Every Mom’s Worst Fear: How to Protect Your Children from Sexual Exploitation

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When moms learn of my work to prevent human trafficking, the conversation always turns to fear for their own children. They wonder, how do I protect my kids? They ask, what can I do to prevent this from happening? They assume multiple wrong things because they believe the stereotypes and what they’ve seen on TV.  And then they’re shocked when I explain how exploitation usually begins.

Perhaps this short list of ideas to protect kids in the 3 main stages of childhood will help you not only feel better, but make a proactive game plan for your family. However, this list is not a surefire abuse protectant nor is is meant to create any guilt or shame if and when your child is harmed. The unfortunate reality is that we can do every single "right" thing and evil is still present. I offer this merely as a primer to get past fear and paralysis and think prevention.

Under age 8:

1.  Use real terminology for your child’s private parts. Why? If they are disclosing to a teacher, counselor, coach, etc. and use confusing code (someone touched my ding dong or ate my cookie), how will the adult know what they are really hearing? We do not want their first attempt at seeking help to be dismissed because of misunderstanding.

2.  Listen to their hesitation, discomfort, or resistance when going to certain homes or seeing certain people. If they react atypically around someone, you need to notice and respond accordingly. Do not force them to sit on his lap or endure his tickling. Do not leave them alone in this situation until you fully understand what is going on and if you never do, then you never leave them alone in this situation!

3.  Help your child listen to their gut. Debrief experiences- good and bad- and give them language to describe feelings. “So, did you like meeting your new teacher? What about your new teacher made you feel good?” or “Oh, you felt funny? What did your teacher do that made you feel that way?” When they express a gut feeling about someone, do not dismiss it!

Ages 8-11:

1.  The sleep over stage. Consider implementing some strict boundaries around sleep overs or not allowing them at all. Certainly, consider who is allowed over and who your child is allowed to stay with, making sure this list is narrow. Keep doors open at all times. Turn off wifi and cable when you go to sleep if it is not already restricted. Ask the parents with whom you might allow your child to stay if they have similar boundaries in place. Make sure you know of older siblings, relatives, and other guests in the home. Once you feel comfortable with the plan, communicate clearly to your child and agree on the rules. Then, be prepared to constantly adjust!

2.  The stranger danger lie. By this age, most kids will roll their eyes about “not talking to strangers.” They know to not open the door to a stranger or talk to one on the street. Unfortunately, this does little to protect them from the real danger: people they know. 9 out of 10 sexual abuse cases result from familiar perpetrators. It is time to speak frankly about being safe around everyone.

3.  The risk of first exposure. The majority of kids are first exposed to porn at age 11. They accidentally see something on the side bar of You Tube or in a Google search and curiosity leads to more. Have you installed security measures on your internet and devices? Talk to your kids about your fear: once you see something you cannot unsee it. Tell them what porn is so they know it is bad for them when a friend shows them. Tell them it is as addictive as drugs and can impact their brain development. Watch this.

Ages 12-18:

1.  Love them with everything you have. Kids who know they are deeply loved and seriously protected have a stronger sense of self, even when the drama of teenage years overwhelm them. Communicate openly and frequently about everything. At age 12, they should know what your expectations and/or parameters are around dating. This is not a free for all. Tell them your hopes and rules around relationships and check in repeatedly.

2.  Monitor social media age appropriately. Watch this PSA on how normal it is for “cute 15-year olds” to actually be perpetrators. Talk with your kids about safety protocols with apps and create rules for what and with whom they share.

3.  Give them something bigger to live for. Get them involved in something meaningful where they can experience healthy relationships, another adult role model or mentor, and activities outside of themselves. Being a part of a positive community keeps them grounded and less likely to be targeted by those looking to exploit.

4.  Remind them over and over again that they are more than the relationships they have in their lives. Cast a vision for their future that aligns with who you see them becoming. Start making future plans with them. Dream with them. If they are dating, do not allow the relationship to consume them, isolate them, or change their personality. If this begins to happen, intervene immediately.

5.  If you know of past trauma or abuse, get your teen in counseling with someone they enjoy talking to. If you can find a group of other teens who have had similar experiences, do this too. If you can find a support group for parents of abuse survivors, join. Do not overlook or underestimate the power of healing to prevent future exploitation. Too many child sex abuse victims come to believe they are damaged or worse, to regain power they exploit themselves on their own terms.

