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 is the Time to Talk to your Kids about Teen-on-Teen Sexual Abuse

With everyone talking about teen on teen sex, parents should be too!

Perhaps 20 percent of American homes tuned in, one way or another, to the hearing Thursday in which a woman described being  the survivor of sexual abuse 35 years ago  to   the U.S. Senate, the American people and the man she accused, a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s hard to imagine that most people weren’t exposed to it, and the hearing may have riveted you and your children.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe the accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, or Judge Brett Kavanaugh – this is an excellent time to have a conversation with your teenaged and pre-teen children about how a man should behave, and how a woman should stand up for herself. You should do this at home,  and you should  check in with the  educational and social organizations that serve your children to encourage them to do so as well.

Let’s start at home, where the seeds of sexual health and safety are planted. For parents, this is a teachable moment, building on past conversations about empathy, trust, boundaries and sexuality. If you’ve never had these conversations, start now. Even if you don’t think your child is listening, there is good research to show that parents underestimate the value that their children place on their opinions about sexuality.

  • For your sons: Any disrespect toward women diminish a man in that moment and forever. Girls are not objects  to be lusted after or sought after as a challenge,  and  initiating a sexual acts  of  any kinds sex using either physical force or dishonesty is as disrespectful as can be.  It can leave terrible scars  that may be totally incomprehensible to a boy, for whom sex may seem  game or a challenge.
  • For your daughters, this is a moment to make it clear that your love and support are ferocious on her behalf, that you will believe what she tells you and that she must not endure the pain of abuse alone and without pursuing justice. She was at a party? She thinks it was somehow her fault because she felt aroused for a moment?
  • Ensure that your child understands that sexual arousal is an autonomic response, and no matter when or where he or she find themselves experiencing arousal, it is nobody’s responsibility but their own. A person can experience arousal and still be a victim.
  • All kids need to learn that  no  person exists to serve his or her  needs, sexual or otherwise.
  • And to state the obvious, take every step you possibly can to ensure that your child neither hosts nor participates in unsupervised parties, ever.

Even if you’ve never spoken about sex with your children, you can use this moment to start the conversation about sexual health and safety in a non-judgmental way. For instance: “I know a lot of people are reacting to the Senate hearings, listening to a woman describe being abused, and I’d like to know what you think about it.” Listen carefully without interrupting; prompt a recalcitrant child with “What are your friends saying?” or “What have you seen online?” Even if they don’t want to discuss their feelings with you, you can say, “In our family, we don’t ever want anyone to behave the way the boy might have, or for someone who has been hurt to keep silent.” These messages can be modified to fit children of all ages, but the message is the same; your children should consider the impact of their behavior on others, and to come to you if they’ve been hurt.

It’s hard to imagine that any child would want to grow up and experience what either Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanaugh faced in those hearings; this is a great time to promote healthy discussions and for schools and youth-serving organizations to do their part. Start by becoming aware of the responsibility to create a healthy sexual climate, in which every adult in the school models respect and calls out violators. Schools should avoid enforcing the peer group distinctions that are fundamental to adolescents – just because adolescents form themselves into tribes doesn’t mean adults should reinforce that

We don’t know yet whether any benefit will accrue to Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh or the country from this painful, divisive moment. But perhaps the best that can be said of it is that you can create a conversation and a lesson that will benefit your children for decades to come.

For more resources on talking to children, follow these links:

For parents:

American Academy of Pediatricians

Talking to children about sex https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/puberty/Pages/Talking-to-Your-Child-About-Sex.aspx

Talking to teens about date rape https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/dating-sex/Pages/Date-Rape.aspx

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center materials on prevention https://www.nsvrc.org/safety-prevention

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



What can you do for Child Abuse Prevention Month? Here are 10 (PLUS!) good ideas to get started!

What can you do for Child Abuse Prevention Month? Here are 10 (PLUS!) good ideas to get started!

April is designated as Child Abuse Prevention Month in the United States, and it serves as a reminder that everyone can help keep all children safe and healthy.   Plan now and be part of this national effort on behalf of kids and parents!

And here’s more ideas, sent to  me by colleagues — can we add yours? tweet to @SexWiseParent

Support The Innocence Revolution — a global day to end child sexual abuse.

Read The National Plan to Prevent Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children — and ACT!!!

Please — don’t miss this opportunity to make a difference!


The Penn State endowment MUST create ‘real and permanent good’!

What’s the highest and best use of the fines being levied against Penn State?

