Coping with sexual predators
There are sexual predators online and this is very concerning, but there is a large gap between the sensational way that news reports present ‘facts’ and reality. There are also simple steps that people can take to significantly reduce their risk of exploitation.
Internet sexual predators prey on people of all ages, but those most at risk are teens between the ages of 13 and 15, particularly those who already show other at-risk behaviors. Younger kids are not very interested in socializing online with strangers and older kids are generally a bit more cautious.
Talk to your kids about online sexual predators just as you talk about other kinds of potential threats they may face. Before talking to your kids about sexual predators online, take time to read Internet Safety Education for Teens: Getting It Right, created by the Crimes against Children Research Center.
If you suspect a sexual predator is stalking your child, follow these steps:
- Look at the files and communications on your child’s computer and determine who he or she is communicating with. Include instant messages, e-mail, and especially social networking sites, chat rooms, and public blogs.
- Talk openly with your child about your suspicions. Tell him or her about the danger of interacting with sex offenders.
- Review mobile phone messages with your child. Ask for his or her help in identifying callers you don’t recognize.
- If any of the following occurs keep the computer ON but turn the monitor OFF, contact the police, and follow their instructions:
- Something online leads you to believe your child is at physical risk.
- Your child or anyone in the household has received child pornography or abusive images.
- Your child has been sexually solicited or receives sexually explicit images.
Helping a victim of sexual exploitation
In any crime, the predator bears the entire blame. This is especially true with sexual exploitation. Sexual acts with minors are illegal and exploitive, and as a society, everyone must be committed to protecting minors – even when the minor acts against his own best interests.
Sexual predators frequently try to make a child believe that the abuse was the child’s fault. If the child feels guilty or ashamed, he or she will be much less likely to report it. They may also try to convince minors that the interaction was something they wanted. Minors who feel alone or neglected are particularly susceptible to this tactic.
How to respond if you discover sexual exploitation
If you learn that your child or teen has been sexually exploited, it brings up a range of emotions. But if the child is present, it is important that you stay calm. Let children and teens know you believe them, that you will protect them, and reassure them that the abuse was not their fault.
Harborview Medical Center’s Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, located in Seattle, provides an excellent and comprehensive resource for abuse victims and their families. They prepared the following list for parents titled What to do if your child has been sexually abused:
Stay calm. Fear and anger are normal reactions, but they can frighten the child. Be sure not to blame, punish, or embarrass the child.
Believe your child. It is rare for a child to lie about sexual abuse. Many children who report abuse are not believed. Do not deny or ignore what your child is telling you.
Listen to your child. Take your child to a private place and let them tell you what happened in his or her own words. Give your child your full attention.
Reassure your child that it wasn’t their fault. Assure them that you are glad he or she told you. Give positive messages such as, “I know it’s not your fault”, or “I’m glad you told.” Be sure to let your child know they are not to blame.
Protect your child immediately from the suspected abuser. Reassure the child that he or she is safe.
Report the suspected abuse immediately to Child Protective Services and/or your local law enforcement agency.
Don’t confront the offender in your child’s presence. In fact, it is probably best to let the proper authorities confront the offender.
Seek professional help for your child and your family. This includes medical attention as needed, child protective services, and a counselor trained in treating sexual abuse.)
Respect your child’s privacy. Be careful not to discuss the abuse in front of people who do not need to know what happened.
Let your child talk about it at his or her own pace. Don’t pressure you child into talking about the abuse. Forcing information can be harmful and you are not trained to interview a child victim. On the other hand, do not try to silence your child. Allow your child to talk, as they need to.
Allow your child to express his or her feelings but keep your own feelings about the abuse separate. Your child may have feelings about the abuse and the offender that are different from yours.
Try to resume a “normal” as life as possible. Protect your child, but don’t make him or feel different or isolated.
Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings by telling them to “forget about it”. You and your child will both need time to work through all the feelings and changes, especially if the offender is someone in the family. The time it takes for a child to heal varies, depending upon the child as well as the circumstances of the sexual assault (such as who the offender is, how long the abuse continued, whether or not threats, bribes, or force was used, and the type of abuse).
Seek help for yourself. Parents often feel angry, guilty, or to blame when they learn their child has been sexually assaulted. Talk to someone you trust, or call a counselor who will be able to help you.