Parenting can be challenging. Despite our best intentions we don’t always do the right thing. But what if you were unwittingly putting your child more at risk of abuse? Here Feather Berkower, founder of Parenting Safe Children tells us how to keep kids safe – Do Innocent Secrets Make Kids More Vulnerable?
Requesting “innocent” secrets such as, “Don’t tell your mum I let you stay up late tonight because we’ll both get in trouble,” can increase children’s vulnerability to sexual abuse.
These “innocent” secrets are the very same secrets used by people who sexually
It goes like this: Once the person who intends to sexually abuse a child has built a friendship (or already has inherent trust because he or she is the parent or relative), then the secrets start – a stream of them over time.
This is actually part of what’s known as the “grooming” process, which takes place over a period of weeks or months, and might go something like this:
- First secret: “What do you say we have a couple of extra cookies – and let’s not tell?”
- Second secret: “Let’s have another bowl ice cream, but don’t tell your mum because she’ll be mad at both of us, and won’t let me babysit again.”
- Third secret: “It’s almost your bedtime but since we’re having so much fun, let’s stay up and watch another movie. This will be our little secret, right, since we’ve gotten to be such good pals.”
- Fourth secret: “Hey, I have an idea. Want to play a fun touching game? You tickle me and I tickle you. After all, we’ve gotten so close and we do fun things together and have special secrets.”
I think you see where this is going. As the secrets progress, the child feels trapped and can’t tell.
Most sex offenders with whom I have spoken – men and women, in and out of prison – have told me that secrets, and getting a child to share in the secrets, is the foundation of abuse – and essential to maintaining subsequent silence. One man who had abused his daughter shared his final secret, steeped in a threat, “If you tell, this will break up our family.”
Confusion for Children Around Secrets
So, are parents unwittingly contributing to confusion for children around secrets?
I think so.
I’m not suggesting that all people who keep secrets with kids are grooming and offending. Of course not. But when safe people keep innocent secrets with kids, it makes it difficult for children to differentiate between safe and unsafe secrets.
Even if you are well intentioned with these kinds of secrets, someone else may not be and can use them to get children to keep more serious secrets about sexual touch.
My Tips to Keep Kids Safe
Here’s what I recommend in my Parenting Safe Children Online Workshop, which helps parents keep kids safe from sexual abuse and teach their children body pride.
1. Teach children the difference between secrets and surprises.
A secret is something that someone asks you “never” to tell and makes you feel uncomfortable. A surprise is something that makes you feel good and will come out into the open like a gift or a party.
Let your kids know that you don’t have secrets, only surprises.
Instead of saying, “Don’t tell Mom I let you stay up tonight or we’ll both get into trouble,” you might say, “I’ll let you stay up late tonight and if Mom and I disagree about bedtime, we’ll work it out. It’s not your problem.”
After the Parenting Safe Children Workshop, many families make a body safety poster, like this, with their kids.
Image via C. Steiver, reprinted with permission
3. Let People Know Your Family Does Not Have Secrets
Let caregivers, including family members, coaches, teachers, and faith leaders, know that your child does not keep secrets and has permission to tell you everything.
You can Check Your Knowledge about child sexual abuse at Parenting Safe Children.
Feather Berkower, LCSW, is founder of the Parenting Safe Children, the PSC Online Workshop and co-author of Off Limits, a parenting book that will change the way you think about keeping kids safe.
Feather has educated over 100,000 schoolchildren, parents, and professionals. She makes a difficult topic less scary, and empowers parents and communities to keep children safe.
Over to you! Do you maintain a “No Secrets” policy in your home? Have you any tips to add?