Child serving agencies in the United States are in a tizzy anticipating the $60 million endowment from the Penn State fines. Public child welfare systems are notoriously underfunded in almost every state without a federal consent decree specifying how much the state must spend. Sadly, there is not a single state in this country with a child abuse prevention system serving every family and community who stands to benefit. There is sound reason for this anxious anticipation. But it must not drive the process.

Andrew Carnegie, a Pennsylvanian  widely credited as one of the fathers of American philanthropy spoke of philanthropy doing real and permanent good. Before Penn State obligates one dime, key stakeholders must engage in a rational strategic planning process and envision what ‘real and permanent good’ they might acheive.

The  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines strategic planning as a deliberate set of steps that:
•   assesses needs and resources;
•   defines a target audience and a set of goals and objectives;
•   plans and designs coordinated strategies with evidence of success;
•   logically connects these strategies to needs, assets, and desired outcomes; and
•   measures and evaluates the process and outcomes.

The second bullet point requires attention immediately. What basis will be used to determine how to distribute the resources among local and national organizations? Will the resources be split evenly among prevention, investigation, and treatment? Will resources be allocated for research into improving practices? Will a bona fide program evaluation be required for all grant recipients? What criteria will be used to determine if an agency has the administrative structure to administer the grant? What steps will be taken to ensure that these funds do not supplant an existing funding source?

I am not detached from this issue. I hold two degrees from Penn State. I am saddened beyond words at the allegations against Graham Spanier whose course I took as an undergraduate when he was a new professor in the College of Human Development. I have friends and colleagues living in State College, PA  who will feel the pain as the local economy bears the brunt of the sanctions. And, I have devoted my career, which began at Penn State, to working in the field of child sexual abuse. I now work with several agencies who could stand to benefit from these funds. This is up-close and personal for me.

Penn State officials must be unbiased, professional, strategic and well informed as they determine how they turn these funds into an endowment that reflects the best of our state. The questions I pose above, and others like them, must be carefully considered to generate answers reflecting the desire to create real and permanent good. Hungry advocates, posturing politicians and charities with great PR offering services lacking a theoretical basis should not be factors in their planning.

Let’s do this right, Penn State.

What counts in child abuse prevention? A call out to public officials

So what if April is Child Abuse Prevention Month? It seems not only as though every month is dedicated to somebody’s favorite cause, but also that attention to social issues runs in cycles.

But that’s not true for me — child welfare and protection have been the center of my career in public administration, and I ask my colleagues to take a minute and hear me out.

One evening, I was in the audience for a panel discussion about performance management in the public sector that featured speakers from the offices of several governors. My inspiration came not from the stage, however, but from a fellow member of the audience.

While discussing how to use performance monitoring systems in public social service agencies to manage response times to reports of child abuse and caseload sizes, a representative from one state repeated several times that “child abuse prevention is a very high priority.” But she was mistaking investigation  for prevention and this is a mistake that too many of us make far too often.

Standing next to me was a fellow Harvard MPA candidate,  a high- ranking official with the New York City Fire Department and a 9/11 first responder. “Joe,” I said, “when you dispatch a unit to put out a fire, would anyone ever dare to call that fire prevention?”

Of course state agencies have an obligation to protect children. And of course the public should be pleased that the national reports are showing some small declines in the number of child abuse cases.  After all, state and federal tax dollars have been supporting child protection services systems for three decades now and we should expect to see some results.   But millions of kids are still at risk and the effects are awful.

Here’s my Child Abuse Prevention Month challenge to public administrators:  Along with counting how a public agency responds after someone reports that a child has been injured, how about if we start counting a few other statistics:

  • Like how many parents have access to information on how to calm a crying baby?
  • Or how many new parents are served by a trained family support worker to help them through those confusing and sleep-deprived first few months of parenthood?
  • And how many parents have a job paying a living wage from an employer with family-friendly policies?
  • And how many adults in a community know how to recognize the sign that a pedophile is operating in their midst?
  • And how many courts determine the status of dependent children before a parent is jailed?
  • And how many communities support quality sex education, one of the best defenses against child sexual abuse?

Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that the U.S. spends more than $100 billion each year on the effects of child abuse and neglect.   The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that the lifetime cost from a single case of child maltreatment exceeds $210,000. Preventing child abuse is not only the right thing to do, it’s cost effective public policy.

Every aspect of public administration touches the lives of children and families, and we could all do a better job keeping children safe, families healthy and communities strong.

