By now, nearly everyone has heard the story of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football coach, has been charged with molesting eight boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky denied molesting anyone, though he admits to showering and “horsing around” with young boys.
Sadly, the allegations against Sandusky proved to be true, and as much as we’d like to think that sexual abuse is a rare anomaly, the fact is that one in six boys will be a victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18. Most will know their perpetrator.
Scared yet? I am. While I truly believe that most people who work with kids are good, kind people, statistics, case studies and anecdotal data tell me that there are some bad people out there as well. And the real problem is that the bad guys don’t always look like the bad guys.
Sexual abusers are often, on the surface, well-liked members of the community. Many of them appear genuinely concerned about kids; many of them have convinced themselves that they are genuinely concerned about kids. But sexual abusers gradually break down boundaries. Sexual abuse may start with a gentle touch. Who, after all, is going to object to a slow back rub from a coach who’s an all-around good guy?
Put yourself in the place of potential victim. Imagine, for a minute, that you are 10-years-old. That your home life is less-than-stellar. Not abusive, necessarily; just less-than-nurturing. Perhaps your mom works all the time to support the family. Maybe your dad just lost his job and is feeling kind of depressed. Maybe your parents are too busy to really spend time with you, and maybe, in your heart of hearts, you’re feeling a little bit lonely.
Along comes a coach. Where your parents see an interruption and interference, he sees potential. He spends time with you. He tells you you’re special. He smiles when he sees you coming; your mom frowned today when she saw your report card.
So when your coach invites you to his house after practice, you feel honored. His family is so nice to you!
Now…imagine this scenario playing out over a matter of months or years. Imagine the warm feelings you develop for the coach. Now imagine that the coach touches your back just a little too long after dinner one day. The quick squeeze of the shoulders turns into something else — fingers rubbing up and down your back. It feels odd, but it’s over as soon as it starts.
Would you tell someone? Probably not. After all, “nothing” really happened, and Coach is a good guy. Besides, you’re 10; he’s the adult. It seemed normal to Coach, so you’re probably just over-reacting.
Most sexual abusers groom their victims over a period of time. After gaining the victim’s trust, there are gradual violations of the victim’s boundaries. By the time the hard-core sexual abuse happens, the abuser has essentially trained the child to ignore the boundary violations. The abuser has become an important part of the child’s life. And sometimes, the abuse feels good on a physical level. Imagine the shame and confusion felt by a child who actually felt a moment of pleasure when sexually abused by a trusted adult!
It’s up to us, as parents and community members, to create safe environments for our children.
How do we do that?
- Love our children. All children need to feel special, loved and valuable. Love your children, and be kind to their friends as well. Listen to their hopes, dreams and fears. Support their efforts and desires. A child with a strong sense of self and a strong support system at home is not an attractive target for sexual abuse.
Teach children to question authority. Teachers and coaches and priests are not always right. Let your child know that it’s OK to ask questions and express opinions — and live that lesson in your home. Encourage children to think critically; welcome their questions and queries.
Minimize opportunity. One-on-one situations are the most dangerous for kids. Does that mean that your child can never go fishing with an adult friend? No. It means that you better know that friend awfully well first. And that you should pay close attention to your child’s behavior before and after outings with the friend. At the first sign of trouble, halt all further contact until you figure out what’s going on.
Teach children the difference between good and bad secrets. Abusers often convince children to keep “their secret.” So be sure to tell your child about the different kinds of secrets. Good secrets — like birthday surprises — are ones that make people feel happy. Good secrets are only kept for a certain period of time before they’re revealed. Bad secrets, on the other hand, make you feel yucky inside. Bad secrets are ones that are supposed to be kept forever. Tell your child that you will help him handle bad secrets.
Steer away from adults who exhibit risky behavior. According to a recent CNN.com article, adults who don’t respect your rules when they’re with your child may be setting up an unhealthy dynamic. Also be alert for adults who want to spend time alone with kids.
6. Respond to symptoms. Be alert for these possible symptoms of abuse:
- Change in appearance. Kids who are being sexually abused may start dressing in baggy, unattractive clothing.
- Withdrawal and social isolation. It’s common for teens to spend time alone in their rooms. But if your child has pulled away from all his friends, something more might be going on.
- Anxiety. Some kids will be anxious before specific activities. Other sexually abused kids experience general anxiety.
- Decreased school performance. Have your child’s grades recently dropped, for no explainable reason?
- Disinterest in usual activities. If your formerly hyped-up-about-football son loses interest in the sport, it’s up to you to figure out what’s up.
- Report your suspicions. According to the first reports out of Penn State, another football coach called his dad — not the police –after witnessing a disturbing scene between Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy. (The coach has since said he talked with the police). Frankly, I can understand how shock might impair activity. But the bottom line is this: kids’ lives are on the line. Sexual abuse affects victims’ entire lives; it affects the lives of their children and spouses as well. So don’t wait. If you even think that something inappropriate is going on between an adult and a child, speak up. Report your suspicions to the authorities and let them conduct an investigation.
Have you talked about sexual abuse with your kids?