The Latest Newsletters from Dr. Joe Barber

How to Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes any type of sexual act or behavior with a child including non-contact behaviors such as showing or taking pornographic images of children. The best way for parents to prevent sexual abuse is through knowledge, education and understanding.

Most sex offenders are not strangers to a child. Sexual abuse is most often committed by someone who knows the child. This may be a friend, relative, teacher, coach or neighbor. Someone in a position of authority is commonly the perpetrator and children who are compliant, respectful and obedient are especially susceptible to abuse. In almost all situations the abuser intimidates the child to remain silent and not say anything or tell anyone about the abusive behavior. Often the child assumes a personal responsibility for the actions of another and feels he or she is the cause of the abuse. With time progressive guilt and shame deepen the silence and may actually block out memories for many years or even a lifetime.

Common signs and symptoms of being sexually abused include depression, oppositional or destructive behavior, anxiety, social-withdrawal, new academic difficulties, aggressive behavior, high risk behaviors and self-injurious behaviors. Parents must be aware however, that children who are being abused or who have been abused in the past do not always show signs or symptoms of abuse.

The risk of molestation can be decreased by establishing and supporting an ongoing parent-child relationship focused on open and trusted communication and connection. By spending time with your child and talking about sexuality you will be providing your child information on how to respond if an abuse occurs. Parents who believe their child is not at risk for abuse are hiding behind a mask of ignorance and denial. By talking openly and directly about sex and sexual abuse, using age and developmentally appropriate terms, your child will be able to respond in the right way and at the right time to sexual abuse. There must be no secrets between parents and children.

Children must recognize, understand and respond to the boundaries and limits of sexual behaviors and sexual exploration. Discussions must be open, non-judgmental and shame, fear and guilt must always be avoided.  Your child must understand the meaning of privacy and how certain body parts of his or her body are private and cannot be touched, looked at, talked about or photographed without permission. Children must be taught to allow their own feelings to lead their response. If a child feels scared or uncomfortable he or she must say no and immediately notify a parent about the incident. If a parent is not available then a teacher or guardian should be immediately notified.

When your child is outside of your care special precautions are necessary. Be cautious of adults who take your child on unsupervised outings or special events and make sure your child is adequately supervised during overnight stays away from your home. Verify who is in the away household where your child is staying overnight and talk to those adults directly. Alcohol and drugs must be avoided since both encourage risk taking behaviors by children and adults. If concerned about a location or situation then consider being a chaperone or making an unscheduled visit to check on your child. An open door policy allowing parent visits is always best.

By listening to your child with love and sensitivity you will encourage openness and increase your child’s willingness to share any concerns. This prevents embarrassment and decreases the chance your child will keep the incident or behavior hidden. Never discount your child’s feelings or blame your child for his or her part in an abusive situation. By providing ongoing support, professional counseling and unconditional love to your child healing can begin.

How to Talk to Your Child About Sex

There are three topics parents must be prepared to talk about when sex is discussed between parent and child. These three topics are body parts, sexuality and romance or love. Love is both simple and complex. It is one of the strongest human drives at every age, and yet, its meaning changes from infancy to adulthood. This is why parents must educate their children about the meaning of love or someone else will.

Parents must discuss sex with their child early and often. Proper timing and location are essential. Public places should be avoided, and it is best to follow a child’s lead and wait for a question, situation or event to incite the discussion.

Sex discussions are age, knowledge and maturity dependent. The focus must be on how sex and sexuality makes you and your child feel. Proclamations, don’ts and judgment must be avoided. By discussing the do’s with your child a positive attitude about sexuality is portrayed to your child and fear, anger, shame and guilt are avoided.

Common parental mistakes include talking down to a child or not respecting a child’s intelligence or curiosity. Generational, gender, religious and cultural biases also must be recognized and dealt with. These mistakes often limit your ability to teach your child.

Topics to be addressed include the importance of being both sexually aware and sexually healthy. The physical, emotional and spiritual components of sexuality must be recognized, understood and responded to. In addition, the role of peer and partner pressure must be discussed and rumors or myths concerning sex must be dispelled. Safe sex must always be supported and the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases must always be openly and honestly discussed and accurate information provided.

Parents must talk about how sex fits into a relationship. Learning how to set expectations empowers children and teens to establish and follow appropriate boundaries concerning sexual behaviors and practices. This type of preparation teaches children why many types of sexual behaviors are worth waiting for and at the same time enhances expectations of future sexual experiences made more powerful by experience and maturity.