Real Prevention………

So what if April is Child Abuse Prevention Month? Every month is dedicated to somebody’s favorite cause, and we all have a really short attention span. Child abuse and neglect seem to be under the radar right now. We can all be thankful  when we have a week or month  without reports of  tragic deaths or damning reports of bad decisions by  public agencies.   But lately, not a week goes by that another person in the spotlight reveals a childhood histort of sexual abuse —  movies stars, CNN reporters,  sports heroes — .  Thier honesty reveals that no one is immune; thank goodness for thier courage to make this  issue public.  I have an instinctual response to scream as loud as I can every year as April approaches to remind every single person that  children are abused and violated daily, and less than 1/3 ever come to the attention of authorities, fewer yet get the help they need.

I capped more than two decades in public human services and child welfare work by spending six years as the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America (http:// www.preventchildabuse.org). I found amazing volunteers, professionals, philanthropists and public officials throughout our state who really believe in building stronger families and communities.

I left PCA-NJ  to study  at Harvard’s Kennedy School learn with and from the best and the brightest in public administration. One evening, I was in the audience for a panel discussion about performance management in the public sector that featured speakers from the offices of several governors. My lesson  came not from the stage, however, but from a fellow member of the audience.

While discussing how to use performance monitoring systems in public social service agencies to manage response times to reports of child abuse and caseload sizes, a representative from a Western state repeated several times that “child abuse prevention is a very high priority.” I am a dedicated advocate for prevention and yet I found this statement to be distressing in ways that eluded words. Standing next to me was a fellow Harvard student, a  high-ranking official with the New York City Fire Department and a 9/11 first responder. I looked over at him and finally found the words to explain my frustration. “Joe,” I said, “when you dispatch a unit to put out a fire, would anyone ever dare to call that fire prevention?”

I fear that  in too many communities, people acknowledge child abuse prevention month by reminding people to  report suspected cases to authorities……Of course state agencies have an obligation to protect children. But real prevention is measured by  a great deal more than a decrease in the number of reports to Child Protection.

Along with counting how fast a public agency responds after someone reports that a child has been injured, how about if we start counting how many parents have access to information on how to calm a crying baby? And how many new parents are served by a trained family support worker to help them through those confusing and sleep-deprived first few months of parenthood? And how many parents have a job paying a living wage from an employer with family-friendly policies? And how many child-care centers have the resources to offer parenting support groups? And how many schools understand the meaning of supporting a healthy sexual climate for their students and staff?  And how many communities support quality sex education, one of the best defenses against child sexual abuse?

Here’s my basic metric for government: Is every child attached to at least one adult who has available all the resources it takes to raise a healthy, productive member of society?

Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that the U.S. spends more than $100 billion each year on the effects of child abuse and neglect. From the cost of operating the child protection services in each state  to crowding our special-education programs and juvenile justice systems with victims, the maltreatment of our children brings immense human suffering and public costs. The resulting failed adult relationships, poor parenting skills and diminished aspirations caused by irreparable injury to vulnerable little egos are not limited to the low-income families more likely to come into contact with the public systems. We all suffer when families and communities fail their children.

Who is going to show that they  know the difference between fireproofing a home and dispatching a ladder truck? This April when we hear about Child Abuse Prevention Month,  in memory of martyred children named Faheem, Nixmarie, Jessica Lauren, Bill Z  and so many others, let’s think about also counting and doing the things that can make a difference;  supporting families and  strengthening communities.  Preventing the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of all children is a worthy goal — what do you need to do your part?

Parenting the on-line teen

Anyone see the Today Show this morning (3-8-11) ?  Two experts joined Matt Lauer to debate the pro’s and con’s of parents ‘spying’ on their teens internet activities.  Is it an act of dishonesty between the parent and the child or a prudent safety measure?  Any parent can imagine the indignant scream of a 14 year old caught in a racy IM chat, or the sound of a foot-stomping, door-slamming 15 year old confronted about visits to a XXXX-rated site.  Parents hate that. Too bad.  I come down squarely on the side believing that it is a parents responsibility to know where their kid is hanging out and with whom they are communicating.

Parents can’t forget that the adolescent brain is still under construction, particularly in the areas relating to taking risk.  Dr. David Walsh does a great job in his books explaining the details. As parents, we can’t let ourselves be fooled by the fact that our kids look like almost-adults, almost doesn’t count here.  While they seem so much more grown-up than the baby -faced toddler we used to cuddle, they have not yet grown all of the tools necessary to exercise really, really good judgment.

But there is a big difference between being a responsible parent and being dishonest.  Let your child know that you have installed tracking software, or that you have changed your internet setting so that only you can clear the browser cache, or whatever technical tool you choose to monitor on-line activities. And when they’re through screaming and stomping, talk about using seatbelts.  When they buckle up as they get in the car, you don’t take it as an insult to your driving….. it’s just what we do in case today is the one in a million where something goes very wrong.

