I must admit that I have been complacent. At a major supermarket the other day, I was at the till paying while my wife was a few paces behind me scoping at the last-minute offers and my son wandered back into the supermarket and got lost in the aisles. He must have been gone for no more than three minutes before my wife and I realised that he wasn’t with either of us. We both panicked and flanked the supermarket, and about a minute later found him with a staff member who was holding his hand and bringing him towards the front of the supermarket to take him to the security department.
My son was weeping, and his hands were ice cold by the time we reached to pick him up. I haven’t always been very vigilant about the whereabouts of my two-year-old when on supermarket and mall runs. I’m blinded by the fact that Dubai is one of the world’s safest cities and is covered with a network of surveillance cameras that will protect my child. This is what I presume, not what I know.
Countries around the world are introducing systemic changes to deal with child predators. The suspects, in a cruel twist of fate, are often those who are specifically tasked with protecting children as was the case with the recent arrest of a teacher from a top-tier private school in Dubai who was found to be grooming children over the Internet. In another case that has shaken up a community, state and even an entire nation is the case of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics’ national team doctor who has now been accused of molesting over 200 women. Randall Margraves, the father of three girls who were all molested by Nassar, lunged at Nassar within the courtroom, and tried to hook him, before being restrained by police officers. As a father, my only regret is he didn’t get a clean hard swipe at Nassar and knock a few teeth out of the convicted serial child molester.
As much as I wanted Nassar to feel the physical pain that he had inflicted with impunity on so many children and teenagers, the most effective way to countering child predators begins not with a physical response but a verbal one that should be initiated within our own homes and involves conversations we have with our children.
Shweta Shivprasad, a counselling psychologist practicing at the Presidency School Bangalore South in India, has a few tips for parents to help with the process.
1. Raise awareness about a child’s body
Start by raising awareness about a child’s body right from the age of four. Make them understand what is a ‘safe touch’ and what isn’t. Then slowly attach the concept of emotion to that physical act by getting them to understand the concepts of feeling comfortable and uncomfortable.
2. Eliminate guilt
Children shouldn’t feel like what has happened is their fault – they should never feel dirty about their body, nor feel guilty factor about an episode. The most important thing is how the situation is dealt with as soon as the incident takes place, because what happens during or soon after the incident and how it was dealt with is what the child will carry in their long-term memory.
3. No secrets
Children should be in a position where they are able to completely trust their parents and not keep any secrets from them. In fact, if someone tells them they should keep a secret from their parents especially about their body or a physical act, then they should be taught that this is when they immediately bring that to their parent’s attention.
4. Don’t assign blame
Do not scold them when an incident is brought to your attention by saying things like ‘I told you not to go there’. Sometimes it might be a very close relative involved. If they say that somebody tried to touch them or that they didn’t like it, don’t ignore them or chastise them for speaking up against a family member or close friend. Reinforce awareness as to how they should deal with the situation in the future. Depending on the emotional impact on the child, a future course of professional therapy can be charted out for the child.
5. Identify safe people and safe zones
They need to know who are the safe people and also safe zones so should an incident occur in the school or the home or the playground. Designate safe areas where they can go to take immediate refuge and seek assistance.
6. Parents have an active role to play
We’ve been trying to educate parents to let them know that they must be aware of what is happening within their social circles. We’ve been teaching parents that children do not lie. They might exhibit at times, for example when they are playing, a fragmentation of the actual reality, but if the child repeatedly complains about something or someone, please pay attention and be aware of sudden change in eating, sleeping or normal behavioural patterns.