“A sex offender is living in our neighborhood! How do I protect my kids?” Horrified parents often call us when they discover that a registered sex offender is living next door or down the street. They want urgently to know how to keep their children safe.
Our challenge as parents is to protect and empower our children without terrifying them. But how to do that? The following five tips are from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
1. Be realistic. Unfortunately most child molesters have not yet been caught and are not registered on lists. The knowledge that someone living close to you has abused children is of course deeply distressing. The bad news is that sexual predators live in most communities without our knowledge. The good news is that you and your children have the power to learn skills that can keep your family safe most of the time.
While feeling upset that someone has harmed kids is normal, demonizing this individual will serve no purpose and will not help your children be safer. Legally, this man or woman has served his or her time. A locally registered sex offenders is likely to be the first person suspected by authorities if a crime is committed.
Instead of panicking, use your increased awareness to overcome The Illusion of Safety. Your greater knowledge can prepare you to protect your family from many hidden dangers in addition to this one.
2. Be careful in what you say to your kids. We don’t want children to feel scared unnecessarily or to put graphic information about sexual abuse into their minds. Try to have concerned conversations with neighbors, including on the phone, where your children cannot overhear you.
Often worried parents react in ways that help them feel safer as adults but cause their kids to become anxious and confused. Avoid global rules that you insist on for a while but then let go of because they are impractical like “Never walk on that side of the street!” or “Never sit on anyone’s lap!”
If children have overheard something or know this person, you can give a simple explanation such as, “Mr. Green has been unsafe with kids so I want you to stay away from him. If he tries to talk to you or come close to you, move away and come tell me.”
3. Put safety ahead of relationships. Situations get complicated if the sex offender is in a family or household where your kids spend time or have friends. Even if they have been in jail and are under treatment, child molesters sometimes repeat their behavior. Although most sex offenders are men, it is important to stay aware that a few women are also sexual predators who act abusively and even very violently towards children, so these safety rules are for everyone.
Make sure that your children are never alone with someone who has been known to abuse kids. This means not going to each other’s houses or playing in each others; yards. If this person shows up at a neighborhood event, stay with your kids and keep them away from him or her at all times. Don’t glare or stare, but do avoid.
Suppose your children are friends with kids in a family living nearby, and you discover that an uncle who was convicted of sexual abuse is now living there. Since these children are friends with your kids, you might want to have them come to your house to visit. Whatever their uncle did is not their fault. At the same time, stay aware of the possibility that they might have been abused. Children who have been abused who have not had help are most likely to harm themselves, but they might play in a way that is unsafe or inappropriate, so you will need to supervise carefully.
Both you and your children need to be able to say “No” to invitations that would break your safety rules without letting embarrassment or guilt stop you from setting clear boundaries.
4. Know what your kids are doing. Make sure you really know anyone that you entrust with the care of your kids even for a few minutes. Children who are not yet prepared to go out on their own are safer if they have adult protection all the time.
Don’t just assume that a friendly neighbor from a nice family will have the same standards of supervising children that you do. Ask questions and make very specific agreements about your expectations. Stop by unexpectedly to check in. Pay attention to your intuition. Don’t ignore any uncomfortable feelings. Speak up about concerns. Change plans unless you are sure your kids will be safe.
Tell children who are old enough to go out on their own, “Our safety rule is that you will check with me first before you change your plan about who is with you, where you go, and what you do. Do not go into someone’s house or yard until I agree that it is okay. I also want you to check with me first about when it is okay to open our door to anyone unless you were expecting this person.”
5. Prepare your kids before you let them go on their own. Whether kids are going across the street to play with a friend, get something from the neighborhood store, visiting the corner park, or walking to school, they need to be prepared before they go anywhere without adult protection.
Make sure your children understand what you want them to do with each person and place in your neighborhood – and give them the chance to practice. For example, coach them to walk away from a friendly person trying to talk them into coming close to look at something interesting “for just a minute” or trying to pressure them emotionally into breaking one of their safety rules.
Kidpower recommends this five-step process to prepare children for more independence:
- Step One. Make realistic assessments about your child in each situation.
- Step Two. As a family, learn and practice “People Safety” skills, which are skills to help people be emotionally and physically safe with people everywhere they go. Practice these skills together.
- Step Three. Co-pilot with your child to field-test the use of these skills in the real world.
- Step Four. Conduct trial runs to rehearse independence in controlled doses with adult backup.
- Step Five: Keep communication open with listening, ongoing checking in, and review.
As part of the preparation, you can use this one-page Kidpower Safety For Kids On The Way To School Checklist (download the pdf) that we’ve compiled for parents to TALK with your child, WALK with your child, and PRACTICE with your child.
6. Teach your children about healthy boundaries. The reality is that anyone might touch or play with your child in an unsafe way, including other children who are curious or have poor boundaries themselves.
To keep your children safe from abuse, be sure they understand their safety rules and know how to:
- say “No” to unwanted or unsafe touch or games for play, teasing, or affection
- resist emotional coercion and bribes
leave an unsafe situation
- not keep secrets about problems, touch, presents, favors, or games
- be persistent in getting help from busy, distracted adults.
Supervise your children’s play, including with children in your home, until you are sure that they have these skills.
Not sure how to practice? Kidpower can help! Sign-up for our free enewsletter. Visit kidpower.org for our extensive free on-line Library, affordable publications including Safety Comics, workshops, and consultation services.