It’s time to ask your children if they understand what the Sandusky case was about.

Just ask that question and listen quietly to the reply.

An adolescent may challenge you by demanding to know why you want to know. Answer calmly, sharing that this case focused on the ugliest possible aspect of sex and you want to be sure they have the whole picture.

Expect a younger child to reply with a shockingly incorrect understanding of sexual abuse; offer a gentle correction and consider a simpler version of the same answer suggested for adolescents. Explain that grown – up bodies are made for a special kind of touching that feels wonderful when shared by loving people, and that it’s very wrong for a grown – up to do this with a child.

Kids of all ages deserve accurate information on sexual anatomy and physiology. Adolescents needs to hear you explain that sexual response is a reflexive, autonomic response that the body does all by itself in response to a touch, a thought, a memory — even from reading something or watching it on the screen. Molesters know this and use this as a weapon against a child by convincing them that their physical response meant they ‘enjoyed’ the act. Use the words erections and climax — now is the time to show your kids that their sexual health and safety is important enough that you’re willing to go way out on a limb.

Share that girls experience sexual arousal with less obvious physical signs; in fact, many girls don’t have a name for that warm feeling they get in their lower abdomen or genitals. Because the sexual response is less obvious in girls, boys are more at risk of being tricked this way.

Little ones might ask why the victims didn’t tell. Share that they were scared, and that the bad guy convinced them that he was more powerful than their parents. Remind them that this is how bullies operate, by making a victim feel powerless. Hug your child and say that they will never be powerless because you can and will protect them, no matter what anyone says or does to try to convince them otherwise.

Remember that a parent’s job is to provide the tools to alleviate fear and obliterate ignorance. Everyone has fears and questions about sexuality, and this case may bring them out in your child. Your pediatrician, other professionals, and books like The Sex-Wise Parent are great tools.

If you and your child have never talked about sexuality in general and sexual anatomy in particular, this conversation needs to be the first of many, and this is a good opportunity to start.

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!

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!

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

Be prepared — Sex Abuse CAN happen here!

Some people like to believe that abuse of children is a problem restricted to the poor, or disadvantaged.  No so.   The sex abuse allegations involving a prep school upscale enough to  include the son of a governor  are a stark reminder that people who prey on kids can be anywhere.

Predators come in all shapes, sizes, neighborhoods and income levels.  They can ingratiate themselves into the lives of children and families as friends, coaches, clergy, baby sitters or teachers.   The most important step a parent can take is to have  open and honest  age-appropriate  conversations with their children throughout their childhood and adolescence.  Natural discussions that include all parts of the body are a key.   Conversational lessons about nice relationships — the kind where everyone considers each others feelings –can start with toddlers and continue as children develop a wider circle of acquaintances.  And here’s the step that most people skip — ensure that your child’s school and the other institutions in your community have take steps to prevent sexual abuse and have a well thought out policy on how to respond if allegations are made.

The best news to come out of this story  from the NJ prep school is that the administration appears to be behaving responsibly.   The alleged perpetrator was brought back from another state to face the NJ investigation and press reports quote his superiors as saying he is being kept under tight restrictions.

The title of this blog post mirrors the title of the last chapter in my book, The Sex Wise Parent.  There’s a lot to learn about being a prepared family and community, and you can find it in my book.

 

 

 

A Sex Educator can help in the aftermath of sex abuse

The LA elementary school which attracted national attention for the disgraceful acts of a few teachers and the courage of the administration to act decisively on their behalf now has a new principal.   Dolores Palacio, New Miramonte principal has a long road ahead to achieve many goals, and none so important as regaining the trust of parents.  In order to do so, she has to establish a new, healthy and open sexual climate in the school and include all faculty, staff, parents and students in her efforts.

Scholars studying school achievement often talk about school climate; in my book the Sex-Wise Parent,  I borrowed their basic concepts to discuss sexual climate   to describe the overall  feeling  in a school building around sexual issues.  Palacio has an unprecedented opportunity to establish a new, healthy, open sexual climate, based on honesty, respect, accurate information and parental involvement.  To help this process along, I urge her to identify credentialed sexuality educators in her community and hire them to do the following:

  • Offer all staff a mandatory in-service training on how to discuss sexuality with children in an age appropriate way.  This comprehensive workshop should include a review of anatomy and physiology, the opportunity to practice using appropriate sexuality terms.
  • Offer all parents workshops on discussing sexuality with their children, including both the healthy, loving aspects and the opportunities for exploitation such as the acts that took place in their school. In many families it’s likely that this tragedy triggered their first discussion about sexuality with their kids; if this is the case, a balanced perspective is needed.
  • Offer teachers assistance integrating sexual issues into thier curricula in  the most  approproiate way;  health, bilogy, art, literature, history and other subjects often have unerlying sexual themes, and this is not the time for Miramonte faculty to ignore them.

