Sexual Predators: What You Need to Know to Prevent Your Child Becoming a Victim
As school starts and children begin to visit friends’ homes and get back into activities in a variety of settings, it is a good time to review strategies that may prevent our children and youth from becoming victims of sexual abuse. No parent wants to think that it could happen to their child, yet pretending it doesn’t exist won’t make abuse go away. Understanding sexual abuse and knowing how to talk to your children and youth about it can prevent the unthinkable.
I asked Christine Marsh, chief program officer, child abuse and trauma services, at Family & Children’s Services to answer some basic questions about sexual predators and what we can do to protect children and youth.
Q: Often, we may view sexual predators as strangers who look scary and have no social skills — essentially being somehow recognizable as people we would want to avoid. Is there a common profile of a sexual predator?
A: There is not a common profile of a sexual predator, which is what makes taking preventative steps to educate children about healthy sexuality is important. A sexual predator is often someone looking for access to a child/youth. While many sexual predators may be difficult to recognize initially, there are behaviors to look for when adults are with children. Eighty to 90 percent of child sexual abuse is from someone they know or is known by the family.
Q: What behaviors should we be aware of?
A: Personal space: Does the person seem to dismiss or violate social, emotional, or physical boundaries or limits? Does the person insist on hugging, tickling, holding a child, or having a child hug or touch them? Does the person walk in on the child/teen in the bathroom or other private locations? Is the person spending more time with youth/children than with adults? Does the person try to have alone time with child(ren)?
Relationships with children: The person confides in the child/teen and looks for emotional comfort normally shared with adults or works to have the child/teen confide in them for emotional comfort. Suggests or starts to have secret interactions with the child and encourages not telling another person. Communicates with the child through texts, emails, social media without the parent or another adult being aware and seeing messages. The person encourages secrecy/privacy between them and the child. Tries to have uninterrupted alone time with the child. Offers to babysit, transport, spend time with the child without others around, offers to buy gifts or take to them events. Allows child to have more adult-like or inappropriate behaviors (cussing, watching risky movies, etc.).
Sexual conversation/behaviors: A perpetrator may introduce the child to pornography, highlight sexual images, body parts, tell suggestive or dirty jokes, and talk with the child about dating, their body, etc.
Q: Are sexual predators looking for certain types of children or teens?
A: Yes. They usually look for a child with minimal adult involvement, a child who may already have problem behavior with family or friends, a child who wants/needs attention and/or seems to need help. Children who are using drugs or have behavior that is questionable that the predator can use against the child also pose a risk. Children who are low functioning and less believable if they were to tell someone about unwanted adult behavior. Children who are easily influenced or manipulated by bribes or threats may be victimized.
Q: Sexual predators can be charming, manipulative people that we know. Are there signs that parents can look for that may be red flags? Or how can we protect our children and teens from these types of people?
A: The best way to prevent sexual abuse is to talk about normal sexual behavior and development with our children. By having conversations with children, the topic of sexual development, normal sexual behavior, and body privacy/safety (at home, in public bathrooms, on a team sport – changing clothes, etc.) is less secretive and reduces the chance of someone being able to manipulate the child. Talk to your child about “okay” and “not okay” sexual touch using language the child can understand.
Red flag signs of sexual abuse or grooming: The child spends less time with the caregiver/family, may become depressed or regress in behaviors. There may be changes in sleep, and the child/teen may become easily angry or sad or have an attitude change, abnormal sexual behavior or interest. They may become overly compliant, have unexplained illness/complaints, may gain or lose weight, have a decline in grades or overall functioning. Other signs may include the child/teen having new items, wanting to spend more time with the adult person alone, have pain when urinating or during bowel movements, and wet the bed. They may want unsupervised access to the internet/phone/computer.
Pay attention to relationships your child has with adults/teens. Is an adult paying too much attention to your child. Are there ongoing offers to help the family/parent by caring for the child(ren), giving gifts to the child, etc.? Communicate healthy relationship expectations to your child about how a friend/adult should behave, and what normal physical behavior is for an adult and a child.
