Signs That Say Beware! – Keeping Children Safe

By: Dr. Kim Hoover.

All of us who have a heart for children certainly want children to be safe. Sometimes our love for children makes it difficult to even imagine that there are people who intentionally work their way into positions of trust and responsibility in a community and seek out vulnerable children to sexually molest.

Perpetrators use different tactics to ensure their victims will not tell anyone what has happened. They also work to ensure that they will not be under suspicion by adults in the community. They work in positions where they are trusted to be with children. There is nothing about their appearance, behavior in the community, or lifestyle that would suggest any cause for concern. They are careful to be well-integrated into the community so that, if any suspicion does arise, it would be discounted as impossible.

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In order to keep children safe, we must be aware of signs that an adult is not respecting appropriate adult-child boundaries, and we must be willing to call attention to any boundary violations. In most cases, the individual does not mean harm to a child, will understand the reason for concern, and adjust his or her behavior accordingly. If, however, there is other intent, then the individual knows his or her behavior with children is being monitored and would be much less likely to continue.

Specific examples of boundary violations include:

1. Adults always seeking to be alone with children (being with a child behind closed door, removing a child from a group and going out of sight or hearing range of others, providing individual transportation for a child without parental knowledge and permission, looking for ways to be alone with a child and resisting being supervised or monitored)

2. Adults seeking physical contact with children that is more than very brief, public, and has no possibility of intimate contact (placing a child on lap, wrestling, tickling, rubbing neck/shoulders/back, initiating hugs, lying down with child)

3. Adults giving gifts or special favors to certain children or giving permission for children to do things that parents have forbidden

4. Adults photographing or videotaping children without obtaining specific parental consent, or adults having frequent contact with children through texting or social networks

5. Adults who think rules do not apply to them.

Talking about boundary violations with an individual or through a supervisor does NOT mean you are accusing anyone of sexual abuse, that authorities are being called, or that a truly trustworthy person’s reputation is being ruined. It DOES mean that the setting you are in cares enough about children to monitor interactions with adults and minimize risk of any harm coming to them.

In addition to having increased awareness of adults’ behavior toward children, we also need to monitor children’s behavior so that we can intervene appropriately if a child is being mistreated or abused in any way. If a child tells you about abuse, or if you see physical marks or injury, then action needs to be taken by following your setting’s protocol and also following the law regarding reporting suspicions of abuse. There are also less obvious signs which should raise our level of concern. Children have a limited array of responses to any trauma or significant stress.

These responses do not tell you exactly what the child is experiencing, but they do indicate the child needs some support and show of interest and concern. Any trauma or significant stress often results in a CHANGE in a child’s behavior. Therefore, we should be alert for the following signs:

1. New appearance of more withdrawn, anxious, fearful or clingy behavior

2. New appearance of more aggressive, defiant, destructive behaviors or new tantrums or emotional outbursts

3. Talk of self-harm or display of self-destructive behavior

4. Regression in behavior (appearance of behaviors that would be typical in a younger child) such as wetting or soiling, thumb-sucking, using baby talk

If you see these signs, you may want to share your observations with a colleague or supervisor who might already know more about the child’s situation, with the parent who may be seeing similar changes at home, and with the child who may share more information that would clarify further steps to be taken.

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