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3 Ways Parents Can Protect Their Children Against Predators

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been no shortage of parenting advice — solicited and unsolicited. For our kids and for ourselves, we’re all trying to navigate this new frontier with its issues of distancing, sanitizing and hygiene, and no doubt we’re all looking forward to a return to some semblance of “normal.”

As a parent, I share a desire for more interpersonal interactions for my child, but thanks to the nature of my work, I look at such things a bit differently than most. I’m the co-founder of Parents Against Child Sex Abuse (P.A.X.A.), an organization that exists to empower parents to protect their children from childhood sexual abuse. The pandemic — with its geographical constraints — has brought to light more than ever that the greatest percentage of sexual abuse threats to children come from inside their circle of trust. The numbers are shocking: according to the CDC, in 90 percent of sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone the child or parent knows and trusts. This means if we truly want to keep all kids safe, we have to open our minds to where the abuse is coming from.

For most of us, it’s difficult to imagine that a sexual predator could be someone who raised the child or married into the family. Often we experience disbelief that sexual abuse has been perpetrated by a “nice neighbor” or someone we’ve known since childhood. But that’s how it works. Predators need access to children, and access is easiest when they already know the child and the child’s family.

My work at P.A.X.A. is multi-tiered, but at its core is a clear goal: to keep kids safe. To that end, I’d like to offer a few tips for how parents can protect their children against predators:

1. Trust Your Gut.

If you sense that something going on within your home or extended family is just not right, dig in detective-style. If your husband or cousin or brother-in-law is acting shady, if you catch someone with access to a child lying or trying to confuse you about a situation that concerns you, trust that you’re not “crazy” and lean into your instincts. If a teenage boy takes interest in your younger child, and though it all seems “sweet” but your gut still tells you that something about the situation is off, trust your gut. Your instincts have been sharpened by a lifetime of experience, so listen to them.

2. Pay Attention, All The Time.

When it comes to safeguarding children, remove the word “paranoid” from your vocabulary. Paying attention in your personal life is no different than flexing your watchdog skills at a park, at the ice-skating rink or biking around the neighborhood. It’s all about safety. At home or in a relative’s or friend’s home, pay attention to closed doors and activities going on in basements, garages and attics. Watch for adults who seem just a little too physical with your child. Pay attention in party settings where children are present and adults are drinking; sometimes the disinhibiting effect of alcohol and drugs can lead predators to feel freer to commit abusive atrocities. This isn’t to say that you should now live on edge and in fear — not at all. This advice is simply that we all stay wide awake at the wheel.

3. Believe Children. Every time.

If your child seems scared or even uncomfortable around someone in the family or friend circle, trust that something inappropriate may be going on within that circle. If your child has a meltdown when you want to send him or her to a neighbor’s or cousin’s house, this could be an indicator that something bad is happening there; your child may simply be unable to understand or articulate it. And if child is able to make a disturbing claim about someone you know or trust, investigate immediately. Kids almost never lie about such things; they don’t have the motivation.

Our kids need to know that we are the go-to for protection and security, so they need to understand if they share this kind of scary news, they’re going to be taken seriously.

As we all go through home and life edits brought on by the pandemic, now is a great time to take stock of the people around your child and to become comfortable monitoring the situations that could open the door to childhood sexual abuse. These kinds of safeguards need not create discomfort for you and people you care about; they can be practiced very naturally and subtly. But even if a possible threat leads to an anxiety-producing investigation or even an awkward conversation, those are very small prices to pay for the well-being of a child.

Tania Haigh is a proud mom and advocate for children. As co-founder and President of Parents Against Child Sex Abuse (P.A.X.A.), she works tirelessly to deliver on the organization’s mission of empowering parents. If you have a story you want to share or want to reach Tania, she’d love to hear from you. You can find her on Twitter @tanhaigh and Instagram @taniahaigh. For more information or if you ever need help, please visit www.paxa.online.

iStock photo by Jordan Dokell (Magnolia Insights)

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