Q: Regarding teens, how can parents teach their teens about adults, such as coaches or activity leaders, who may be grooming them? Parents may be fearful of adolescents getting into willing relationships with adults before they have the experience to understand the consequences.
A: For teens, have conversations about some adults not understanding healthy sexual development and teach them to know what to do if an adult they like/trust/know seems to violate the healthy boundaries you have taught them. Be sure to spend time talking with your teen about their relationships, if they feel uncomfortable, what they like/don’t like about an adult, if they are ever alone with a coach, activity leader. Teach children to tell you or another identified trusted adult if they feel uncomfortable with an adult.
Q: Without making children/teens fearful and paranoid about everyone, what can we tell them to keep them safe?
A: Explain not all adults/people understand healthy boundaries and some may want to do things that are not okay so they can feel better/loved/liked but that is not okay. Have ongoing conversations about how they feel with others (good, bad, confusing – all three), including their own friends, regarding boundaries.
Q: What kinds of questions should parents ask before signing their children up for activities, sports, clubs, church groups, etc. to know that the organization is doing everything they can to protect children?
A: Parents need to know the organization’s adult/child ratios and expectations of oversight. Does the organization allow an adult to be alone one on one with a youth? If so, why? Does the space allow for good oversight, observation of adult/child interactions? Is there a way to monitor adherence to policies? How can parents be assured an adult will not have access to be alone with their child? Avoid allowing a child to be in a situation with only them and one adult. Teach children to avoid being alone with an adult or isolating during parties, events, etc. (Ask for a buddy system, ask about restroom breaks/rules/oversight).
Q: What if the child has been in a sport/club/activity where the leader was accused or arrested for victimizing a minor? How should parents talk to their child or teen about that? How do they approach the subject if they think their child may have been a victim?
A: Depending on the circumstances and unless told by legal authorities who are part of an investigation not to discuss the situation with the child, a parent can talk (using developmentally appropriate language) to their child about the arrest of the leader. A parent can ask the child what they think or feel about the adult being arrested, if they have questions or if they know of anything else that may have happened to them or another child they want to talk about
Parents should be sure to let the child know they are not in trouble for anything the child may share or say, even if the child failed to follow a rule or did something they were not supposed to do. Parents need to be sure not to panic, appear stressed, frightened, or unable to listen or manage any information the child may want to share. Parents want to consider the child’s feelings about the adult and not bad mouth or indicate the person may be in trouble, as some children may be fearful of causing more trouble and/or may be emotionally attached to the person.
Q: Why do children/teens often not share that they have been victimized? What signs can parents watch for?
A: Children may feel ashamed of what happened, be fearful of the person getting into trouble, they may like the extra attention/gifts, etc., even if they know it is wrong, they may be fearful of getting hurt (or of other threats that may have been made), they may fear not being believed or blamed for “letting it happen” and causing more stress for the parent/family – especially if family is already experiencing stress.
Signs of sexual abuse or grooming: Child spends less time with caregiver/family, they may become depressed or regress in behaviors, have changes in sleep, may become easily angry or sad or have attitude change, have abnormal sexual behavior or interest, may be overly compliant, have unexplained illness/complaints, may gain or lose weight, may have a decline in grades or overall functioning, have new items, want to spend more time with the adult person alone, may have pain when urinating or during bowel movements, may wet the bed, may want unsupervised access to the internet/phone/computer.
Q: Is there anything else parents should know about this topic?
A: Talking with children about healthy sexuality and body safety helps children understand more about themselves and how to protect themselves from not only an adult sexual predator, but also children/teens who may act out sexually. Establishing regular communication with children about how they feel at school, in social organizations, at friends’ homes, etc., allows children to share about uncomfortable situations. Sharing information at the child’s developmental level promotes awareness that can be built on as the child gets older, allowing for natural opportunities to discuss the child’s understanding and comfort to discuss with a parent.
If your child has experienced sexual abuse or trauma, you can call Family & Children’s Services at 918.587.9471. For a list of age-appropriate books on talking to kids about sex, go to tulsakids.com/age-appropriate-books-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-sex/