Continued from February 2020 E-News:
To help explain how this father’s behavior and mother’s concern is important to overall safety planning, I want to share a story I tell frequently in trainings to introduce how safety planning isn’t rules and conversations that come after abuse or even in response to noticeable grooming behaviors, but instead starts very early in our interactions with children. I describe a community picnic with many families, including children. Then I ask people to imagine sitting at a picnic table where there is a man, who for the point of the story, is not someone who is at-risk to sexually abuse a child. However, this man does have a “potty” mouth, meaning he uses inappropriate and adult language in front of children. He tells dirty jokes and he talks about sexual behaviors with his new girlfriend – with no thought about the children at the table who can hear him. And imagine if no one speaks up.
We need adults to speak up to this man because if no one does, the children at this table may begin to think that this is normal and ok language. If they don’t see any adults redirect or even chastise the man, it is easy for them to think that this is sanctioned behavior. Next, I ask people to imagine that there is someone who, for the point of this demonstration, we know is at-risk to sexually abuse a child. This person shares mature sexual information with a child as a test to see how they react – or “casually” touches his genitals in front of a child, to see if that child notices and comments. In other words, this person is engaging some grooming strategies to check on a child’s vulnerability.
What if because a child never witnessed an adult practicing safe boundaries or calling out others who cross boundaries, this child doesn’t recognize that these adults’ behaviors are breaking safety rules? This child’s response in these types of situations – or lack of response – may give someone grooming them the message that they are comfortable with this behavior… and may be ok with other similar testing behaviors. This child is now at greater risk for abuse.
Now, returning to the father writing in about his wife asking him to stop reaching inside his pants in front of his children: He is not being abusive, and he is a good father, wanting the best for his children and wanting them to be safe. Sometimes it is uncomfortable feeling like we have to be on guard all the time, ready to respond to the slightest of boundary violations. But the more we understand how we can decrease a child’s safety through our own “subconscious” behaviors, and then practice and model safe behaviors that demonstrate privacy and healthier boundaries, then the easier it becomes. It becomes more just a “way of being”, rather than feeling hypervigilant and forced to act a certain way.
Bottom line - it’s wonderful and encouraging that parents are reflecting on their behaviors in this way, and wondering how their children might be influenced by what they see the adults doing. In so many ways, we teach and protect our children not by what we say but what we do. They are watching and learning what is appropriate, expected and even normal. Our behaviors give them information about what is expected, accepted, and tolerated.
Stop It Now!