And the odds of something going wrong for an adolescent on-line are WAY higher than one in a million.  A report commissioned by the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children found that 1 in 7 youth on-line  were exposed to unwanted sexual solicitations; one is eleven reported sexual harassment and — are you ready for the big number?    ONE IN THREE reported unwanted exposure to sexual material! Need proof? See the full report at http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications/NC167.pdf .

So let them stomp and slam for a moment or two — after all, demonstrating the need to be independent from parents is also developmentally normal for an adolescent. But hold your ground. Kids need parental support in the on-line world as much as they need a seatbelt in a car.

What Parents Can Learn From Bill Zellers Final Words

Bill Zeller was a brilliant graduate student who could unwrap the mysteries of the digital world but was unable to find comfort and joy among people. The words of his poignant suicide note, in which he discussed his childhood rape by an unnamed man, will be parsed by many looking for an answer, a perpetrator, or a moral. Most of us will be tempted to point the finger at his parents, therapists or neighbors, and leave it at that.

But there is a lesson in Bill Zeller’s death even for the most loving and involved parent.

Parents play a critical role in ensuring their child’s sexual health and safety and are remarkably diverse in their ability to do so. Imagine a bell shaped curve; on one end of the curve are parents responsible for sexual abuse and the neglect of sexual pain described by Zeller.  On the other end we find dead silence around sexuality. Parents and caretakers of children must find their place in the center.

Children need loving, trusted adults to provide age-appropriate knowledge and language about every part of their body; silence and ignorance about sex are among the weapons used by molesters to coerce child victims into compliance. In his suicide note, Zeller described his parents as fundamentalists and it’s clear that he didn’t trust them (he wrote in his note that he hated them). But parents of all religions and belief systems  can and must protect their children with knowledge, language and comfort. All children deserve to live in a community where adults are aware of the signs of sexual abuse and know the resources available to a child victim and his family.

The trust of your child, their willingness to speak with you about what’s important to him or her, is one of a parent’s greatest assets in protecting their children against the hopelessness and pain that so many children experience and that drove Bill Zeller to take his life.

So Why Don’t We Talk?

Parents tell me that they just wouldn’t know where to start if they wanted to have a conversation about sex abuse. If they’ve never had a conversation with their child about sex, they don’t want their first one to be about molesters. Many parents just don’t want to think of sex and their child at the same time in any way at all.

Parents can fool themselves into thinking things will be fine. Some parents will wait until their kids get to school and hope their district provides a good child safety program. Maybe the scouts will have a special program, or the Sunday school. But programs provided by strangers discussing concepts that may be completely foreign to your child can’t possibly have the same effect as a loving dialog; there is no substitute for a permanently open line of communication with parents. Parents delay opening up that line when they’re scared that they won’t be able to handle what comes in. Parents need strategies and tactics to help reach and teach their child.

The Courage to Be Uncomfortable

It can certainly be uncomfortable to look closely at our own thoughts and feeling about sexuality and sex abuse. Along with the reality that sexual issues are shrouded in secrecy, many people enter adulthood with painful memories of their own.  In every community people have been scarred through unreported assault from an adult, sexually oriented bullying, sexually explicit and violent language, or date rape. Even without these negative experiences coloring our own perspective, talking to a child about sexuality can be tough.

But we need the courage to be uncomfortable. Keeping our kids sexually safe and healthy requires an extraordinarily brave commitment to self-awareness and healthy family intimacy.

I don’t want to join the on-line chorus of people trying to guess who did what to Bill Zeller. Whatever it was destroyed his spirit and ultimately cost him his life. A friend confided that Zeller’s story was his story and implored me to use my voice as an experienced professional to see if we could make anything decent come from this tragedy.  Adults are responsible for keeping children safe and in memory of Bill Zeller, I implore them to learn how. In that spirit I issue this call to action to all parents to find their place in the middle of the continuum; to find the courage to face their discomfort, the resources they need to maintain the sexual health and safety of their children and the consciousness to recognize a child bearing the scars left to strangle the spirit of Bill Zeller.

May he finally find peace.

Helpful Resources:

Read Zellers final words at   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/07/bill-zeller-dead-princeto_n_805689.html

The Sex Information and Education Council of the US  http://www.siecus.org/

The American Academy of Pediatrics   http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;108/2/498

Prevent Child Abuse America   www.PreventChildAbuse.org

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is a 30-year veteran of child welfare and youth serving programs. She is committed to bringing the best possible information to parents to help them raise safe, healthy, happy kids.  

This post is based on a column that first appeared in the Princeton Packet 2-8-11