Does your toddler smile? Is he solemn, quiet, even rarely withdrawn?
Is your child sulky, sad and clearly unhappy? Is he reluctant to leave you to visit close friends or other family members? Perhaps he even screams when visits are enforced?
And is your teenager from another planet? Does he inhabit a strange world you don’t understand, a distant place, a secret place?
Have you ever had that niggling feeling that something is just not right?
When I realised that my daughter was deeply troubled I opted out and sent her to a psychologist. It didn’t work. How I wish I had done things differently.
Yet you can protect your child from three of the commonest hazards. It might take a little patience, a modicum of common sense and a lot of courage. But who else will speak for the child too young to talk, the child too frightened to tell or the teen too ashamed to admit that there is something very wrong?
Consider these three dangers, don’t make the mistakes I made. When you take the necessary steps to protect your child, you can smash the danger before the damage is done. Then you can look forward to a more relaxed a more open relationship with your children by protecting them when they need you most.
And that might be today.
Listen to your child. Hear what he doesn’t say
Sexual abuse is a secret crime, often with a silent child who is screaming inside.
How would you feel if someone you knew hurt you or frightened you? Could you screw up your courage to tell the person who you love the most in the whole wide world? And they didn’t take you seriously. They told you you were lying, making it up. (Sadly, around one in three adults respond by open disbelief even now).
How would you feel?
What you can do now
· Educate your child, make sure they know what they need to know.
· Be wary. The overfriendly adult could be a predator.
· Being there — even when it’s really, really not convenient.
What your child should know:
“My body is mine. The part covered by my swimming costume is private. No one should look at me there, touch me there, feel me there or photograph me there.
I can say “No”, I can shout “No”
If I feel uncomfortable or I am not sure I must tell a trusted adult”
When you make sure they know this, that they understand it and they know that they will be listened to, you will have provided them with the background information your child needs.
Who are the safe people?
These are the very small group of people your child can tell anything to and they will not show disgust, alarm or try to interrogate the child. Both you and your child need to trust them. (But still, be vigilant — 95% of offences are committed by a person already known to the child).
What about the child too young to tell? Let me give an example. This concerns a 15-month-old girl. Her uncle Harry was the perfect babysitter, always available at short notice and always with a cuddly toy or sweeties to give the little girl. Yet she seemed unhappy when he called and this progressed to screaming when he took her off, “to look after her for an hour or two”. He was grooming the parent as well as his victim.
Being there for the child when they need you most of all.
Very often the child may tell you just a small part of what happened. They will be watching for your reaction — is it safe to say more? And you can be fairly sure they chose a time when you are up to your eyeballs in urgent things that have to be done — or do they?
Simply by being there, attentive and really listening, you will be doing your child the greatest service. There is no need to ask for details. If this needs to be done, let the experts take on this task, especially if there is any chance that it might go to court. These experts are well trained and almost always sensitive to your child’s needs. Let the child speak.
Sexual Abuse — the Screaming Secret
Sexual abuse is a crime easy to commit and hard to convict. You will need persistence, patience and perseverance to protect your child if it goes to a court of law. But it can be done. It has to be done.
But, better by far to be aware, to listen, educate and to be there. Better by far to take early notice and hear what the child does not say. Together with really hearing your child, and educating them as soon as they are ready, you can safeguard your family from these predators.
Bullying — You Can’t Be with Them All The Time
Bullying is endemic, as a society we tolerate it, even condone it. We tolerate it in the home and in the streets, we tolerate it in our schools and playgrounds, we tolerate it at work, in politics and on the internet. At least 30% of children are bullied or bully.
But while society tolerates bullying you need not. Have you ever suffered the desperate loneliness of the victim? Your children need you, they need to know that they are worthy and they need strategies to cope, and most of all they need to know that they are not alone.
And are we so helpless?
When I was 7 years old I had a tricycle called Trumpet. Some older lads tried to take it from me and I was letting them. But then my wild 4-year-old sister, black curls flying, came and sorted them out! When we show the child how to be confident they are far less likely to be a victim of bullying.
But contrast this with the answer a headteacher gave to a mother concerned about playground bullies. He said, “We don’t have the funds to employ people who are trained and know how to deal with it — there is nothing I can do!”
So — what can you do?
Listen to the child in privacy and calmness. Children pick up on our vibes and if you are upset and angry they will feel even more upset. By taking it seriously your child will sense that you will support them as best you can and feel reassured. They must believe that they did the right thing in telling you.
Your child needs to tell the story in his or her own words, without interruption. And listening is a skill! But you do need to know what it is that worries them. But using harsh and angry words makes matters worse.
Unconditional support. The parent who blames the child — who says, “Well, you must have done something to make them do this” is condemning their child to continually feeling isolated and even unwanted.
Empty Promises. It is so tempting to say you will sort matters out — but only makes things worse, when you find that you can’t. Your child must feel able to trust you, and empty promises betray him.
The Action Plan. When you and your child make an action plan together it reinforces the idea that you are taking matters seriously and will help. It’s best to have a “plan b”, as well and even a “plan c”, as bullying can be hard to tackle successfully.
