Chapter Six: Warning Signs and What to Do If You Suspect Your Child is Communicating with a Predator in School, Public Places, or Even Online

Every child is vulnerable to sexual abuse, so it is important that parents can catch on to any warning signs a child may be demonstrating. You must maintain open dialogue between you and your child for potentially important information.

It is very rare for a child to be approached by a random sexual predator while in a public place, but of course, it is still possible. Most often, sexual predators and child abductors are people that the child already knows. It is very possible that while in school, your child can become a target of sexual abuse and predation by an older adult that works and interacts with your child. Due to this, it is important to pay attention to any warning signs your child may be giving off before and after school and while at home.

Warning Signs of potential Sex Abuse

Keeping an open dialogue with your child about situations at school and how comfortable they feel when they are away from you are important topics to talk about on a daily basis. Reinforcing the education of what is "private" and what is not in regard to their bodies, as well as what is "appropriate" and what is not, is also critical. If you begin to notice that your young child is a little too curious about private parts and their functions, and they begin to ask questions about things that you haven’t taught them yet, this could be a red flag for you. A warning sign of potential sexual abuse is when children know too much and are too curious about sexual functions of the body when you know you have not discussed those matters with them. Whether the information comes from an adult who may potentially be sexually abusing them, or from another child who learned it from an older sibling, you should consult with your child immediately and get to the bottom of where they found these things out. Children are the most vulnerable citizens in our society, and because of this, it is a parent’s top priority to keep their children safe and support and protect them at all times.

In addition to children talking about sexual things, more harmful acts of predation include actual physical contact between a violator and your child, and even exploiting them by showering them with gifts, affection, or constantly wanting to "help out" and babysit. These acts are especially prevalent during school-time when parents are gone and out of sight. Without the protection of their parents, children may become vulnerable to seemingly pleasant adults. Be wary if you notice your child being singled out by a particular adult in school or if your child talks about this particular adult in an unhealthy or noticeably frequent manner. This could be an early warning sign of sexual predation. The adult may start getting close to your child so they can single them out and talk to them privately a lot, getting to know them and making the child feel comfortable with them. Sexual predators almost always get know the child on a more personal level and offer them toys and candy so as to not have the child go tell their parents of anything "weird" or "suspicious" going on. Following this, stay on the lookout for adults in your child’s school or anywhere else they spend their time. Pay extra attention to anyone who may be overly touchy or physical with your child, hugging or tickling them often. Ask your child if anyone they know tends to hug or tickle them a lot, and if they are comfortable with those circumstances. It is also important to ask them if anyone is touching them. If an adult has been touching your child, the act is much more inappropriate than if another child were to be playing around with them. However, no matter who it may be, it is essential that you ask your child if they are comfortable with the situation, and if they want it to stop or not. Whether or not your child responds that they want to continue this relationship, dig deep into this situation and find out as much as you can about this person and their qualifications to be dealing with your child.

As discussed above, it is vital to first and foremost establish an open relationship with your child. Once your child can trust you, they may be more open to sharing this type of information with you. After that is done, have your child talk to you about their friends and who they are. Ask if they are in their class and how they became friends. Find out what your child likes to do during recess and lunch and if any kids, or even adults, are mean to them or making them "feel funny." While talking to your child about these things, you can reinforce safe and unsafe boundaries for them and their "private parts." Children who learn about these boundaries early on become much more difficult targets for predators. As manipulative as predators are, they would still much rather search for easy targets. Predators target those who they perceive to be "helpless" and may not have good relationships with their parents/families. This is why it is important to reinforce a sense of love and support for your child. Remind them that there should never be any secrets between you and them, and that your "feelings will get hurt" if they keep secrets from you. Make sure they know that you will always love and support them no matter what, so they should never have to worry about not telling you something for fear of you getting angry with them. Reinforce that actually keeping secrets from you should be more worrisome than if they simply were to tell you what is going on.

In all, the key to protecting your child against sexual predation and exploitation is awareness and communication. Remind your child to not keep secrets and to tell you about their days and friends, and make sure to keep an eye out for new, unexpected vocabulary and sexual curiosity.

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Warning signs your child is communicating with a sexual predator online

With the mass expansion of the Internet and social media, children are becoming more and more accessible to online predators through these mediums, and it is imperative that parents and guardians protect their children from these channels of exploitation.

Tweens and teenagers are the main age group that online sexual predators target, as this is the age group that is most likely to be using online mediums. Online predators target their unsuspecting victims just like any other predator would, except these predators are usually even more dangerous than others because they are able to hide behind masked identities. Predators that hide behind computer screens feel invincible and think they are less likely to be caught. Since the computer and the Internet are more or less considered "private" safe havens for your children, it is important that you monitor their online activity and behavior at home. Make sure that you alert them to the dangers of sharing their private information on these "private" mediums. As this is the age that children begin to feel a sense of empowerment and independence, they begin to take part in online chat rooms, speak to random strangers, all the while believing that they are free from any consequences. What they don’t realize is that they may be seduced and manipulated into sexual chat rooms, child pornography, or online relationships where the other individual may try to generate face-to-face meetings and sexually victimize them. Teaching your child that the computer and social media sites they use are not private, and that you and others can see what they are sending, is an extremely important step in helping prevent your child’s exploitation by online predators. No child wants to be fooled or abused by a scammer, liar, or predator, and if you let your child know that these encounters are possible online they may begin to pay closer attention to how they act and what they say online. Whether or not you have taken these steps with your child, there are many warning signs your child would give off if they were communicating with an online predator, which are broken down in the following paragraphs.

