest room will an adult accompany her? If no, is there a policy in place to carefully monitor the amount of time a child is gone? In addition, if the camp takes your child on field trips, does the camp take adequate measures to ensure the safety of your child? Tight supervision is a must for field trips; whether walking to a neighborhood park or traveling to a local tourist destination, counselors should assign buddies and perform constant head counts to make sure all children are safe and accounted for.

Staff: Camp administrators should check the background and references for all people who have access to children. This includes maintenance and food services staff as well as the counselors, teachers, or volunteers working directly with the kids. It is common for summer camps to employ adolescents; these young people should participate in pre-service training to learn the rules, values, and standards of the camp, and be assigned an experienced supervisor. Adolescent brains are still developing and lapses in judgment are expected. In fact, I’ve seen instances of young camp staff participating in bullying a targeted child!

Check with the camp director to see if safety and suypervision measures are in place before you entrust your child to their care. Likewise, you can visit the camp or talk to other parents who have sent their child in prior years to get a feel for the workings and safety of the camp environment.

Parents can find more information and a checklist to use in choosing a summer camp  in my book The Sex Wise Parent.  For a copy of the checklist, E-mail DrRosenzweig@SexWiseParent.com.

Check back  for more tips!