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Protecting your children from sexual predators

Your kids should know they can come to you and you will never be mad or blame them in any way.  "Today" contributor Dr. Gail Saltz offers some advice.

Over one million children are victims of sexual abuse each year. One in every four girls and one in every eight boys have been sexually molested before the age of 18. These are incredibly disturbing figures and point to the need for parents and the community at large to do everything in their power to prevent the victimization of children. So how do you protect your kids from sexual predators? “Today” contributor Dr. Gail Saltz, with New York Presbyterian Hospital offers this advice:

Being sexually molested is a traumatic experience that often follows a child into adulthood causing depression, anxiety, the inability to have a healthy intimate relationship, and can even lead to the victim becoming a perpetrator of sexual abuse upon other children.

This subject is extremely difficult for parents to discuss with their children for a number of reasons. It requires the parent to be aware of (rather than in denial of) the possibility of such an awful thing happening to their child. It also means dealing with your own uncomfortable thoughts about sex and violent sex.

Your wish, of course, is that your little one will never have to know about such horrors, but the fact is by never telling them how to protect themselves and why, you are making it more likely that they will become a victim.

Parents are able to deal with a discussion that concerns strangers. They can say, “Don’t talk to or go with a stranger.”

The facts are that about 90 percent of sexual molestation is committed by a person known to the child. They are not strangers. They are family members, teachers, coaches, babysitters, religious instructors and others who are in a position of knowing, caring for and being an authority figure for your child.

Pedophiles are often drawn to areas where they work with children because they want to be around them. This is the biggest reason it is crucial to educate your kid about the possibility, the danger signs, the places to turn to and the necessity of trusting their own judgment (and you will shape that judgment) about sexual predators.

So, first of all, have a general discussion about inappropriate sexual contact. Predators often work by making the child feel guilty for what happened and threatening them with punishment and humiliation if they tell. So make it clear that if your child feels even the tiniest bit uncomfortable about any sort of overture from someone, they should tell you, and you will never be mad or blame them in any way.

Tips for keeping your kids safe:

1. “The Bathing Suit Rule":
Explain that no one should ever be touching them any place that a bathing suit normally covers. (A check up is the one exception.) If anyone touches them, your child should know to tell you right away. Remind them that you would never be mad about it, but that this behavior is something children need help with and protection from.

2. It’s OK to be Rude:
We all work hard to have our kids respect their elders and be polite, but you need to tell them that it’s OK to be totally rude to someone who wants to hurt them.

For instance, if an adult asks them for help, they should say "No." If an adult needs help, they should ask another adult. Say "no" loudly to offers of money, gifts, rides, photographs, puppies, and requests for a "special secret." If a predator says, "Come with me, your mother has been hurt and she wants me to take you to her." Tell them to refuse and say "no." Then tell them to let you know what happened.

3. It’s OK to freak out:
Go over what to do if someone tries to grab them. Tell them to scream loudly, “This is not my parent.” They should yell and kick and make a ton of noise.

It’s very important that they not get into a stranger’s car — once they get in, the situation could turn out very badly. Tell them to kick and scream and make a lot of noise if a stranger tries to pull them in their car.

Explain to them that some predators can be scared off by too much attention. Tell them where to find a safe place to run to. Tell them if they lose you in a public place to go straight to the checkout counter and ask for help. Tell them not to just wander around looking for you because they may get spotted alone and taken. Never let them go to public restrooms alone and don’t let them go to arcades alone (a place a pedophile may scope out).

4. Tell them to trust their gut:
Probably the most important thing is to tell them to trust any “yucky” feeling they have inside that tells them they are in a bad situation. They should feel empowered to always get out of it. They should feel they can come to you (or your spouse, a teacher, a counselor) with anything that concerns them.

It can be awful to hear from your child that some uncle or cousin, teacher or priest has touched them, but you must take them seriously, be completely concerned and keep them from feeling it is in any way their fault.

Sometimes it is so upsetting that we want to say no, you must be making it up, but it is far more important to find out what did happen and even if the accusation is not true, remember that any child who makes such a claim is certainly having an emotional problem that needs attention.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.”