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.