Like many sexual predators, Jerry Sandusky, the former football coach who was recently convicted of child abuse, developed strong relationships of love and trust with his victims before molesting them. The stories told by his victims sound chillingly similar to the stories we hear from adult survivors of sexual abuse in our classes.
“He was so kind and generous. I tried to make myself forget the bad things so I wouldn’t have to lose the good things.”
“I compartmentalized the abuse because he was so important to me.”
“I thought I was the only one and that it was my fault.”
“I told my mom I didn’t want to be with him, but she didn’t understand.”
“I was afraid and ashamed.”
“I was embarrassed.”
“Everyone looked up to him. I thought people would blame me for what happened.”
The victims who testified in Sandusky’s trial are adults talking about abuse that happened years ago. As kids, they didn’t have the understanding, support, and skills they needed to stop Sandusky. Thanks to their tremendous courage in speaking up now, this sexual predator is now in jail.
As these terrible stories have come to light, we need to understand that Sandusky is not unique. Pedophiles know how to find and manipulate vulnerable kids – and how to put on a great show for everyone else, even members of their family. One of Sandusky’s adopted sons says he realizes now that he was abused – but the rest of the family seems not to believe him. It’s possible that they are in denial or covering up – but it’s also possible that Sandusky never did anything where they could see it.
Almost certainly, as I write this, a child is being abused behind closed doors somewhere in your town – and in mine. And these kids are not speaking up because the person abusing them is someone they love and trust – a member of their family, a mentor, someone they are dependent on. Another reason kids might not speak up is because abuse is often disguised as “tickle games” or as needed for health. Often kids don’t recognize that this behavior is wrong and unsafe for them, sometimes until long after it has happened. Predators can then weave a web of confusion, coercion, and guilt that keeps their victims silent and compliant.
The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults describes the dilemma faced by parents and provides solutions. “We want to protect our kids, but we don’t want to put images in their heads that doesn’t need to be there. It is not emotionally healthy for kids to be told the details of sexual abuse or that, ‘By the way, the person most likely to harm you is someone you love and trust.’ Instead, we can give kids age-appropriate safety rules, clear understanding of what is safe and unsafe, and skills for how to set boundaries and resist emotional coercion.”
Here are five steps Kidpower recommends to protect children from being betrayed by someone they love and trust.
1. Accept the reality that many child molesters may seem like wonderful people. Don’t be fooled by outside appearances. Pay attention to what someone is actually doing with your kids. If someone who is responsible for the care of many kids starts to single your child out for special attention, be careful. Don’t assume that someone is safe just because this person is generous, beloved, charming, and kind.
2. Teach kids about touch in healthy relationships. The Kidpower rules include: “Touch or games for play, teasing, or affection should be the choice of each person, safe, allowed by the grownups in charge, and not a secret. Other people should not touch your private areas or ask you to touch their private areas. Touch for health and safety is sometimes not a choice but should never be a secret.” Rehearse with kids how to stop unwanted touch using non-sexual touch, like someone patting their head or holding their hand. Give kids practice in persisting in setting their boundaries by pretending to act sad and by offering a bribe.
3. Teach kids to tell, even if someone they care about will be upset. The Kidpower rule is that “Problems should not be secrets.” Get kids into the habit of talking to you by listening without lecturing or judging. Ask occasionally, “Is there anything you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?” Remind kids that their safety is the most important thing in the world to you and that you want to know if anything happens that is against your safety rules. Rehearse with kids how to interrupt a busy, impatient adult with a safety problem and how to persist in getting help if the adult doesn’t understand or believe them.
4. Take action if someone’s behavior makes you uncomfortable. Speak up about anything someone does with kids that you are not sure is safe. You don’t have to assume child abuse but you do have to be aware of the possibility of someone harming your child either intentionally or accidentally. If this person has good intentions, then you can work out concerns or misunderstandings. Pay attention to your intuition. Don’t make or accept excuses. Keep supervising to ensure that your child is in safe hands.
5. Understand that Putting Safety First takes an ongoing commitment. Make safety conversations a daily part of your lives. Keep paying attention and speak up if you see a problem. And keep practicing People Safety skills with kids — just like they need to practice anything else, like brushing their teeth, they need to practice boundary setting and self-protection skills like awareness and getting help when they have a problem in order to make it a healthy habit. Kidpower provides a fun effective empowering way to do it!
Penn State Sanctions Set New Path for Success
Child Abuse Prevention in Youth Sports Webinars With PCA (Positive Coaching Alliance)
What Penn State Football Could Have Learned From Kidpower
Worthy of Trust: What Organizations Need to Do to Protect Children From Harm
Four Strategies for Protecting Kids From Sexual Predators
The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People provides extensive information on how to protect children from sexual abuse, including clear explanations, inspiring stories, and step-by-step explanations about how to practice skills.
Kidpower is short for Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a non-profit leader in “People Safety” education and training for people of all ages. Visit Kidpower.org for free Library resources, affordable publications, in-person workshops, and consultation.