The recent events alleged at Penn State University has drawn our attention, once again, to the fact that children are often abused or sexually molested by those who should be protecting them. Time and time again we have seen that socioeconomic status and occupation are not determining factors in who sexually abuses children.
We have all read about neighbors, stepfathers, teachers, priests, and coaches insidiously taking advantage of children in the most despicable of ways. Unfortunately law enforcement agencies cannot be with our children at all times and so once more it is up to the parents as well as care-givers (I will use parent hereafter) to take an active role in protecting our children.
So how do we do this? Well, here is a list of things that we can do immediately:
1. We have to first acknowledge that we parents have the primary responsibility for protecting our children. It is not something that we can outsource. We have to become better observers.
2. We have to also acknowledge that predation can come from anywhere, even from people we think we know and trust and are "outstanding members of the community."
3. Parents have to create an environment so that children will come and communicate their feelings, fears, and desires in the hope that they will let us know when they feel uncomfortable around others or have been victimized.
4. It is our responsibility to observe our children in order to detect if something is amiss, and you can't do that by texting, you actually have to spend time communicating face to face so that you can see from the body language what their lips will not reveal.
5. We have to be aware of the behavior of predators so that we can look for clues of abuse or predation and to also assist our children in protecting themselves.
Once you accept these responsibilities then these two lists provide some practical things to look for to help you as a parent. I created this list over the years while doing criminal profiling work for the FBI - studying both the victims and the predators involved in sexual exploitation.
Obviously no one behavior is indicative of sexual abuse and even a cluster of them may not be conclusive; however, any one of these behaviors on the part of the child signal to you as a parent that something is wrong, that there are issues, that further inquiry is necessary. And if there is a cluster of them then you must take action.
Parents should take note and talk to the child when they observe any of the following:
1 - Marked change in mood or behavior of the child especially when it takes place after seeing or visiting someone who is older, especially if they are male (keep in mind that women are increasingly more involved in sexual molestation or facilitate such acts).
2 - Upon return from an excursion or any time away from family, the child looks sullen, embarrassed, or is not willing to talk.
3 - Excursions with a specific older individual no longer brings happiness and joy.
4 - The child begins to make excuses to not go or visit with an older individual.
5 - The child develops ailments (headache, tummy ache, bleeding nose) when he is notified he has to spend time or go out with a particular individual.
6 - The face and the body of the child visually display discomfort or anxiety at the thought of spending time with a particular individual.
7 - If required to spend time with an individual, the child looks less energetic, tends to be sullen, or restrains his arms (arms fail to move about as they normally would) or tends to turn his belly away from that person (ventral denial) while sitting or standing near them.
8 - The child begins to have accidents (cutting themselves, bruising themselves, burning themselves) which at first may not be life threatening but cause care givers to give added attention.
9 - The child comes home from an outing or event and immediately rushes to the bathroom to bathe or doesn't want anyone to touch or smell him.
11 - There is bleeding anywhere on the underwear or the bedding or there are efforts to wash away any kind of blood from the underwear or bedding.
12 - Underwear have spotting of semen or fecal material after an outing or event.
13 - Child throws away or tries to hide underwear.
14 - Depending on the age of the child they may seek to hug parents more or refuse to be touched by adults rather suddenly.
15 - Every time the phone rings there is fear or apprehension on the part of the child or they say "tell them I am not here."
16 - Child begins to keep a hidden journal with coded entries or tries to hide things such as letters, writings, gifts, etc. This includes hiding a relationship with any adult.
17 - Child reveals that he has been told to keep something "secret," by an adult or any other responsible individual.
18 - Child suddenly has money, gifts, or toys (even candy depending on their age) which cannot be accounted for.
19 - Child develops irritation, discomfort, or infection of genitalia or the anus.
20 - Child suddenly develops an interest in pornography, especially child pornography.
Conversely, here is a list based on how sexual predators think and behave:
1 - Every child is a potential victim either now or in the future, it all depends on their physical or psychological vulnerability and circumstances. The fewer opportunities we allow for as parents the better.
2 - Social status, friendship with the family, and position grants the predator extra privileges and access to the child. Every parent must ask themselves, "Is there someone who seeks to use their position or status to access and isolate my child?"
3 - For predators, every effort is made to have lone access to the child and they will orchestrate events or outings to insure that he or she is alone with the child at some point. The child or others report this as "creepy attentiveness."
4 - Gifts of any kind (candy, toys, money) create a sense of reciprocity which the child feels obliged to return in kind some how. This alone is often enough to make the child more psychologically pliable.
5 - To garner access to the child's body (this is the brutal honesty), the predator must work at seducing the child or making them less resistant - this is done by frequent visits or phone calls and spending more and more time with the child either alone, on the phone, or the internet. An example of this comes to us from the Grand Jury report on the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse allegations, which you should read.
6 - Every victim must be tested to see what their response will be. Touching begins as accidental or is directed at a part of the body such as the inner thigh or buttocks or neck to see how they respond. Predatory touching is often nuanced so as to be able to claim it was an accident and in this way the victim is assessed by the predator to see how they will react. The less the victim reacts the greater the confidence of the predator to continue.
7 - Giving a child something that is considered contraband such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or pornography helps to solidify a conspiratorial bond between the predator and the victim. Once the child accepts these items they will be even less willing to come forward.
8 - The predator creatively outwits most common attempts to protect the child and creates situations that involve the child or finds an alternative way to get to the child (internet, cell phone, social media), which renders the child suitable for exploitation on his or her terms.
9 - Predators subversively co-opt the child by reinforcing the secret nature of the relationship, the need to keep secrets, and the overriding need to avoid shame by keeping their activities private.
10 - Predators will use their status to call into question anything the child may say. They will also act with narcissistic defiance making you or other accusers feel that they are innocent and that the child is wrong or mistaken.
It is true that adolescence is full of experimentation and odd behavior on the part of children; nevertheless, we still have a responsibility to protect them. As I said above, there is no one behavior that confirms abuse but when there are a variety of behaviors we as parents have to act. No list can be complete, and this is my list not someone else's list; nevertheless, at least this gives us a place to start and if we see these behaviors or make these observations we can then have greater reliance that it is not just a figment of our imagination. Our job then is to communicate effectively with the child.
I think it is also useful to have insight into how sexual predators think so we can thwart their efforts. If we know how they think and act we are better prepared to identify them based on their behaviors. After all, the one thing all predators have in common, but especially child predators, is that they want to dominate the body, mind, space, and time of their victims. If you keep that in mind then ask yourself, "Is there anyone that is trying to do that to my child?" Any person trying to dominate these things, no matter who they are, needs to be carefully scrutinized. Obviously predators work hard at making their actions look benign even acts of kindness when in fact they are masking their true criminal intent.
No list or wisdom can substitute for talking with and observing your own child. Looking for the verbal and nonverbal signs that something is amiss—it is our responsibility to keep them safe. To do so we must constantly be on guard, ever vigilant. After all, "Children who are severely punished or abused may have bruising, burns, bite marks, strangulation marks, scalded skin, welts, broken bones, scars, open wounds, vaginal or anal discharge, or serious internal injuries. Or they may show nothing at all except behavioral clues."* Lesson over, get to work.
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Joe Navarro served for 25 years as a Special Agent with the FBI. He is the author of eleven books including the international best seller What Every Body is Saying and Dangerous Personalities (Rodale). You can follow Joe here at Psychology Today or on Twitter: @navarrotells, or at www.jnforensics.com.
*From Joe Navarro's 2009 lecture before the Wayne State School of Medicine on the Nonverbal Behaviors of Abused Children and his latest book, Dangerous Personalites (Rodale).