The greatest risk to our children doesn't come from strangers but from friends and family.

In light of the devastating events that allegedly took place at Penn State and Syracuse Universities, we now see fresh evidence of horrific child sexual abuse that continues to be all too prevalent in our society. How many children have been violated and are living with the horrible emotions, too frightened to come forward?
Although it is impossible to put a cocoon around your children, there are many measures that you can put to use, which will mitigate the danger.

The greatest risk to our children doesn't come from strangers but from friends and family. Between thirty and forty per cent of children are abused by family members. As many as 60% are abused by people the family trusts, including relatives, coaches, teachers, clergy and others who are in positions of authority, power and influence. Imagine how difficult it is for children to say “no” to such people, especially if the abuser describes his behavior as “love” or “caring.”

Those who sexually abuse children are drawn to settings where they can gain easy access to children, such as sports leagues, religious youth centers, clubs, and schools. They go to extraordinary efforts to gain the trust of parents and other relatives. Imagine, for example, the vulnerability of a single parent’s children when a coach or teacher volunteers to watch over them after school or during times the parent must be at work.

Beware of adults who give excessive attention to your children, such as trying to get into one-on-one situations with them repeatedly. Where this gets tricky is with teachers and coaches, who show sincere care and want to offer one-on-one counsel. It is hard to differentiate genuine care from those who prey on children.
Look for changes in your child’s behavior, moods, attitudes and school performance.

Abusers frighten their victims by telling them that they (the victim) let it happen and their parents will be angry, so “don’t tell.” Even worse, some abusers threaten family members if the child tells.

First, a coach should never be in a locker room alone with an athlete. Other players or coaches must be present. This not only goes for coaches of the same sex as the athlete, but obviously also in situations where the coach and athlete are opposite sexes.

Secondly, for younger players, in particular, a parent should be present at all practices. This is important not only to mitigate against sexual abuse possibilities, but also to hopefully mitigate the verbal abuse that often takes place between coaches and athletes. Coaches often bristle at parents being present because they don’t want parental interference in their coaching style. Assert yourself with the coach. If he insists that you not be present, remove your child from that coach/team.

If you have no proof of abuse, but you are worried about your child’s changing behavior or mood, it is better to err in the conservative direction by removing your child from the coach, team, club or situation.

If your child displays any of the warning signs above, attempt to speak with your child about what is disturbing him/her. Abused children often feel more comfortable discussing their fears with a trusted adult, afraid their parents will be angry or ashamed of them. So, have a relative or close friend connect with your child if you suspect anything. Don’t be disappointed that your child cannot discuss what happened with you.

If your child does begin to discuss what happened, make it safe for the child to express their fears. Don’t probe any more than the child feels comfortable with. It may take several discussions before your child can get all of the details out. Don’t judge your child. Just be empathetic and get the child professional help. Child psychologists are experts at helping abused children deal with their fears and trauma.

As parents, we are vigilant about teaching our children to watch for traffic before crossing, always put on your seat belt, and lock the doors when they are home alone. It is time we extend that vigilance to frank discussions about what behaviors by adults with whom they interact are proper and what behaviors are not. Tell your children to come to you when they are confused or worried about any adult’s interactions with them.

Jack Singer, Ph.D.
Clinical/Sport Psychologist

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