Tips to keep your child safe through adulthood - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Tips to keep your child safe through adulthood

With all the horror stories we hear about child sexual abuse and abductions, it may help to take a breather but also sit up with caution. The high-profile sex abuse cases are extremely rare, and stranger danger has proven to be more myth than fact. In my time working with a state-wide sex offender program and those with child pornography and solicitation offenses, I’d like to offer some candid advice I hope helps parents.

Where the Danger Lies

You’ve all heard it by now. Those close to children abuse them. Larry Nassar had open access to many girls that were separated from their parents. He was in a national, trusted position. He could abuse a child under the watchful eyes of parents. Though this case is one of the worst serial abuse cases in U.S. history, one thing rings true. There are no monsters. If we think so, then we think we can spot them. Though this case is rare, one thing that is a common thread in abuse cases. The doctor was close to the athletes and the coaches. He took advantage of that. It would be next to impossible for most parents to know.

People are not good at judging character, but they think they are. According to Anna Salter in her book Predators, a psychologist that worked years in prison, an FBI agent is as good at telling a lie as a coin toss. This is the real danger. Often places of faith, education, or those in our community that appear “normal” (married with kids, the Church event, the big playground in back) are places where offenses most likely occur.

Not all abusers are like Nassar. In fact, few are, but men and women abuse because they have access to kids. Most of the time this has less to do with sexual attraction and more to do with power, control and convenience. There is enough attraction, but people can have primary and secondary attractions. Sometimes attraction has nothing to do with it because attraction does not always equal abuse. A few may have high sex drives, but as I learned through sex offender treatment, men’s sexual patterns, including those that offend, are not consistent and can change through time.

But how can we go through life not trusting our family, neighbors, teachers and coaches?

Don’t Shut Down Communication

The first thing to practice is open communication. The problem with being an authority figure is that such can intimidate kids. I think we really have to break the sex conversation taboo with our kids. The more our kids know, the better. It’s empowerment. Use real words not play words for their body parts. Using euphemisms can backfire. A penis is a penis, and so is a vagina. There should be no shame attached to these words. Often, one abusing uses code words for body parts or “playtime.” I suggest the books by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley starting with ages 7 and up. Reading the book together when our kids show interest is a great way to open up communication about sexuality and limit the shame or embarrassment, even fear, they may feel if parents assume such is off-limits. Such is not off-limits to those abusing a child. If healthy sexuality is an open topic in your household, it’s more likely the child will tell you if something is wrong.

Single parents beware, and dad and mom be cautious

Like Novikov’s book Lolita (which I still think is a necessary read), a single parent is a way in at a single mom’s or dad’s children. Most people are not dating someone to be Humbert Humbert, but such is not the way the real world works. Our kids are not someone else’s kids, and who is to say that step-dad or step-mom end up doing something abusive or inappropriate? What I have found, as other more experienced folks in psychology have, is that when one parent, even a biological one, is very stressed or the marriage is not working, they will often go to the oldest child for connection. That connection can turn to abuse. Such was not unheard of in the program where I interned. Most cases involved incest from people that were not habitual or serial, though some abuse did last years.

Yes, girls, kids in general, are also potential offenders

While driving a school bus for about 7 years in New York, I learned one thing: never put little kids with adolescent kids. The small ones can get sexually abused. Never leave your kids with an age gap of 3 or 4 years alone with older kids. That child has little leverage or understanding. Consider this, as one therapist told me, when your 8-year old daughter goes to the neighbors for a sleepover, who else is in that house overnight? Is the neighbor’s dad, older brother or sister, his friends? Will grandpa stop by, or the famed uncle? Does a parent know?

Older babysitters, females, can abuse. There was a case where a 12-year old girl molested a 6-year old for weeks until the 6-year old told the father. The father thought that his daughter was safe with a girl. In fact, I cannot quantify this, but many of the offenders I worked with in prison had female abusers. I think these numbers are much higher. Often, boys have no idea they were abused because society sees a boy with a woman as a positive thing, a score. The reality is very different.

We cannot stop danger, but we can prevent it

We cannot stop abuse. I wish we could, but we can limit it. No parent can make their child abuse proof, but we can hug them and communicate with them. In fact, I saw many male offenders that grew up in strict households where sexuality was off-topic. Such seemed to have disastrous effects. If a parent’s child cannot say, “Hey dad, my boyfriend and I made out, but I don’t think I liked it” or “the coach did a bad touch” then the parents have a serious problem: No judgment, just listen. We should always validate our child’s communication with us. I suggest parents read the short book, Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors, What’s Natural And Healthy by Toni Cavanagh Johnson. This is a great guide in identifying problematic behavior from natural behavior.

Child sexuality is real, but the only business adults have in it is one of guidance, safety, education, and support. It’s tough being a parent, but if parents follow these suggestions, even if abuse happens, their child may do much better in treatment. The longer the silence continues, the more time away from therapy, the more problematic the abuse can become.

About the author

Earl Yarington

Earl Yarington is an associate professor of English at Prince George’s Community College and a graduate student in clinical social work at Louisiana State University. He is also obtaining sex therapy certification through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. He interned in corrections statewide for a sex offender treatment program. Earl also authored a book under pen name Lolita in the Lion's Den ( that addresses the complexity of sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse for people coming to terms with conflicting thoughts and ultimately their own identities. Contact the author.

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