Long periods of time on the Internet

Your child can be exhibiting blatantly obvious warning signs of communicating with an online predator, but many times these surprisingly clear signs go unnoticed by parents. One of the first and most apparent warning signs that your child may be communicating with an online predator is if they spend unusually long periods of time on the internet. Though this is a fairly typical behavior of many teens, take notice if your child spends multiple hours online at night, and if they become defensive or close windows when you come by to check on them. Although most teens will claim that they are staying up and doing homework, be wary if they are online for excessive periods of time and become angry or agitated if you ask about their studies. Although predators are online at all hours of the day, most individuals spend their daytime working and their evenings online attempting to locate and lure children.

Social Media and Sexual Predators

Online, kids use social media websites or chat rooms to talk to friends, make new ones, to pass time, and sometimes they go on to specifically look for sexually explicit information. Be alert if your child begins to withdraw themselves from the family, as this may be a warning sign that a predator is luring your child away from you and attempting to influence them. Online predators prey on those children that may or may not have strained family relations and are easy to manipulate, intending to finally meet with them and sexually abuse them. It is for this reason, again, that it is important to always maintain open and nonjudgmental dialogue between you and your child.

Pornography on your child’s computer

One of the most dangerous warning signs that your child is communicating with an online predator is if you begin to find pornography of any kind on your child’s computer or if they begin to receive calls or gifts from unknown callers or senders. Pornography is sometimes used as a gateway for sexual predators to show their victims that sex between children and adults is "the norm." Children may grow to feel more comfortable with a predator if they learn that these acts between children and adults are "normal." As such, children may be more inclined to open up and get closer with the predator because they don’t feel like they are doing anything wrong. Sexual predators send gifts to the potential victims with the hopes of arranging face-to-face meetings with the child. Some send their real phone numbers, while others obtain toll-free 800 numbers so their victims can call them without their parents discovering who they are. When the child calls, it is easy for the predator to then find out the child’s phone number, and use it as another step to obtain more of your child’s private information. Some predators send their victims letters, photographs and, in extreme cases, even plane tickets for the child to travel and meet them. Again, it is important to be mindful of your child’s online activity and associated behaviors because online predators are getting smarter, more discreet, and more dangerous every day. We have included some basic safety tips to help keep your kids safer online.

Internet Safety Tips for Children and Teens

The key to implementing these safety tips is to first educate your child on the potential risks if you were to not implement them, and second to maintain a set of standards of online and cell phone use for your child. It is oftentimes a good idea to spend some online time with your children and see what their interests are and what websites they choose to go to. Not only is this a valuable bonding experience, but you can open up a dialogue and can begin to understand their interests, and more importantly, get a sense if something isn’t right or if they’re not browsing the internet safely and putting themselves at risk. Another tip to keep your kids safe online is to keep their computer or the family computer (as well as gaming consoles) in a central public location such as the family room or kitchen. Placing these "private" mediums in a central location can teach your child just how "private" these are, and will help them realize that if they are worried someone will catch them doing something, that that probably isn’t going to be the right thing to do. They will learn to be more mindful of their actions and the consequences associated with technology. If these options don’t work for whatever reason, it is always good to have parental controls set up on your computers and televisions, especially if your children are very young. Whether it is parental controls on a family computer, or the child’s own computer, these controls help you see what your child is up to and even monitor or block their internet use. Even if you tell your child that you will do random checks on their systems, they still have the ability to browse dangerous websites and chat with potential predators before they log off and erase all signs of their recent activity. As children become more computer savvy and aware of sneaky techniques to hide their recent activity, parental controls eliminate this possibility and block access to websites from the get-go. It is important that they are aware of any parental controls or monitoring of their activities. Knowledge of these checks may potentially dissuade them from curious intentions that can hurt them or the family in the end.

In all, it is very important to be mindful and aware of your child’s behaviors and their activities. They usually exhibit blatantly obvious warning signs of communicating with sexual predators at school or online, but many parents do not realize that that is the case mainly because they have no knowledge of these types of situations. All parents hope and would like to think that their child is safe and "smart" enough not to talk to sexual predators, but much of the time, that is not the case. Sexual predators are extremely persuasive and children are easily manipulated. Education, information, open dialogue, and guidance on what to do and how to identify dangerous situations are key in protecting your child from communicating with sexual predators. By knowing more of what is going on in your child’s life, it becomes increasingly easier to identify warning signs and protect your child from harmful situations.