At some point in this last stage, we need to focus on training rather than protecting. We need to equip our teens to notice suspicious people and train them to know how to act in a compromising situation. If you started early, hopefully they have learned to listen to their gut. Let us raise our kids to be people who notice and upon noticing, act.

Resources:

Why I Let my Teens Buy Bikinis

We go in early March when the selection is good, the options plentiful. There are knitted, embroidered, and ruffled varieties. Vivid colors. And even some that aren't all about cleavage. 

It is the first year of my almost 12 and 15-year old daughters’ lives that I’m not voicing my opinion about bathing suit selection. I’ve decided they need to choose what they put on their body and feel confident about it. At this age, more confidence comes from fitting in and looking normal than showing less skin. The only non-bikini options look like what we moms wear. I do not blame them.

In past years, they have been more modest, reluctant to show skin. Is this because the selection in the kid’s section was more varied, with cute tankinis and full pieces? Is it because I may or may not have mentioned bikinis look a lot like bras and panties?

This time, I’m silent. No comment, no judgement. It is their body and they will decide. I have named my self-contempt and withheld it from my girls (as a first). Though late in age, I am learning that my judgement is self-righteousness and stems from my own issues of shame. I do not want my story to be their story.

I want them to enjoy their own skin.

Both girls attend a school with a dress code and it has been the topic of many conversations this year. They feel that so much attention is placed on what girls should not wear that they have become objectified. The shoulder is scandalous! Kids can wear sloppy, baggy sweatshirts, but if a dressy top has cold shoulders, they are coded. They are smart, savvy. They know the hypocrisy is linked to the female body. They know it is related to sexual objectification.

There is such a fine line between healthy body talk and over doing it! We’ve had our fair share of body image, modesty, and respecting yourself discussions. I’m running the risk of over doing it. Time to let them decide. If they choose a bikini because it’s the only cool, cute option girls their age are wearing and stores are selling, is that immodesty? If they choose a full piece in this context, will it be any less about the objectification of their body?

As their mother, with my own story, I find myself constantly second guessing. How do I handle the fragility of the female self-image? If I compliment their flat tummies and slender frame, will they always measure themselves to the year they were “slim”? I still remember a comment made to me by a friend’s mom in high school… about my slender waist… 30 years later! If I do not comment at all on how good they look in their new suit, will they wonder? Try to hide? Throw off the wrap and within seconds jump in the pool?

We can talk about inner beauty all we want. I wrote a whole book about casting a vision to our girls of living a bigger story beyond their bodies, boys, and besties! I believe this is true. I also believe there is something to our outward beauty and sense of it that is spiritual. And uniquely feminine.  I am learning.

Eve was made as the final crowning glory of creation, only after which God said, it is good. Is she the embodiment of God’s beauty? Is this why Satan goes after her? Lucifer, Angel of Light, the most beautiful angel of all, jealous? Threatened? Could this be why a woman’s beauty is assaulted relentlessly? Why little girls in preschool believe they’re fat? Why fifth graders believe their thighs are gross? Why young women cut, and indulge, and starve, and self-loathe? Why we moms crave compliments and yet secretly fear they’ll never come? Because we are the subjects of an endless, ruthless assault as the bearers of the very thing that most reflects God?

It is merely a shopping trip. Yet it all feels so huge. My girls’ sense of their own beauty and glory hangs in the balance and my fear of being conscripted by evil to play a part in an assault unnerves me. When it comes to the feminine and masculine, it is sacred. It is holy. It is never merely a shopping trip.

Teaching Story-Based Family Relationships

There is nothing worse for parents who have written books on parenting to feel the sting of hypocrisy. Or, I suppose for a marriage and family counselor to feel like a fraud if things at home are sloppy. One could morph the season of pain into a laboratory of sorts, just fodder to help others, or embrace the lesson in humility: As it turns out, we are all human.

On my home front, it is the season of birthing a man. One more year and we will have an official voter, registered in the selective service, and headed to college! The youngest two started high school and middle school and overall, as one might imagine, we are swimming in hormones. Our home is riddled with emotion and angst, fueled by ambivalence. No one seems to know if they want independence or coddling, space or embrace, empathy or advice.It is the perfect storm for hurting each other and we are succeeding marvelously.

Parents, what do you do when you feel desperate? Run to Amazon or the Library to gather every resource with titles such as “He’s Not Lazy,” or “The Teenage Brain”? Enter Google search strings such as “my teen hates me”? Text a friend “I’m headed for the cliff. Bring reinforcements”?