Telling others. Very often the child is afraid to tell. They think (often correctly) that they will be targeted more and more serious bullying will be the result. They may be afraid of losing a “friend” if they are lonely children. But don’t tell without telling the child first.
Avoiding the Situation. If the bullying occurs in the journey to and from school, find ways to accompany your child to school and meet them at the day’s end.
Confronting the Bully’s parents. Sometimes you will want to see the bully’s parents. But, please don’t do it like the game-keeper who stormed out of his house, shotgun in hand! Here, a non-accusatory approach works best, and you may need someone else to take on the role of mediator.
Martial Arts. The very first thing the martial arts instructors teach the children is, “Only use this to escape.” Self-protection is a valuable tool and can give the child the confidence to carry themselves in the way that makes them less likely to be a target for the bully.
The Risk of Suicide. We have to confront this. Suicide is the third most common cause of death in young people and British study results showed that around half of suicide deaths in youngsters were related to bullying. This is especially true for girls between the ages of 10–14 years old. Sometimes the victim is so upset that they can see no other way out. And there are even times when the bully encourages them to kill themselves.
Suicide Warning Signs
Too often suicide takes the parents by surprise. These are some of the warning signs:
· Sadness, aloneness, sleeplessness
· Loss of appetite. Loss of interest in healthy activities with an increased interest in death and dying
· Restless behaviour, substance misuse
· Saying that you would be better off without them
· Giving away the things they love and saying goodbye.
Contact the mental health team urgently if you notice these things.
Bullying can be frustrating for a parent to deal with, and you will often get little practical help from the authorities. People are well-intentioned but often ineffective. So, it really is up to you to do what is necessary.
The Secret World of the Internet — Where the Risks Are Terrifying
While there are dangers lurking on the internet, it is such a great source of entertainment and education that we want our children to be proficient — but safe. And there are many ways in which you can protect your children and teach them the safe ways to use the internet.
Common Courtesy and Common Sense
A good rule of thumb is never post anything on the internet that you would not be happy to say face to face, and that you would not be happy for parents to read.
Talking and sharing your internet experiences will enhance and educate your child’s use of the internet. You can explain that just as you would not leave your front door open for just anyone to pop in, and you would not tell your most secret thoughts to a stranger on the street, so you must so you also need to guard access to your internet. It mirrors the real world, and the real world can intrude.
Restrictions you can put in place
You can find many articles and software on the web to help you safeguard your children. There are file-sharing services that allow you to make private folders, which limits use to people with the correct passwords, and it is usually sensible to delete files you have finished with.
Many parents do not allow young children to browse the internet alone — but be aware that a friend’s house may be attractive just because unsupervised access is permitted. Not everyone protects their iPads and iPhones. And you will need to regularly update your protection.
Google Chrome has special settings, so you can set up your kid’s own account, and set that to maximum security.
Facebook has a reporting system that is easy to use, and many sites have similar systems in place. But if your child feels uneasy about some content on the internet, they will hopefully tell you and you can take the appropriate action.
Antivirus protection and passwords
Just about everyone installs antivirus protection, and it’s a great idea to ask your child to help you keep it up to date. A simple way to remember passwords for your child is to use a long sentence — hard to forget and very hard to break into. As your child grows older and uses public computers, it might be worth reminding them to log out when they have finished!
Apps and how to avoid your child racking up the bills
iPads and iPhones have settings where you can easily limit the purchasing powers of our child. When the password is set to be required immediately, you can avoid the accidental purchase of multiple apps.
As the Child Grows
When you have taken the time to ensure that your child does know how to keep themselves safe on the internet, you can relax the restrictions. But, teenagers, in particular, must understand that everything posted on the internet is there for all time. You cannot take it away. Very often college entrance and job interviews will be subject to a Facebook search. And, especially girls, need to be very aware that selfies of themselves naked will be posted for everyone to see, whatever promises were made at the time.
An evolving tool
The internet is ever-growing and ever-changing. Keeping up to date with important developments, for you and your child is important. But it is an exciting, informative and a nearly essential part of everyday life for our youngsters. Having taken the steps to protect your young child and educate your children, you can rest more easily, knowing that they know how to use this marvellous tool as safely as possible.
Looking to the future
Our world is a dangerous but exciting place. You cannot remove every danger, but you can substantially reduce the risk to your children.
Just think how you will feel, knowing that you have protected your child in the very best way that you can, that you have acted as every responsible parent should. You have safeguarded your nest.
You will be able to sleep more easily, that constant nagging at the back of your mind will fade away. You are aware, alert and ready to protect your child. You will be able to relax more, knowing that you have set up safeguards, and made the world a safer place for your family. Even more than that, you have educated your children so that as they grow and develop they will be able to take sensible precautions for themselves.
When you guard against these three major dangers, the steps you have taken for the safety of your child and the feeling of a strong, united family will give both you and your child the courage we all need to face the world, with all its variety and its adventures, with confidence and with love.
First published in Medium.com