No parent can be everywhere all the time.  You can’t supervise your child 24/7.  Frankly, you don’t want to do that.  But there are things you can do to, strategies you can implement that will help prevent your child from ever becoming a victim.

1.  Talk to Your Child Early and Often

It will be obvious to every parent that the most essential tool you have is an open line of communication with your child.  No doubt you don’t need to be told that.  But most of the time, a sexual assault occurs only after an extended period of harassment or grooming.  Therefore, the best thing you can do is to listen and for the warning signs from your child early on.  Your child may not know they are warnings signs, but you will. 

       Question your child about trusted adults.  

Question your child regularly about the adults in their lives.  Your kid spends lot of time around teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and church officials.  Ask casual questions about how those interactions.  

Is the adult and your child ever alone?  Every single institution should have rules and policies prohibiting an adult from being alone with a child.  There should always be a buddy system.  No adult should ever be alone with your child.  That is an easy question to ask without alarming your child or making her think she has done something wrong.  

Does any adult ever ask your child to keep secrets?  This is an enormous red flag.  There should be no secrets between an adult and your child.  This is a primary strategy for an adult to begin grooming your child (see below).  Again, you can ask your child about this in a low-key way that does not make them think there is anything wrong.  If they think they have done something wrong or will get a trusted adult in trouble, they might not be completely honest with you. 

Is there any hugging or physical contact?  This is an area where you have to exercise your discretion.  Children need physical affection and hugging.  It is a very important part of mental health.  Not every hug from another adult is a sign of danger.  You have to evaluate everything surrounding the hugging.  If it is taking place in a very public area without any inappropriate touching, then it could very well be nothing to worry about.  But you should start to question hugging that occurs too frequently and could involve touching in areas other than your child’s back and arms.   

      Don’t punish your child for being honest 

You must foster open and complete communication with your child.  This means that you cannot get angry or punish your child every time he tells you something he did wrong.  Abusers emotionally and mentally manipulate their victims.  If the abuser gets your child to break rules (or convinces her that she broke a rule, even if she didn’t), then the abuser has leverage. 

The perpetrator will tell you kid that adults won’t believe her.  The abuser will tell your son that it is his fault.  You don’t want to believe that a trusted adult could be an abuser or has crossed boundaries.  But you must listen to your child.  Don’t regret later what you could have stopped early.  

2.  Arm Your Child By Talking about Touching and Sexual Education

From an early age, arm your child so understand when boundaries are being crossed.  Even when your child is young, educate them about the difference between a good touch and a bad touch.  Start younger than you think you should.  

As your child gets older, you must get more sophisticated about sexual education.  Certainly, you should explain the physical aspects of sexual maturity and sexual education.  But you must also explain the mental and emotional effects of sexual attraction and relationships.  An abuser will first manipulate your child emotionally.  You have to being to explain to your child how this can occur.  You have a much better chance of arming your child if you explain how this can happen before an abuser has sunk an emotional anchor.   

3.  Listen to Your Instinct

You should trust your gut.  You know when your child is acting differently.  Thankfully all unusual behavior does not signal danger.  But that could be a sign that you need to start asking questions and looking closer.

There are certain signs that a child is being groomed or has been abused.  Those signs will not be physical.  You will notice emotional and behavioral changes.  In children, especially young children, these signs can manifest through on-going nightmares.  You could also see signs of anxiety, withdrawal, depression, anger, rebellion, or (in older children) overt sexual behavior and language.  But there may be no obvious and open sign.  Sometimes you have to listen to your inner voice and question why you are seeing a very different child. 

4.  Monitor Social Media               

It is impossible to be too paranoid about the harmful effects of social media.  Social media is a juggernaut that impacts under-developed minds in ways we have not even begun to understand.  These electronic portals were developed to directly manipulate human users.  They can be responsible for injuring a child’s vision of herself and self-worth. 

Social media and messaging also provide a secret avenue for abusers to access children in private.  There are numerous instances of teachers and other trusted adults beginning the process of grooming children through electronic messaging.  

You absolutely must monitor your child’s social media.  You have to stay current on technology because the applications and programs change all the time. 

5.  Have Expectations of Institutions

You should expect that the institutions that supervise your children have policies and systems in place to protect them.  Question the institutions and ask to see what they are doing.  

  • There should be background checks on the adults that will be around children.  
  • There should be a policy stating that adults are not allowed to be alone with any child.  
  • There should be policies banning bullying and sexual assault.  More importantly, there should be policies directing what should be done in response to suspicions of sexual assault.  

But the institutions must continually train its staff.  All the policies in the world are worthless if staff does not know how to implement the policies.    

You should participate in events at the institution.  Go to school parties and other events and observe the interactions between your child and adult staff.  Volunteer to be a chaperone on overnight trips.  Get to know the adults that supervise your child.   

6.  Characteristics of Sexual Abusers

You may think you could detect someone who is a sexual abuser.  You probably are wrong.  There is no age, race, or economic status that will predict who is an abuser.  You certainly cannot pick an abuser out of a crowd by how he or she looks.  

Instead, you have to look for behavioral red flags.  What is common in nearly all abusers is the belief that rules don’t apply to him or her.  An abuser will ignore the boundaries that we all operate with.  The abuser will violate physical and emotional boundaries that would make another person cringe.  

For example, an abuser will push the boundaries of physical contact to see what he can get away with.  He may engage a child in ‘playful’ wrestling and then touch a private area to see how the child responds.  A female abuser may walk in on boys dressing or in a locker room to test the reaction.  

An abuser will certainly push social and emotional boundaries.  The abuser could ask your child to keep a secret or gives her gifts.  An abuser could tell your child way too much about his or her life in an attempt to gain their confidence.  Similarly, an abuser may try to introduce sexual conversations or language to your child so that they share an illicit and therefore exciting secret.  

In essence, an abuser will try to draw in a child through a process called grooming.  Grooming a means for an abuser to identify a potentially compliant child victim.  The abuser will cross physical and emotional boundaries and watch how the child responds.  If the child reports, then the abuser moves on.  He or she is looking for the child who will not report and can be “molded.”  Young children can be groomed because they often do not even know what is happening.  An abuser will attempt to groom a teenager by building a fake understanding with their anger against the world.  They will build on the teenager’s insecurity, anger with parents that ‘do not understand’, and desire to be treated as an adult rather than child.  

You cannot identify a predator based on appearance.  You must pay attention to behavior.  Your best tools are careful questions directed to your child and close observation.  

Chris Dove
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Child Sexual Assault Attorney Practicing Nationwide