I have done all of the above, but in the midst of our deepest sorrow we wanted to forgive and seek forgiveness, seek to understand and be understood. Could we help our family draw closer before it was too late?

An idea came to me after reading a business book. Our family needed a self-assessment in the same way a healthy company solicits employee input. I created a Google form with a mixture of 1-5 scales and short sentence answers to questions such as “Do you feel known by your family”? and “How do you show love to your family”? Each of us filled it out anonymously and we sat around the fire pit one night to discuss the state of things.

What emerged was stunningly beautiful.

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The form surfaced feelings and frustrations that were previously unnamed and placed all of us on equal footing. We had to listen. We were all hurt. Using recent, tangible examples, we entered holy ground.

One daughter explained a chronic feeling of being left out using an illustration from earlier that day. Her heart was raw and it was painful to hear. More painful though, was her ability to articulate the deeper story her life tells: a story of chronic exclusion from friends that has left her feeling unwanted. Her siblings learned that their unthoughtful exclusion poured salt into old, still festering wounds. When offered a piece of their sister’s story, what would they do with it?

My husband used the same daytime activity to illustrate a theme in his own story. From the days of childhood, he faithfully played the role of invisible caretaker to a disabled sister and parents who depended upon him. When the kids assume he will diligently serve them without any appreciation, he feels useful, invisible, unknown.

Story is heavy in any relationship, even if the years are short. Our daughter has already been shaped by enough people to have significant wounds, forming in her a story that plays out when her siblings leave her behind. I am unwanted. My husband’s story plays out in our thoughtless assumptions of him, I am unseen.

 When we can identify the backstory that our experience triggers, not only does it help us engage in vulnerable and holistic relationships, but it invites others to help us heal. As a family, we get to rewrite my daughter’s wounding, to offer a counter-story, to help her know she is wanted.

Story-based living is deeply challenging, yet redeeming. When we teach our kids to understand how shaped by story we all are, we build bonds of the heart that penetrate the hurtful surface behaviors. As our last year as a family of 5 unfolds, my hope is that we would love well through a storied-lens. 

Interested in learning more about story-based parenting? Check out my book, A Voice Becoming.

The Inherent Strength of a Global Sisterhood

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The Inherent Strength of a Global Sisterhood with Honduran Sisters

In my book, I talk a lot about a global sisterhood. Perhaps this is so important to me because I have a Honduran sister-in-law and her mother and sisters have become dear parts of our family. Perhaps it is because I lived in Turkey for 7 years and came to love so many as family. But without a doubt, it is because I believe that if God created us in his image, then there are inherent qualities we share around the globe, throughout time and culture. It is this global sisterhood that I am calling our girls to join, casting a vision for a story playing itself out among women around the world. 

As we wrap up our series on Strong Moms & Daughters, I knew I needed to include an intercultural or international example. With joy I looked to my sister-in-law and her female tribe. These Cerrato-Corrales women are fierce and lovely. They hold multiple degrees, trounce around the world with bravery, and love with a sweet tenacity (and put my side to shame in the fashion and bling department!) I wondered, what would they attribute to their mother and to their culture for their strength? And even more curiously, I asked their mom what she could reflect back on as doing differently, counter-culturally? 

 Yolannie, Gissela (9 months pregnant), and Maria

Yolannie, Gissela (9 months pregnant), and Maria

Me - Can you each describe one memory or example of how you remember your mom casting a vision for who you were created to be?

Yolannie - My sisters and I are a reflection of what my mother was both in her personal and professional life. I remember that when we were very young she worked very hard in her career, she had a busy work schedule as a business administrator, but at the same time, she took the best care of us. She taught us to have God as the center of our lives, which allowed us to have in our childhood, adolescence and adulthood a balance in our lives. She transmitted faith since we were little girls; we attended a church group, which greatly influenced our spiritual and personal maturity.

In that sense, she always encouraged us to be independent women, with self-confidence, she supported us in our extracurricular activities, in the achievement of our professional careers, encouraged us to accomplish our goals and to become women leaders in our society. She has always been social, loving and sweet, and instilled these qualities in us, doing good to others despite adversity. Gissela, María and I, have had the opportunity to live abroad (Europe, United States of America and New Zealand) and meet people from different cultures. My mother´s example has helped us to have successful interpersonal relationships wherever we go.

