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Child abusers can look like everybody else, so we can’t judge just by appearance.

Once a friend asked me,  ” What does a child abuser look like?”

“I wish I had an easy answer to that question,” I said. “Unfortunately, to understand what a child abuser might look like, we each just need to look in the mirror. Child abusers can look like everybody else, so we can’t judge just by appearance.”

Most child molesters act like charming, kind people who are great with kids most of the time. They come from all walks of life and are often in positions of trust and power with kids.

In my own community, there have been three cases that have recently become very public – a doctor and a nurse each being charged with abusing children in their personal care – and a teenaged babysitter making pornographic movies and photos of younger children.

In her chilling book Conversations With a Pedophile, author Amy Hammel-Zabin describes how, through her work as an art therapist in prison, she led a series of interviews with a man convicted of sexually abusing over 1,000 boys. In graphic detail, this man described how he systematically developed relationships with church groups and did such wonderful things with the children that parents were begging him to take care of them because their kids loved being with him – and how he then systematically lowered children’s boundaries until the children themselves felt responsible for the abuse that happened.

This man would seek out kids who wouldn’t tell by swearing and then saying, “Oops! I just accidentally said some bad words. Please don’t tell your parents because then we couldn’t hang out together anymore.”

As adults, we need to understand that we must keep assessing people who we trust with our children based on their behavior rather than automatically trusting them because of their position, their ability to be “good” with kids, or their reputation. Are we always welcome to drop in on what they are doing? Are there any changes in our children’s behavior?

At the same time, it does not serve children be told that the person most likely to harm them is someone they love and trust. Focusing on the bad things that could happen does not make kids safer and can cause upset that can make it harder for kids to take action in the moment to be safe.

Instead, we can protect our children – and empower them to protect themselves – by learning and practicing skills for staying aware, recognizing unsafe behavior, setting clear and appropriate boundaries, and being persistent getting help.

As adults, we need to be prepared to stay connected with our children and know who the people responsible for their safety are and what they are doing. We must ask questions and speak up anytime we have a concern, regardless of discomfort or worries we might have.

Without going into the details about sexual abuse, here is what our kids need to know:

Kidpower Safety Rules About Secrets: Touch should not be a secret. Photos or videos should not be a secret. Presents someone gives you should not be a secret. Activities and friendships should not be a secret. Problems should not be a secret.

Kidpower Safety Rules About Private Areas. Your private areas are the parts of your body that can be covered by a bathing suit. For play or teasing, other people should not touch your private areas or ask you to touch theirs. Showing or taking photos or videos about people and their private areas is also against the safety rules. Sometimes adults do need to touch kid’s private areas for health or safety – and it should NEVER be a secret. If someone breaks these safety rules, tell adults you trust and keep telling until somebody does something about it. If you see something that breaks the safety rules when doing something electronically, like a picture popping up during a game, look away, move away, and go get help from an adult you trust.

Sometimes the people taking care of kids have problems that cause them to break the safety rules. This statement is from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults and is part of our core curriculum: “Sometimes the people kids love or trust 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.”

How to set appropriate boundaries; deal with bribery, emotional coercion, and intimidation; and get help. Kidpower programs and our Safety Comics provide the opportunity to learn and practice skills in ways that are effective, fun, and age-appropriate rather than scary.


Finally, as adults, we need to be prepared to take action if we suspect a problem or a child comes to us for help.

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Published: February 25, 2022   |   Last Updated: February 25, 2022

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.