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High-profile news stories about children and teens being sexually abused by trusted teachers, religious leaders, and coaches continue to shock parents, educators, and other caring adults across the US. These sad stories are classic examples of how individuals can misuse their positions of trust and power to abuse and coerce kids and of how adults in responsible positions often fail to take adequate action to stop them.

Parents and other concerned adults are left wondering, “What do I need to watch out for? How can I protect my kids? What can I teach them about protecting themselves?”

Safety comes first in sports – and in life!

These four strategies from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults might have helped to prevent the terrible wrongs done to these children and to bring the people who harmed them to justice much sooner.

1. Put Safety First! Kidpower’s core principle is: The safety and self-esteem of a child are more important than anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. In the Penn State football scandal, for example, any of the many adults who witnessed or learned of Sandusky’s behavior might have prevented years of abuse, helped the kids he had abused much sooner,  and protected other victims. Despite their discomfort, their responsibility was to report what happened to the police and to follow up thoroughly to ensure that kids were safe.  The damage to everyone’s reputation would have been far less than the damage that was caused because of the failure to take adequate action.

If you suspect that there is a safety problem, especially involving children, take personal responsibility for doing something to address it. This means speaking up persistently and widely until effective action is taken to fix that problem. Don’t just tell someone, even if that person is in a position of authority, and assume that your responsibility is at an end. Follow up to see what is happening. Realize that children and young people who are being abused need help and protection – and that anyone who is abusing them needs to be stopped.

Worthy of Trust: What Organizations Need to Do to Protect Children From Harm describes what makes it hard to speak up in organizations and the four decisions each of us can take that will make a difference.

2. Make sure you know what someone is doing with your kids. Remember that anyone can be an abuser.  As parents and other caring adults, we need to face the reality that there are sexual predators who will create opportunities to be alone with kids by doing wonderful things with and for them. And, most of these offenders will seem like really nice people with excellent reputations. Many will even provide truly important services for most of the children they encounter. When people ask me to tell them what a child molester might look like, I say, “Look in the mirror – a molester can look just like anyone else!”

Most adults who choose to do great things with kids are good people who truly want to help. A coach, a youth group leader, a teacher, a Big Brother/Big Sister, a religious leader, and a child therapist can all have relationships with children and teens in the context of their paid or volunteer role, and these relationships can be tremendously important to a young person. However, the vulnerability of young people to anyone put into these positions of trust is why more attention needs to be paid to screening these individuals and to following up thoroughly on any hint of a problem.

Don’t just trust people just because they are part of a reputable organization, place of worship, or school. Check each person out for yourself, especially if he or she is going to be alone with your child. Check references. Don’t assume that someone will tell you if something bad happens.  Trust your intuition if something feels uncomfortable to you. Watch out for someone who seems to single out certain kids for special attention and private relationships, who seeks social and recreational opportunities to be alone with kids without other adults there, or who is not open to parents and other responsible adults being fully informed about and comfortable with what is going on.  When in doubt, check it out!

3. LISTEN to your children and teach them not to keep unsafe secrets. Most abusers cultivate strong relationships with children before doing anything sexual. Often, they start by testing a child’s boundaries by being inappropriate in other ways.  In the chilling book, Conversations with a Pedophile, the abuser, who was interviewed by the author while in prison, describes how he would use a swear word to a boy in a church youth group and then say something like, “Oops! I just said a bad word. Please don’t tell your parents, because then we couldn’t have fun together any more.” He would then target boys who he was confident wouldn’t tell.

This pedophile’s strong advice to parents about protecting their kids from people like him was, “Listen to your kids!” Get kids into the habit of talking to you by asking supportive questions, being a good listener, and not lecturing. Pay attention to what they say. Let kids know that you care about what they are doing and want to know what is happening with them no matter how busy you are.

Once in a while, in a calm, conversational way, at a peaceful moment, ask,  “Is there anything you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?” Thank the child for telling you and listen with interest to the answers. Don’t tease, even if what the child says seems silly. Avoid scolding at that moment, even if the child has done something wrong.

Be very clear with all children in your life that secrets about problems, touch, favors, gifts someone gives them, photos or videos, privileges, time alone with anyone, and games are not safe.  Their job is to tell you and other adults they trust instead of keeping secrets, even if someone they care about will be upset or embarrassed.

In many cases, pedophiles give kids alcohol or drugs as a way to get them to lower their inhibitions, sometimes molesting them while they are unconscious or asleep. They might then threaten their victims with getting them into trouble by telling their parents. Make sure your children get this message from you often, “Even if you made a mistake or did something wrong, I will love you and help you. Please tell me about anyone whose behavior makes you uncomfortable even if we really like this person so we can figure out what to do to keep everyone safe.”

4)  Prepare young people to take charge of their safety by practicing skills. One quick action can stop most abuse – pushing someone’s hand away, ordering someone to stop, leaving as soon as you can, resisting emotional coercion, and telling. Kids are more likely to be able to take actions like these when they need to if they understand their safety rules and have the chance to rehearse following these rules in a fun, age-appropriate way.

Using non-sexual examples such as tickling or roughhousing, role-play with kids skills for setting boundaries on touch and teasing with people they know and care about even if someone tries to pressure them. Using non-sexual examples such as someone hurting their feelings or playing a scary game, give kids practice on how to interrupt a busy adult with a safety problem and tell the whole story. Practice what to do if the adult doesn’t listen by persisting and, if need be, how to keep telling different adults until someone helps solve the problem.

Kidpower provides these services to prepare families, schools, and organizations protect children from sexual abuse, bullying, abduction and other violence:

  1. An extensive free on-line Library with an enewsletter, articles, videos, podcasts, and downloadable handouts.
  2. Affordable publications such as the Kidpower Safety Comics Series, which are easy to use, entertaining tools to help adults introduce and practice “People Safety” ideas and skills to younger and older children, as well as teens and young adults with developmental disabilities.
  3. In-person workshops for parents, teachers, and counselors as well as children and teens.
  4. Consultation on how to integrate the Kidpower methodology and skills into the ongoing activities of schools and youth-serving organizations.
—- Irene van der Zande is the Executive Director and Founder of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International and author of The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, which has a foreword by Gavin de Becker, best-selling author of The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift.  This book includes chapters on how to protect children and teens from bullying and sexual abuse as well as how to teach stranger awareness and abduction prevention skills.

Copyright © 2012 - present. All rights reserved.

Published: May 18, 2012   |   Last Updated: July 13, 2012

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.