Sometimes the People Kids Love Have Problems
What Children Do and Do NOT Need to Know
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Most of the people who abuse children are people they know well. However, children will NOT be made safer by being given this potentially devastating message: “By the way, the person who will probably hurt you the most is someone you love and trust.”
In Kidpower, our goal is to give children tools for staying emotionally and physically safe without overwhelming them with unnecessary upsetting information. Children can learn to protect themselves from most safety problems with people they know if they practice these skills:
- Setting powerful, respectful, appropriate boundaries with peers and adults they know
- Protecting themselves emotionally from hurtful words
- Staying in charge of what they say and do no matter how they feel inside
- Walking away from trouble
- Being persistent in getting help
Instead of mentioning specific abusive or other dangerous situations, we have children practice using these skills to solve common daily problems such as unkind comments, unwanted touch and teasing, disagreements, games that go from fun to scary, and social pressure to make unsafe or inappropriate choices.
With a lot of thought and advice from experts, we have figured out what adults can say to children that will be truthful, useful, and not overwhelming. Our goal is to focus on getting help rather than on blame – and to avoid any upsetting details.
As soon as children are old enough to understand, we recommend that their adults tell them in a very calm matter-of-fact way, “Sometimes the people kids love have problems, and sometimes their problems are so big that they do things that hurt kids or make them uncomfortable. If this happens to you or a friend, it does NOT mean you did anything wrong. It means that the person who did this broke the safety rules and that you all need help. The best way to get help is to tell a grown-up you trust and to keep telling until that person or another person does something about it. And it is NEVER too late to tell.”
You can then encourage children to think of many different adults they could go to with safety problems, such as their parents, teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends of parents, school counselors, etc. etc.
If children ask for details about what might happen, ask what they think rather than answering their question. Their response will give you the opportunity to address any confusion or upset they might already have. If they press for details, you can redirect them by saying firmly and cheerfully, “Lots of things might happen, but I’d rather talk about how you can keep yourself safe most of the time. Let’s practice sounding both firm and respectful when you ask someone to stop. Let’s practice interrupting a busy adult and telling the whole story when you need help.”
As part of their safety net, kids need to be told explicitly and repeatedly that their adults care about what happens to them. At least once a year, we recommend that every adult tell all the children in her or his life, “You are VERY important to me. If you have or know about a safety problem, I want to know. Please tell me even if I seem too busy, even if someone we care about will be upset, even if you made a mistake, and even if it is uncomfortable to talk about. I will do everything in my power to help you.”
And remember – as adults, we are also most likely to be harmed by people we know, and these same People Safety skills can protect us most of the time.
Note: Our Safety Comics offer cartoon-illustrated explanations of skills, social stories, and directions on how to practice for adults with younger children, older children, teens, and people with special needs – and only cost $12 plus shipping and handling. Our workshops offer hands-on upbeat practice so children and adults can learn together.