Keep Your Child Safe From Predators
You've given up trying to hug your preteenager in front of his friends. Eight o'clock bedtimes disappeared with sensible fashion. He walks to his friend's house alone and may even go to a movie theater without his parents sitting in the next row. Yet, he's still a child even if he won't admit it, and he still needs protection and guidance to weather one of the most difficult times of his life.
"There is a fine line between preparing children for the dangers of the world and plain old scaring them," says Vivian Friedman, Ph.D., family psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "While a certain amount of judicious caution is required, it isn't necessary for preteens to worry about events they may never encounter."
Find Out What They Know
By the time the preteen years arrive, most kids know the difference between good and bad touching. But it may be a good idea to re-open the discussion using a vocabulary they can relate to: Have you heard about kids getting messed with by adults? Do you think this could happen to you?
After discussing what could happen, present the facts.
"Tell your child one out of three girls and one out of six boys nationally has been touched in a threatening or sexual way before the age of 18," says family therapist Kate Cohen Posey. "Ask her if she thinks this is higher or lower in her neighborhood."
This discussion shows your child that you're willing to talk about her feelings and ideas on the issue.
"I've talked to my daughter about good and bad touching since she could understand the words," says Barbara Watson of Charleston, S.C. "She's 11 now and knows the basic concept of rape – that there are 'bad men' that could try to take advantage of her."
Encourage your children to share their instincts with you, Cohen-Posey says. "Some adult behaviors may seem weird to her, but be normal, while others may indicate a problem." When a child raises a question like this, parents can use the opportunity to teach while listening, she says.
Although some kids feel they are invincible, it's the parents' job to set limits while encouraging independent thinking. Teaching preteenagers to trust their instincts and feel confident in their ability to judge situations prepares them for acting without a parent present. "Form a plan together, and fine tune it so your child is prepared when she doesn't have you beside her to help decide what to do," Cohen-Posey says.
Even the most careful parents can't guarantee their children's safety, but there are steps you take to increase their security.
Be wary of adults who prefer the company of children.
"Older teens and adults should be with people their own age, even though there are exceptions to this rule," Cohen-Posey says.
Beware of adults who make inappropriate comments and tell dirty jokes in front of children.
"Parents don't tell their children dirty jokes, implying there are reasons for boundaries between generations," Friedman says. "It can be an attempt to test the response of a potential victim or just not respecting the needs of others."
Screen other parents.
Check out parents of your child's friends. "If you know they are heavy drinkers or do drugs, encourage your child to hang out at your house with his or her friends," Cohen-Posey says. If your child plans to sleep over at a friend's house, ask about the host parents. Are they strict, funny, mean or weird? "Give a large menu of words and stick in a couple that may indicate funny business," Cohen-Posey says. "Casually check sleeping arrangements."
Install a peephole or glass in the front door.
This is so visitors can be seen without acknowledging anyone is home. "Preteens shouldn't have friends over when an adult isn't home unless preapproved by the parents," Friedman says.
Teach Internet safety.
"Teach your child not to give out identifying information over the Internet," Friedman says. "A healthy child doesn't seek to meet people over the Internet, but an isolated or depressed child may be at risk."
Listen lovingly, carefully.
If your child is violated or assaulted by an adult, it's very important to listen. "Tell them sexual abuse is never a child's fault, and regardless of who hurt them, you want to know," Cohen-Posey says. "Tell them that even if it's a brother, sister, aunt, uncle or parent you want to know, and if they can't talk to you, find someone you both feel is safe."
Seize the Moment
"Most of the time it's better to deal with issues of safety as they come up rather than holding a formal talk," says Friedman. A seductive blouse in the store may seem appealing to a girl who is enjoying her attractiveness and newly-found alluring power. "She's not fully aware of the possible dangers and won't be prepared to handle the unsolicited advances that may result from her manner of dress."
When she wants to go to the mall at night with her friends, parents can seize the moment to teach safety. "Teach balance, not fear," Friedman says. "Explain there are many nice people in the world and only a few bad ones. Everyone needs to be careful not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Peggy Vincent of Berkeley, Calif. uses newspaper articles or television news stories as a jumping off point to drop a line of information or an opinion into conversation. "I don't necessarily expect them to respond, nor do I even address the comment to them," she says. "But if they know I'm not uncomfortable with the issue, they'll feel more free to approach me when they do have something to say."
With work, soccer practice and swim meets, it may be hard to find time for a long discussion. But a few seconds of conversation dropped at appropriate places gives kids the message that it's OK to say those amazing words that are usually taboo. The subject isn't embarrassing, and they don't have to listen to a lecture every time they have a question.
"We've watched a few videos together about safety and how people can try to lure her away by asking for help," Watson says of her 11-year-old. "She knows her limits, and I pray a lot."
Watson's daughter has begun to go out on her own, and each time she learns a little more about the world. "She's never been afraid to share anything with us, and I hope it stays that way."
Like a tightly-coiled spring, preteenagers want to be set free. If the spring is held down and then released quickly without control, it jumps all over the place. Conversely, if it's guided gently and with care, it will stand straight and tall. Gently help your preteenager up, and the end result will be a well-rounded adult who listens to his or her heart.