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How to prevent another Penn State

There is a lot we don’t know about what really happened at Penn State but one thing seems apparent —bad things happened to children and they said little or nothing about it.

I’m not blaming the kids. I’ve spent over 30 years of my professional life listening to sexual abuse victims grapple with intense feelings of anguish, guilt, confusion, and anger. Kids know that sexual contact with an adult is wrong, but respond with powerful emotional reactions that leave them paralyzed to act.

The incidents at Penn State have resurrected memories of my own high school years, when it was common knowledge among my peers that certain kids were being sexually molested by a few of the teachers at my Catholic high school. While I had a great relationship with my mom and dad, the very idea of talking with them about what was happening at school was totally unthinkable.

Incidents of child sexual abuse have declined by 38% from 1993 to 2006 according to government statistics, but that is little comfort to parents who feel powerless to protect their kids from sexual predators. Such abuse can only continue in a climate of secrecy, so our goal as parents must be to make uncomfortable conversations less embarrassing for kids. It’s time to routinely discuss issues of obesity, sexual abuse, bullying, rape, discrimination, and depression around the dinner table.

Warning kids about stranger danger or telling them to come to us with any concerns is useless. We have to systematically desensitize kids from the inherently embarrassing nature of these tough conversations. Here’s how to do it.

1.  Eat dinner together at least four times a week, and use that time to talk about things that matter. When I first brought up the incidents at Penn State with my 13-year-old daughter at dinner, she said it was gross and didn’t want to discuss it. We talked about it anyway, and it led to an excellent conversation. Remember that the goal is to desensitize kids from feeling embarrassed about unpleasant topics. Ask lots of questions. Give your own point of view. Expect and even require participation from all family members.

2.  Make such dinner conversations a routine. There are always interesting things going on in the world. Expect your kids to come to the dinner table prepared to talk about themselves or current events.

3.  Avoid conversation terminators, which include rambling lectures or distractions such as TV, texting, or phone calls. Respect your child’s point of view, even if it is different than your own.

4.  Begin this routine when your child is young, starting such conversations when your child enters school.

5.  Relax. Some of these conversations will be unpleasant and embarrassing to you. I’ve found that humor can be a great stress reliever with kids. Don’t be reluctant to acknowledge your own feelings of uneasiness.

 How Do I Begin?

I’ve used books like these for years with kids in my office or around the dinner table at home. They are great ways to start conversations about things that matter.

Gregory Stock, “The Kids’ Book of Questions.”

Jerry D. Jones, “201 Great Questions for Parents and Children.”

Jerry D. Jones, “201 Great Questions.”

Barbara Ann Kipfer, “4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone.”

Garry Poole, “1001 – The Complete Book of Questions.”

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