Rearing resilient kids
By Karen Thomas
|Advice for parents on keeping children and teens safe
But kidnapping is rare, says Gavin de Becker, an expert on child protection. The No. 1 threat to kids is adult sexual predators, he says and acknowledging that is the first step in prevention.
In the past, parents warned kids not to talk to strangers. But statistics show that 70 to 90 percent of child sexual abuse is by people kids know. So child development experts now emphasize the skills kids need to recognize and handle difficult situations.
As parents and teachers realize that kids need more than high test scores, this new field of "social and emotional learning" is growing. It's also known as cultivating emotional intelligence, or resilience.
The focus is on developing self- and social awareness, says psychology professor Roger Weissberg, director of the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a national network of psychologists, sociologists and scientists. It's these "emotionally intelligent skills that kids will use when faced with a situation where a respected adult is doing inappropriate things," he says.
But many kids lack these skills because they don't get enough adult companionship, says Rutgers professor Maurice Elias, author of "Emotionally Intelligent Parenting." Parents, especially single parents, need to provide positive adult companionship, or kids starved for adult attention may be willing to accept it from any source.
"When someone comes along and offers what might seem like caring adult companionship, even though it may feel uncomfortable, many kids just don't have the fine-tuned sense to know that this companionship isn't safe to accept," Elias says.
In response to the crisis of child sexual abuse by priests, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a new policy for dealing with abuse, including working with parents and educators to provide child-safety training.
One of the resources bishops cite is the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, a Seattle educational organization that focuses on prevention programs in religious settings. It recommends that churches run announcements and post fliers promoting an open-door policy to report abuse.
"Religious leaders who make it known they are aware of child sexual abuse are more readily approached by victims, and people will be more open to talk about it," says the Rev. Thelma Burgonio-Watson of the center.
Of all types of child abuse, sexual abuse is the most difficult to detect, the easiest to deny and the hardest to talk about, she adds.
"Now we know there are those who abuse power and authority, and abuse children, so now we're empowering the children so they can say no to an authority figure, and that's very, very hard," she says.
Other advice for parents:
Ages 8 and younger
Start teaching kids to be alert to clues when something is wrong. When you're reading, make sure youngsters notice illustrations as well as the words. "Teach kids to pay attention to posture, gesture, different ways people look," Elias says.
In faith communities, kids as young as 5 can be taught that they are special, created in the image of God, Burgonio-Watson says. "But we must also tell them gently that unfortunately, in this world, not all people mean well."
Very young kids also benefit from hearing parents say out loud what's going on inside their heads.
The prime ages for acquaintance abuse are 7 to 13, so parents need to keep communication lines open. Instead of telling kids to never talk to strangers, encourage and supervise them to ask for the time or for directions. Discuss the effort afterward. "The capable communicator who can elicit and assert information is far less likely to be a victim than is the wallflower," de Becker says.
It's important to talk about abusive situations, Weissberg says. Kids "need to be reminded that there are people with whom they can talk who won't blame them and will be responsive and supportive."
While it's important that teens be respectful of adults, they should not merely accept without question whatever any adult says.
Kids who are able to avoid or survive rough patches have common traits, says Sam Goldstein, head of the Raising Resilient Children Project in Salt Lake City. The ability to express empathy is the most significant. "To walk in the shoes of others and feel what others feel shows up again and again," he says.
That's where years of teaching kids that their opinions matter comes into play, Goldstein says. Teens, then, will have courage to speak up when they believe something isn't right. "Teenagers who believe that they matter in the world will have the courage and resilience to keep asking the question, even if they're told it's not right to ask it at all."
Kids who have been taught that they have rights "that they are special and have the right to be safe" are less likely to think abuse is their fault and more likely to report an offender, Burgonio-Watson says.
But parents can unwittingly create an environment in which teens won't come to them to report abuses. Blaming a teen is a surefire way to assure they never come talk to you again, Elias says.