As parents and caregivers, we try to do everything we can to protect our children. Despite our best efforts, we live in a world where bad things can happen to kids.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 700,000 American children suffer child abuse each year, of which more than 50,000 are victims of sexual abuse.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention states that more than 200,000 children are victims of sex trafficking annually. Too many kids experience bullying — both face-to-face and on the internet.
You can make a difference by empowering your kids to prevent and report abusive behavior. You are their best protection against abuse and bullying. Kids who have positive, secure relationships with their parents are emotionally stronger and more resilient.
The consistent use of positive parenting practices from infancy to adolescence enhances the parent-child relationship — making kids more confident, assertive and empowered. These practices include maintaining open communication, having developmentally appropriate behavioral expectations, using non-physical and non-emotionally abusive methods of discipline and ensuring a safe environment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers positive parenting tips and videos. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/index.html.
According to research studies, bullying can impact about 10 to 15 percent of kindergarten students and up to 50 percent of high school students. Always keep the lines of communication with your kids open. Talk to your children every day about school, friends and academic performance. Pay attention to their internet and social media use. Let them know that it’s not OK if anyone online or in person makes fun of, bothers or hurts them (physically or emotionally). Work with your kids to develop a strategy to address bullying. Encourage them to ignore the bully and to just walk away. Discuss that the bully just really wants to upset them. Encourage your children to practice confidence and how they will respond to bullying. Stress the importance of talking about bullying to you, a teacher, a counselor or a friend.
Helping your children deal with cyberbullying follows the same principles. Ignore the cyberbullying as well; never retaliate. If cyberbullying is reported, ask the bully/bullies to stop. Again, talking about cyberbullying is important; encourage your children to talk to you or another trusted adult about cyberbullying. Don’t delete bullying messages; save the evidence. Never pass on messages from cyberbullies electronically. It’s important to block the cyberbullies’ access to your kids and report the activity to the content provider.
If safety is ever a concern for either traditional or cyberbullying, notify the police. Examples of bullying or cyberbullying that rise to the level of a crime include the following: threats or violence, child pornography, sending sexually explicit messages or photos, taking a photo or video of someone in a place where he or she would expect privacy, stalking or hate crimes. If bullying occurs on school property, notify school authorities. Most states have anti-bullying laws — find out what your state requires of your child’s school to address bullying.
The Importance of Supporting One Another
Stress to your children the importance of supporting other children who are bullied. Never laugh at the bullied kids or participate in the bullying. Encourage kids to let the bully victim know that the bullying they witnessed was not OK. They should always be open and honest with school authorities or the police if ever questioned about bullying that they have witnessed or experienced. For additional information, visit https://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/roles-kids-play/index.html.
Protecting Against Sexual Abuse
Protecting children from sexual abuse begins in infancy. Teach your kids the correct names for all parts of their bodies, including private parts. Make sure your children know that no one should touch, tickle or look at their private body parts. Educate your kids to tell you or another trusted adult if their private parts are violated. Provide a list of adults they could tell, should the need arise.
You are your children’s best protection against sexual abuse. The majority of victims are not sexually abused by strangers; rather, they are most at risk from someone they know, trust and love. Individuals who have sexually abused a child are at high risk to abuse again; never leave your child with someone who has a history of sexually abusing children. Pay attention if any adult wants to spend a lot of alone time with your children. Most importantly, if your children disclose sexual abuse, listen to them. Always report any disclosure of sexual abuse to child protective services.
Establishing Rules for Online Behavior
In today’s world, teens and kids must understand internet safety. It’s important to teach kids safe, responsible online behavior because it’s not unusual for older children and teens to meet a sexual abuse perpetrator online. The internet is also a major vehicle for recruitment and advertising in sex trafficking. Encourage your children to talk to you about their internet use. Establish rules for internet use. Make sure kids understand it’s not OK to post or trade personal pictures with anyone they don’t know. Make it very clear to your kids to never post or trade nude or other sexually explicit photos with anyone. Children should never share personal information such as their address, phone number or school with someone they don’t know. Tell your kids not to agree to get together in person with anyone they meet online.
Building Resilience & Empathy
Building resilience in children is a crucial aspect of empowering them. Resilient kids are better able to protect themselves from bullying or abuse, and better equipped to deal with it successfully if it does happen.
To build child resilience, be supportive so kids can process exposure to stress (such as bullying or abuse) in a way that results in their positive growth. Relationships with siblings, grandparents, other relatives and friends are also a source of resilience for kids. Help them identify their strengths and likes — whether in academics, sports, arts or their personalities. Encourage them with honest praise and by pointing out their skills. Stress the importance of being part of a team and learning to work together. Instill and understanding of how their behavior affects others and that empathy for others is important.
Praise your kids for having the courage to tell you or another adult if something bad happens to them or to another child. Your efforts have worked! Your children have demonstrated the ability to stand up and speak up regarding improper, abusive behavior.
Gail Hornor, DNP, CPNP, is a PNP at the Center for Family Safety and Healing at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, a hospital-based child advocacy center. She has worked in the field of child maltreatment for more than 25 years.