Talking to Your Children About Abuse Prevention — a Father’s Advice

  • Worried boy in library

I used to be just like you. I attended lectures and read articles in frum publications on the topic of child abuse. I, too, was horrified by the stories I heard. The experts said that parents need to talk to their children so that the kids could recognize when something wasn’t right and know how to react. Still, the task seemed so awkward, and the odds of something ever happening to my children seemed so remote. I knew my older children would roll their eyes at their “paranoid” parent, and worried that I would needlessly scare my younger children. I had reason to believe that each of my children could never possibly be a target for a predator. I was wrong.

“Normal people cannot fathom the evil and harm caused by abuse.”

I’m not a psychologist, but if you’re still reading this article, your next level of defense is likely kicking in. You may be thinking, “this author is probably not normal,” (my wife may agree with you on that one) “and runs a dysfunctional home, so this could happen to him but not my family.” I really want to put my name on this article for you to know that my mainstream family is likely not that different from yours, but for obvious reasons I can’t. I studied in well-known yeshivas and learned in kollel a couple of years prior to attending graduate school for medical studies. My wife and I try our best to run our home in accordance with the dictates of the Torah, and we have a good reputation within our community.

I Thought My Children Were Safe

Father and son sitting at table.My false sense of security was recently shattered. One of my teenage sons, who is attending a well-known, reputable yeshiva high school called me on my cell phone one evening. A little odd, given that he usually calls the home phone and speaks with my wife first. However, he sounded fine, and we had a normal conversation. I told him his mother was sitting nearby and ready to talk with him. That’s when he said, “Ta, can we talk? I’m not so sure you would want Mommy to hear the conversation.” My blood pressure spiked and I began to sweat, but I stayed as calm as possible and maintained an even-keeled voice. He proceeded to tell me that another boy attempted to touch him in an unmistakably inappropriate manner. We’re not talking about a mere shoulder rub, if you can read between the lines.

What I did not mention earlier is that I did not succumb to my hesitancies and excuses when considering talking to my children about safety. As the experts recommended, I did talk to them. Sure, I got the eye-rolls from my older kids, and I wasn’t sure my younger kids integrated the message the way I hoped, but I did my hishtadlus (due diligence). Fortunately, when the situation arose, my son knew exactly how to react. He told me he successfully fought off his attacker, immediately told his rebbi what had happened, and called me as soon as realistically possible. I maintained my composure as best as I could. I asked my son a couple of questions for clarification and assured him that I believed him. I made sure he was OK, and told him how proud of him I was that he called me and handled it so well. I told him he wasn’t a victim, and that he had empowered himself in repelling the unsuccessful attack.

My Son Was Prepared, But Was I?

Once my son and I finished our conversation, I knew it was time to spring into action. However, the lectures and articles never really covered what to do next. With our emotions running high and struggling to stay level-headed, my wife and I spent the next excruciating ten minutes planning a course of action. I spoke with my rav, the principal, and mental health professionals who are experts in this field. The yeshiva handled the incident very well and I also had my son meet with a frum therapist for a single session just to make sure he wasn’t repressing anything in a way that could lead to potential long-term harm. B”H he seems to be doing really well.

“I had reason to believe that each of my children could never possibly be a target for a predator. I was wrong.”

Why am I writing this article? Parents need to know that in 2014 you cannot ignore this issue. Ignorance in this matter is gross parental negligence. It doesn’t matter where you consider yourself within the wide spectrum of Orthodox Judaism. In school and (hopefully) at home, we all have fire drills to prepare for the unlikely but extremely dangerous scenario of a fire. Our approach to abuse should be no different. You need to educate yourself, and you need to have a plan in place before anything happens so that you and your children are prepared and ready to react quickly should the need arise.

Talking to Your Child about Safety

First, you need to talk with your children. Have your initial conversation as soon as possible, and then refresher talks before your child heads off to school or camp. Magen Yeladim is an excellent resource for what to tell your child. You need to prepare your children for the different approaches an adult predator will use (a gradual process called grooming) versus someone their own age (usually a spontaneous act). Your children need to know how they can fight off something bad and get away. They then need to find and tell an adult immediately. No matter what that adult tells them, they should tell you as soon as possible. There are no secrets. Your children need to know that you can handle anything they tell you, that you will trust them, and you won’t overreact. By the way, you can tell them this until you’re blue in the face, but the only way they will believe you is if you also act this way in their normal daily lives. As a typical child would say, “Hey Mom, don’t flip out.” I am by no means in the running for Parent of the Year, but my wife and I have tried to establish the type of individual relationship with each of our children that they are hopefully comfortable telling us almost anything.

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“You need to educate yourself, and you need to have a plan in place before anything happens so that you and your children are prepared and ready to react quickly should the need arise.”

Once you’ve done this, your child is prepared, but how about you? Do you know what to do should you get the dreaded call from your child? What will you say? Who will you call first once you get off the phone? Although it turned out well, I wish I had planned more for that in advance. Perhaps you can use the way I reacted as your basic guide, although every situation is obviously unique. If the person you call seems nonchalant and wants to sweep it under the rug, I beg you to seek additional advice from professionally trained frum experts in this field. Normal people cannot fathom the evil and harm caused by abuse, and sometimes intelligent, well-meaning people don’t comprehend the seriousness of the consequences.

I used to be just like you, blissfully unaware. That bliss was shattered, but ultimately for the best and B”H my son was prepared. What about you? Are you willing to do what it takes to keep your children safe? Or will you choose to stay in your blissful bubble, hoping it will never burst? Your children’s well-being may hang in the balance.

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