The best teaching tools for parents are role-playing and the media. By using the media as a springboard for role-playing discussions your views, behavior and attitude are easily represented and expressed to your child. Family and personal values can be discussed as can the timing of sexual behaviors. Parents who focus on asking rather than telling will obtain more engagement. At the same time it is important not to ask too many questions and to always speak in generalities unless specifically asked.

A final skill every parent must master is the acceptance of experimentation and exploration by children and teens. Never tell a child that his or her behavior disappoints you. This engenders guilt and decreases your child’s opportunity to learn from a mistake and make healthier future decisions about sex.

Sexuality in Children and Teens

Acceptance, understanding, mutual respect and commitment are the foundation of healthy sexuality. Sexuality is more about personal openness and love and less about pleasure and the binary politics of gender and sex. It is about conscious giving and receiving and not about social and societal expectations and dogma. It is about the support of relationships rather than what is right or wrong. The teaching of love, connection and communication allows children and teens to develop the resilience to expect and accept joy and disappointment while searching for one’s own sexuality and happiness.

Although the content and context of sexuality portrayed in the media are a strong influence on your child, the sexuality modeled in your feelings, thoughts, words and actions are the most important influence in what your child learns, believes and practices. Parents who teach a child fear, anger, shame and guilt are not supporting a life filled with happiness and conscious giving and receiving. The setting of reasonable exploration limits encourages young children to learn the limits of healthy sexuality in terms of nudity, sexual play and self-exploration. Healthy limits teach young children what is a healthy “touch” and who is allowed to safely touch the body of another.

Sexuality topics and interests differ by age. Allow your child’s age and developmental level to guide you in your teaching of sexuality. Look for teachable moments where your child is ready to learn about sexuality. Listen to your child’s questions and find out what he or she knows before answering a question. Allow your child’s questions to guide the discussion and be ready for “testing” questions your child will ask attempting to cause friction and stretch boundaries.

An interest in touching and exploring genitals and other “private” body parts on one self and another is normal in toddlers and young preschoolers. This provides you the opportunity to teach the proper names of body parts and to discuss personal and physical boundaries and the importance of exploration limits.  In this way limit setting becomes a family matter that is addressed early in life with non-judgmental understanding.

In older preschoolers, learning about sexuality progresses from exploration to questioning. Common questions include: “How did I get in your tummy?” “Where was I before I was in your tummy?” “How did I get out of your tummy?” “Where do babies come from?” and “Why do girls not have a penis?” Being prepared to respond to physical exploration and these common questions are the first steps in the teaching sexuality to your child.

As children enter school age sexuality questions progress to bodily changes and the function of body parts. During early school age children make the connection between making babies and the relationship between two people. Common questions include: “What is an erection?” “What is a period?” “When can a girl have a baby?” “How do two people have sexual intercourse?” and “What does it mean to be homosexual?” These questions must be answered with language and information that matches the developmental level and maturity of the child asking the question.

In middle school questions about love, romance and gender are common. By late school age the body and emotional changes that accompany puberty become the primary driving force for questions. The risks of risk-taking sexual behaviors, STDs and pregnancy become the focus of questions during these bridging developmental years.

During teen years the portrayal and content of sexuality in society and the media are the driving forces for questions and concerns. Teens spend more than seven hours a day on electronic devices and social media and much of this time is unsupervised and unregulated. Parents must provide media counseling to address media and peer influences on sexual behavior. Specific support and discussions must be provided concerning gender issues, respect, equality, safety and security. Talk with your teen about the pervasive sexual content in advertising, the entertainment industry and in social media. Issues such as contraception, pregnancy, STDs and sexual responsibility must be addressed in an open, non-confrontational and non-judgmental fashion. Events in the daily life of every family and teen provide the windows of opportunity to discuss these and other issues.

Knowledge, love, patience and understanding will enable you to teach your child conscious giving and receiving and the attainment of a healthy relationship with self and others. In this way healthy sexuality can become the greatest gift you can give your child.

Difficult Discipline Situations

Every parent must deal with many of the same problem behaviors. Developing a reasonable, rational and targeted strategy ahead of time will prepare you to respond in the right way and at the right time.

