Ciska Thurman asked an expert how you can protect your little ones from predators – both in real life and on the internet
It is one of the harshest realities about parenting: that your children may be exposed to predators who will seek to coerce them into an abusive situation. And even tougher yet is the realisation that it is your job to prepare and protect them without evoking paranoia, and knowing that as they grow up, your ability to shield them and keep them safe in every moment starts to diminish.Before you know it, the toddler you needed eyes at the back of your head for is spending the night at a friend’s house. Do you know both parents? Do you know any details about their planned outing? Do you know whether your kids will feel empowered to speak out if they’re intimidated?
Children are usually first introduced to predators through fairy tales and children’s stories. This can create the expectation that predators are easily identifiable, in a dark disguise, with an evil laugh and lurking accomplices. In reality, child predators will typically present themselves in the opposite way: through familiarity and fun. Expecting a child to detect danger is putting immense, unfair pressure on them (and often results in the kind of guilt that prevents them from seeking help). Rather discuss ‘stranger danger’ in a matter-of-fact fashion with your children, and focus on instilling simple yet essential ground rules.
Be a safe haven. Minnon Holtzhausen, a counselling psychologist, says ‘Start with teaching your child to stay close to you when out in public places.’ Reiterate often that if he ever feels confused or scared about anything, you’ll help and love him no matter what – and most importantly, you won’t get angry.
Don’t shroud sex. ‘Teach your kids the correct terminology for their genitals,’ urges Minnon. Call a vagina a vagina, and a penis a penis. Euphemisms only create more confusion and restrict your child’s ability to talk about anything of a sexual nature. Explain that private parts are exactly that – and that nobody (except you and your doctor) should touch them. Make sure that you always answer sex-related questions briefly but honestly. Suggesting that this topic is off-limits will shroud it in the kind of secrecy you want to avoid.
Show ownership of his/her body.As awkward as it may be, support your child if she squirms away from a passer-by’s unsolicited hair-ruffle, or a hug or kiss from a distant relative. Politely explain that your daughter isn’t yet comfortable with someone she does not really know touching her – this will model to her that establishing physical boundaries/saying ‘no’ to touch (even to a ‘nice’ person) is perfectly acceptable.
Guard against guilt. The predator’s most powerful weapon is creating feelings of shame and fear in the victim. Constantly reinforce to your children that it is never their fault if someone behaves in a sexual manner towards them. Also impress upon them that secrets are never safe – especially if they cause upset or embarrassment. Remember to keep your cool, and not to admonish or scold any admission, as this will just shut down the impulse to disclose any further.
Impart internet safety. Our scope of protection needs to include not only the world out there, but the online world as well. Teaching internet safety is imperative from the moment your children start using a connected device of any sort (even gaming systems). The South African Police Service says to be aware of the following when using the internet, particularly social media sites: false identities are easy to create; not all information is private; and predators come in various guises.
What you can do
Restrict device use to common spaces and certain times of the day.
Get involved. Spend time with your kids online, and explain the necessity of parental control tools such as blocking and filtering software.
Arm yourself with information, such as social media acronyms specifically designed to dupe parents.
Rehearse practical skills. Role-play and rehearsal of how to react in an unnerving situation will equip your child with a hands-on approach.
Use non-sexual examples in a fun and age-appropriate way. Role-play telling a distracted adult about a fire outbreak (practise persistence) or run through ways of stopping a tickling or roughhousing game (pushing someone’s hand away, leaving, ordering someone to stop). As with anti-bullying practices, encourage your kids to use their WITS (Walk away, Ignore, Talk it out, Seek help).
Top 3 tips for children
1. Don’t give out any personal information without your parents’ consent
2. Don’t let strangers follow you on social media or in chat rooms (as in real life); only accept followers you know
3. Don’t download or install software that could jeopardise your family’s privacy.