Someone’s Gotta Say It
3 Steps to Protect Our Kids from Abusers: On-line and In-person
By Marina Sampanes Peed
Executive Director at Mosaic Georgia
A friend used to be a kid who went to the same school or lived down the block. Today, friends are met online with few, if any, community supports. This is a predator’s playground.
“It’s not IF, but WHEN” your child will be exposed to people who may want to harm them. As parents and guardians, we must adapt our strategies to protect children. This means we are going to get uncomfortable. It is easiest if we start talking about physical, emotional, and sexual health with kids from an early age as a normal part of living. Kids get messages about their changing bodies, their body autonomy, and relationships every single day. Even the most engaged, helicopter parents cannot control the harmful messages kids receive.
“Stranger Danger” doesn’t help because over 90% of sexual abuse/harm is done by someone with easy access to your child. Someone they don’t think of as a stranger. A friend used to be a kid who went to the same school or lived down the block. Today, a “friend” is someone they “met” online – via SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, WhatsApp, Kik, Discord, Kanakuk, Reddit, Yik Yak, and numerous dating/meet-up platforms.
Most of the youth we see at Mosaic Georgia were abused by trusted adults in their lives. A growing number were groomed by people they met online. You may have seen the show “Catfish.” It documents people who create fake identities and personas online to deceive people looking for relationships.
It starts out seemingly innocent and the abuser cultivates an emotional attachment without ever being in the same room. Then manipulation to send photos, videos, and then plan to meet. If they get uncomfortable and try to disengage, threats to publicize images/conversations or send to parents/school/employer are used.
So what to do? Resilience is built through factual information, a sense of self-worth and belonging, and coping strategies.
1. Don’t Worry, Get Ready! Talk With Your Kids provides great tips and information for parents and caregivers to nurture education, healthy behaviors, and relationships throughout a child’s development. Age-appropriate information that tracks a child’s developmental curiosity help grown-ups feel more comfortable with the conversations. Please, use anatomical words to describe all body parts – not just eye, nose, ear, hand, knee, etc. The more you normalize names for genitals, the easier your conversations will be as the kids grow.
2. Talk with your kids – regularly, over time. When you look, you will see prompts almost every day to explore situations, perspectives, healthy alternatives. Ask, “have you seen this?” “what do you think of …?” “how do you think they feel?” “what would you do?” Listen as much as you speak. Acknowledge the inevitable eye-rolls, and let them know you are trying. You love them and want to keep them safe.
3. Practice what you preach. Encourage kids to trust their intuition about their personal safety. Encourage them to use their voice. A real friend won’t ask you to do something that you are uncomfortable with or don’t want to do. Help them determine their personal physical boundaries with family, friends, and others. Don’t force them to hug someone they don’t want to. (You can tell the overbearing adult that you appreciate their support in helping the kids manage their personal boundaries.) Let them know that IF something happens, you will be there for them and they won’t get in trouble if they tell.
Teens and adults who derive gratification from abusing and controlling others – especially kids – look for vulnerabilities that open doors for access – kids who are hungry for attention, less likely to assert themselves, or tell someone about the “special” relationship.
You can provide protective factors that will reduce their risk and improve their recovery should such harms occur. Remember: the responsibility always rests with the abuser.