Kids’ early lessons about sex can last a life time.  The services of sexuality educators  can be a remarkable asset for the Miramonte community as they work to support healing  for their kids, families and throughout the community.

Find more at www.SexWiseParent.com

Was removing the whole staff of a school with allegations of sex abuse a good idea? YOU BET!!

Superintendent John Deasy of the Los Angeles Unified School District took a courageous step  this week  by removing  the entire staff of one of the largest elementary schools in the country in the face of  evidence  supporting allegations of sexual abuse of children by his staff.  Of course, the fact that the most notoriously botched investigation of child sexual abuse  (the McMartin pre-school case which generated a trial lasting from 1987-1990) took place in a neighboring county, could have provided some strong motivation!

The Associated Press quoted Deasy: “We intend to interview every adult, every adult who works at that school, whether they are a teacher or administrator, or whether they are an after-school playground worker or a custodian or a secretary. I mean every single solitary adult who works at Miramonte.”

Advocates for preventing child sexual abuse should be waiting anxiously to read the findings of this investigation. Scholars in the field of education have spent decades studying the concept of school climate, defined as the way it feels to be in a specific school building. School climate has been shown to impact academic outcomes, student violence and other important issues.  In my book The Sex Wise Parent, I expand on that concept and focus an entire chapter on helping parents understand and pay attention to the sexual climate of their child’s schools.  We can no longer ignore the potential risk to kids who attend schools staffed by educators and administrators who are not paying attention to implicit and explicit message kids get from them about sex. A report published by the US Department of Education includes the estimate that at least 5 percent of all kids have some type of sexual contact with school personnel.

Deasy is right that every single adult in that school helps set the sexual climate.  For a checklist on assessing the sexual climate of your child’s school click here.

What parents must learn from the Penn State allegations of sexual abuse

I guess  it’s understandable that the big question right now seems to be what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it.   As a Penn State alum, this makes me beyond sad.   As an undergraduate, I actually  had President Spanier as a professor in the College of Human Development, and my first masters degree is from what was then the College of Health and Physical Education.  Parterno was  among that faculty in my day, so this is personal to me.

I’ve devoted a large part of my career to the investigation, treatment and prevention of sexual abuse of children, much of it based on the foundation of the fine education I received from Penn State.  We cannot condemn the entire institution.  And solely focusing on Paterno – who I can’t help but thinking of as the Pope of Penn State –  will not save any children.   It’s truly  unthinkable to me that a 21st century professional could think a phone call to anyone other than police was a sufficient response to an alleged eye-witness report of a child’s rape in one of his facilities.  On the other hand,  the thought of someone raping a child in one of his facilities may have seem  so completely implausible that perhaps  he thought his minimal response was adequate.  Anyone who has ever had to face the crushing reality that a partner has been unfaithful for years or that a trusted employee has been embezzling money  knows that the human mind  only understands that which seems possible to us. Maybe, just maybe, this seemed so impossible to Paterno that he found his response sufficient.

So here’s one lesson for parents — Do not ever forget that the sexual abuse of children is a reality and the perpetrator really can be anyone.  Even someone who appears to be a fine upstanding person who cares for your child and maybe even your family. Even a favorite teacher.  A coach. The person you’re dating. The babysitter.

Here’s another lesson —  There is absolutely no choice but to knowas much as you can about  every adult spending time with your child.   There is no substitute for vigilance.  A convicted pedophile I interviewed for my book The Sex Wise Parent made it  quite clear that kids lacking vigilant parents or caretakers were much more attractive targets. Pedophile coaches notice which parents stay for practice or show up unannounced then really pay attention to what’s happening on the field.

Here’s a third — Pedophiles ingratiate themselves into the life of your child and sometimes your family, and seduce your child by meeting his or her needs. This need could be emotional such as affection and attention from an adult male, or tangible as Todd Bridges described regarding his abuse by his publicist in his autobiography KillingWillis. By the time sex is introduced the child (or in some awful cases,  the family) may accept sex as the price to be paid for the positive points of the relationship. The allegations reported in the  Grand Jury report describe the seduction of vulnerable children with trips and gifts.

And the last lesson for now is this; families must provide children with information and language about sexuality.   I’ll provide detail on how parents can do this in future posts.  For now, concentrate on opening your mind to be able to think the unthinkable.  Maybe if Joe Pa had been able to do that a few kids might have been saved.