Stalling behaviors are common for children and teens of all ages. By setting clear and concise expectations your child will be aware of both responsibilities and boundaries. Family meetings and posted chore lists and family rules provide the social venue for both discussion and the sharing of reasonable and rational expectations. Teens and children of all ages flourish with structure. Structure prepares your child for both positive and negative consequences and allows opportunity for genuine praise and ongoing feedback. If your child stalls, be prepared to provide an immediate natural or logical consequence and look for underlying emotional issues which may help you understand why your child has chosen to stall and not comply. Recognizing and understanding your child’s behavior allows you to respond in the best way possible to your child’s stalling behavior.

Toddlers are often unhappy. Situations and events make it difficult for toddlers to communicate their feelings. This makes them difficult to understand, and they respond with unhappiness, outbursts and minor temper tantrums. Parents who listen to their toddler and preschooler rather than simply try to solve their problem are better able to avert the progression to major outbursts and more overt signs and indications of unhappiness. Toddlers love schedules, routines and rituals. Planning helps decrease the risk for unhappiness. Consider using sign language or providing acceptable behavior alternative to replace unhappiness. Never be fearful of stating the obvious. Children are rational and are better able to accept change when warnings are given and preparations are made. By allowing your child to have some control the power of choice often becomes the best way to eliminate unhappiness.

Aggression is a common problem. Boys are seven times more likely to express aggressive behavior than girls and young school-aged children who are under stress are the most likely to choose aggressive acting out behaviors. Aggressive behaviors usually have a cause. Is your child angry, frustrated or fearful? Does he feel threatened? Is he experiencing rage? Aggression is common in children who have issues with self-worth and self-esteem. Many of these children have negative or hostile feelings about themselves and express these feelings by projecting these thoughts on others through acts of aggression. Teaching these children how to recognize and respond to their emotions provides the means to manage the aggression and at the same time learn the coping and social skills that are necessary to happily live and interact with others.

Lying and cheating are two other common issues. In children these behaviors are often a defense mechanism and a response to excessive parental expectations. Children between the ages of three and five years must learn the power of acceptance, how to give and share and how to be non-judgmental and to tell the truth. Lying and cheating are often behaviors learned by watching parents or may be a sign of peer or social issues. Telling the truth is a learned behavior that must be supported from the earliest age if a child is to learn the importance of high moral values for oneself and for others.

The Discipline You Choose

Have you ever wondered about your discipline choices? You are not alone. This common parental concern is dark, deep, hidden and scary for most parents. It does not have to be. By following certain guideposts and budgeting the time to review your choices you can become the parent you want to be.

Remember you never need to be alone. Find a partner. Ask a spouse, relative, counselor or friend for the support and guidance you need. Read books about parenting styles and discipline techniques. Ask questions, listen, learn and connect with others. Watch the discipline choices others make and ask: “What kind of parent do I want to be? Am I a positive role model for my child?  Have I banned violence from our home? Am I ready and aware of the choices my child will make? Are my parenting expectations reasonable? Do I respond to my child’s behavior with rational and targeted responses? Do I think before I speak and set clear, concise, consistent, confident and competent boundaries?” Answering these questions will help you decide what discipline changes you need to make.

The hallmarks of good discipline are communication and connection. These two cornerstones support the management choices each parent must make to ensure healthy physical, emotional and cognitive development for a child.

Management techniques include distraction, redirection and behavior substitution. These strategies in conjunction with active ignoring are essential for children and teens of all ages and especially important for toddlers and preschoolers. Young children often become confused when parents use verbal explanations and insight directed interactions for redirection. Young children learn best from schedules, routines and rituals. They rely on stability and concrete redirection. By focusing on praise, general encouragement and positive reinforcement negative behaviors fade and are replaced by supported positive behaviors. Parents who anticipate behaviors and provide gentle guidance become the parents who are listened to and learned from.

Avoid discipline choices that rely on guilt or punishment strategies that communicate failure to your child. Never scold, nag or embarrass your child in private or public and remember these choices lead to humiliation, diminished self-worth and anger.

Discipline choices outside your home are especially difficult. Always discuss behavior expectations with your child before leaving home and determine reasonable natural or logical consequences that may be needed. Be aware of the impact of fatigue, hunger and stress on your child. At all times rely on genuine praise and immediate rewards to support and encourage positive behaviors in your child and during times of stress pursue a time out for both you and your child before choosing a penalty. Although safety and security of your child are always the highest concerns the discipline choices you make will always be long remembered.