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May 22, 2015

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Raise children to know red flags involving sexual predators, therapist advises

It’s the kind of news that makes parents squirm with disgust and outrage and, because it ends up in the media, might force uncomfortable but necessary discussions with children: In recent weeks, multiple adults have been arrested on allegations of sexual impropriety involving minors.

In three of the cases, the authority figures are accused of having sexual relations with or sexually touching minors; the other involves a coach exposing himself near a school and masturbating in public in front of a former student.

How should parents broach this issue at home with their children, if to just discuss what they may have heard in the news or to talk to them on the larger issue of inappropriate physical contact by adults in their lives?

“Parents need to know what their kid can handle, but it is important that parents train them, starting at a young age, to know the difference between when a doctor touches their private parts versus if the neighbor or teacher does,” says Scott Underwood, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

It can start by understanding your child's ability to handle anxiety. Underwood suggests telling overly anxious children what the red flags are. It can be harder to convey to children with low anxiety the importance of knowing the severity of the situation because they never think anything bad will happen to them, Underwood said.

This is why it is so important that parents teach boundaries to their children and how to recognize when an improper line is crossed.

Unlike young children, teenagers tend to think they know more about relationships than their parents. Underwood understands this, but reminds parents that it's still up to them to intervene and protect their children from any wrongdoing.

However, there are many times when parents will look back to their own memories of school and remember a mentor relationship that bettered their lives.

“Parents have a difficult time wanting to intervene because student-teacher relationships do not always end badly; however, if there is even the slightest feeling that the relationship is not completely professional, it is up to the parent to stop the relationship from continuing,” Underwood said.

When an incident happens, the victim may feel helpless because the offender manipulates the child into either thinking that no one will believe that this occurred or that he or she is in the wrong.

To counteract this and have the victim come forward immediately about the experience, Underwood says parents need to foster a strong sense of trust with their child.

“Telling children from a young age, ‘If something ever happens to you, you can tell me and I will protect you and believe you no matter what anyone else says’ or ‘You know you can always tell me anything,’ will help the child feel as if he or she has someone to turn to should a serious situation arise,” he said.

Once the child brings the situation to the parent’s attention, it is the parent’s responsibility to send the message that nothing the child did was wrong and that he or she is not to blame for what happened. Oftentimes, according to Underwood, children will carry a lot of guilt, which is why parents need to reinforce to the child that nothing they did was wrong.

If a child has been the victim of a pedophile, therapy might be warranted, Underwood said, though not always.

“All too often, I see parents forcing their children into therapy and, if nothing else, the therapist ends up making the situation into a bigger deal than the child originally took it to be,” he said.

Parents play a huge role in ensuring their child is in a safe environment, but when it comes to dealing with the emotional repercussions of sexual assault, healing needs to come from the individual, he said.

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