Gissela - I think my mom led by example, she was a kind, loving, caring mother, who would sacrifice everything for her family. She was a working mom, but I always remember her being present. She was always there for us, we knew we could talk to her about anything, and we knew we could always count on her. She would base all her teachings on her faith and the love of God, which she instilled in us. Knowing our parents worked so hard to provide for my siblings and I, gave me purpose to try to be my best.  

Maria - I've had the privilege of having a loving and caring mother. Since I was a girl, she fostered my self-esteem by continuously helping me realize my worth. She made me aware of God's unconditional love, taught me and my siblings how to pray and made sure praying was part of our daily lives. Her faith has been an example for me to base my life and dreams in God. I could always feel her love and support through growing up. Even though she was a working mom, she always made time for us and did everything she could to support our aspirations and goals.  

Me - Can any of you speak to barriers you faced culturally or on the contrary, ways in which your culture celebrated the strength of women?

Yolannie - I think that one of the most valuable resources of Honduran women is the joy, warmth and passion to make things, allowing many women in the last two decades to be successful and become leaders and entrepreneurs at home and abroad, in spite of the machista culture in Honduran society.

 Maria and Maria

Maria and Maria

Gissela - When we were growing up the culture in Honduras was still somewhat conservative and traditional at home. Especially, the role of men and women at home was somewhat “machista." Women cook and clean, and the men are served by women and the men do more of the manual work at home. However, in terms of education, I think that women in our generation didn’t experience as much inequality. Quite the contrary, we were expected to get an education and encouraged to become career women just as much as men, though this could have been unique to our family.

Maria (MOM) - I believe that machismo has been cultural, because generally speaking men have considered the role of women mainly being for doing housework at the home. However, in this 21st century, Honduran women have taken actions in their preparation and personal development, demonstrating capability, responsibility, and enthusiasm in the performance of their professions. Whether at home or in society, women are moral and intellectual bastions contributing to the change and progress of our country.  

Me - So, Maria, what did you do to raise such strong women?

Maria (Mom) - My parents got separated when I was a girl and since then, my mother (who was a teacher) dedicated her life to raise me with all her love and dedication. I always saw in her an example of a woman with faith and a fighter, who kept going until I became a professional. She worked hard for me to receive the best elementary and high school education.

In our first year of marriage, we felt the call to join a charism within the Catholic Church called the Neocathecumenal Way, which we have been part until nowadays in our 39 years of marriage. These enabled us to raise our children conducted by the power of the gospel and in that way guide them under these concepts:

Love: Giving all my love and dedication to my children developed a human sensibility within them, which has enabled them to be kind wherever they go, and in that way integrate and be accepted in the different environments they have been.

Respect: Within my reach, I always respected and supported their ideas, talents, professional vocations, dreams, and decisions.  This gave them the confidence for the development of their qualities, talents and knowledge.

Trust: The trust and communication that I deposited in them, gave me the opportunity to be close to them and orient them in different aspects of their lives. This allowed them to be independent since a very young age.

Faith: The transmission of faith in God, enabled them to grow up as people with values.

There you go! Global sisters. Amazing! Women, let us cast our daughters' eyes to the beauty of God's creation, past, present and future, inherent in his design of femininity. It is stunning. 

Read more in A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living.


Yolannie Cerrato, is a career diplomat of Honduras, currently working as Counsellor in the Permanent Mission of Honduras to the United Nations in New York. Prior to her posting in New York, she served as Director for Educational, Cultural and Scientific Affairs of the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Honduras. She holds a Bachelor degree in Industrial and Business Administration and a Masters in Project Management, Leisure, Tourism, Culture, Sports and Recreation. She has a specialization in integral project management and diplomacy. Besides Spanish and English, she speaks French.

Gissela Pandy currently stays-at-home with 3 kids under 7. She was born and raised in Honduras and moved to the U.S. when she married 11 years ago. She holds a Bachelors degree in Industrial Engineering and a Masters in Business Administration. 

Maria Auxiliadora Cerrato-Corrales is 32-years old and the youngest of four siblings. She holds a Bachelor in Business Administration and a Masters in Education. She worked 8 years as an early childhood teacher in Honduras and is currently the Program Official of the non-profit organization REAL LEDGE Honduras.

María Auxiliadora Corrales-Cerrato is 65-years old and holds a Bachelor in Business Administration. She has been married 39 years and has four children and 5 grandchildren. She currently works independently in Sales and Marketing.