We hear the stories—about Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, or more recently, the accusation about the man who's the voice of Sesame Street's Elmo. It’s estimated that one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually exploited before they reach adulthood, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And our first thought: "How can I tell if an adult is "safe" to be with my grandkids?"
Child predators can be anywhere—in our homes, in our schools, on the Internet—and anyone. And perhaps the most disturbing thing of all—it's not strangers who are victimizing kids. In fact, 90 percent of child victims know their offenders, according to Megan’s Law. What to do? Read on for some guidelines to help protect kids.
How to Spot Predators?
One of the inherent problems with sexual predators like Jerry Sandusky is that they’re not strangers. "We have this idea in our country that only strangers are going to molest children," says youth and family violence expert, Kathy Seifert. Ph.D, DABPS in forensic psychology. "We think that people we know well can't do anything wrong, but it's not just the risk from strangers.” Because child predators aren’t always obvious, it’s important to know some less-obvious red flags:
- Adults who spend excessive amounts of time with children instead of other adults."There’s a difference between helping children and spending the majority of your time with them,” says Dr. Seifert.
- Adults who are always willing to lend a hand when it involves spending time with your child.
- Adults who breach physical boundaries between themselves and a child. "They’ll sit too close to each other, and the adult always has their hands on the child,” says Dr. Seifert. "You can really spot them in public because their physical boundaries with the child are not there.” The child will often look very uncomfortable and sad in contrast to the adult, who may seem happy and content.
- Adults who buy gifts or presents for children for no reason. In the majority of cases, abusers gain access to their victims through deception and enticement, seldom using force, according to Megan’s Law.
What You Can Do:
1. Get Connected with Your Grandchildren
"You always need to have open communication, so that things that don't feel right to them can come up in the conversation," says Dr. Seifert. One of the best ways to keep an open dialogue with kids is to talk to them on their level, which may mean texting, if that’s their preferred method for staying in touch.
"I think grandparents would be so much more connected, if they'd just text their grandchildren," says Shawn Edgington, cyber safety expert and author of The Parent's Guide to Texting, Facebook, and Social Media. "It's communicating across the generation, and it’s a great way to be involved with their life. Texting them can often get a response when other forms of communication can't."
2. Know Your Grandchild's Social Circle
Pay attention to what your grandchild tells you and ask questions about what's going on in school, who their friends are, and what activities they participate in. Familiarizing yourself with their interests and schedule will make it easier for you to spot any changes in behavior, which could signal a problem.
When it comes to the Internet, it's important to frequently monitor who the child is connected to on Facebook and beyond, and to be sure that their "freinds" are people kids know in real life and people you trust, says Edgington.
3. Educate Yourself and Your Grandchildren
"When I grew up, we didn’t even think about people who were going to behave in such an awful way,” says Dr. Seifert. "We really need to learn to look for things that seem odd and out of place.”
Knowing how to identify the red flags and behaviors in children (see the list of behavioral changes below) and the adults who surround them is the first key to keeping kids safe. The second key is gently imparting that information to your grandchildren in a way that makes sense to them. Establish and maintain a strong connection, so they feel comfortable telling you if something’s wrong.
4. Look for Warning Signs and Don't Dismiss a Child's Accusation
If you suspect that a child is a victim of a child predator, but hasn’t come forward, certain behavioral changes may occur, including:
- A child who is normally pleasant and easygoing becomes irritable and unpleasant
- Trouble sleeping at night and experiencing nightmares
- Extreme sadness or anxiety
- Fluctuations in eating patterns, either loss of appetite or an increased appetite
- Plummeting grades
"Any significant changes in sleeping, eating, grades, social life, and their relationship to you means it's time to talk to your grandchild and find out what’s going on,” says Dr. Seifert.
And if your grandchild does come forward? The accusation should be thoroughly investigated, regardless of the accused. "It is extremely rare for children to report that someone is molesting them and for it not to be the truth,” says Dr. Seifert.
5. Pay Attention to the Internet
With the prevalence of Internet predators, it’s equally important to stay informed about digital trends, such as Instagram (a photo-sharing phone app) and Twitter (an status update-sharing web site and phone app), so you can let children know what images and information are appropriate to share, says Edgington, who recommends taking the following precautions when allowing Internet in your home:
- Check privacy and security settings: Double check all of your grandchildren’s security settings on their social networking sites. Be sure they are all set to private and instruct your grandkids to never share their passwords with anyone.
- Know your grandchild’s friends: Frequently monitor who your grandchildren are connected to on social networking sites.
- Closely monitor Internet use: If you have young grandchildren who are just learning how to use the Internet, keep the computer in a visible place so you can guide them through the wild, wild web as they explore.
- Think before posting: Help your grandchildren manage their online image and reputation, and encourage your them to treat others online as they want to be treated in real life.
- Limit personal information: Be cautious about how much personal information your grandkids post. The more detailed the information, the easier it is for online predators and bullies to use their information to locate them or to commit crimes.
For more tips and information on Internet safety, visit NoBullChallenge.org.