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The news out of Cleveland this week of three young women held captive for a decade of physical, sexual and psychic abuse horrified the world. For parents, the news provoked perhaps a more targeted kind of fear, and raised one of the most fraught questions in parenting: How can we instill in our kids street smarts and an instinct to detect danger without leaving them terrified and fearful of the world? For some answers, we paged child psychiatrists Gene Beresin and Steven Schlozman, both at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Here is their professional response:
Every parent has said it: “Now, kids...don’t talk to strangers.”
It’s good advice. However, given the recent horrific events in Cleveland, some parents might very appropriately worry that this particular bit of wisdom is due for re-evaluation. After all, it appears all three young women kidnapped and held hostage for the past decade got into a car with their tormenter. He was known in the neighborhood, after all, and his own daughter was friends with one of the victims.
This is, of course, an extreme example of a particular narrative that we hear repeatedly these days. “We can’t let our kids play outside like we used to — the world has changed too much.”
But where does that leave us? What do we say to our children as we struggle to maintain the shaky balance between ensuring safety and also teaching independence and reasonable trust in the world and in our communities?
This is among the most vexing questions of modern parenthood. We certainly don’t want our kids to see a trusted uncle or coach as a potential villain – that would create an emotionally untenable world where all individuals, no matter how well known, are deemed potentially dangerous.
And yet, the alleged perpetrator in Cleveland was the father of one of the prisoner’s close friends. How do we deal with this dilemma?
There is of course no perfect or straightforward answer. Events like those in Cleveland are indeed extremely rare. Understandable media attention can create the impression that the world is in fact far worse than it actually is. At the same time, though, we have to find a way to increase awareness among our children of the potential dangers inherent in our world.
Know Your Child
So, for children of all ages, what can we do to?
Remember that every child is different; the way you present your words of safety needs therefore to be tailored to your individual child. So, the first principle is to know your child. Parents are good at this. In most cases, no one knows a kid better than the kid’s parents. There are 8-year-olds who will not be particularly bothered that even a well-known neighbor might have somewhat sketchy “issues.” And there are 12-year-olds who will freak out, have nightmares and feel that he or she can never trust anyone ever again.
After you've determined how your child will likely respond to the topic, use your own parental modeling and other examples about how good people treat each other: “You know how Coach Bill made you feel better after you missed that goal?” You might say, “Well, he’s a great guy.”
These conversations provide the groundwork for helping kids to be mindful and discriminating. Kids learn to trust their instincts based on the instincts that you model.
Remember that your non-verbal manner is often as powerful as your words. If you are telling your children that they are safe and at the same time you’re really worried and upset about potential harm, they’ll pick up on your anxiety. Try to be aware of your inner feelings while you are talking to your kids and help keep the feelings you experience and what you express to your children emotionally consistent.
What does this mean developmentally? For an older teen, it might be very much like the guidance of a trusted mentor. For school-age children, however, it may be best not to talk with them about how safe the world is when you are fraught with worries.
Remember, we cannot prevent all dangers or harm to our kids. We can do our best to educate them, to improve their awareness of the world, and to teach and then allow them to trust their “gut reactions” as well as rely on others for feedback. It is of course terribly hard to live with the uncertainties in life. The alternative, though, is not possible. We can’t allow our kids the fantasy that we have mastered uncertainty. Instead, we want our kids to expect and prepare for uncertainty. In this light, our own parental anxieties are often alleviated by guidance and comfort from other parents.
Different Advice For Different Ages
1. Pre-school Kids
Young children should generally know that they should never be alone, walk with or talk with strangers no matter how nice they seem. They are far too young to know the intentions of others or to trust any internal instincts. Kids this age need fixed, concrete rules
They need to be told that if any adult tries to take them alone someplace without asking mom, dad or the adult in charge, the answer is “no.” This will not be hard for them to understand; they typically need permission for almost everything they do.
It is also not too early to start talking with younger kids about the kinds of things kids, teens and adults do to play with children – the kinds of games that are “good” and “fun” and the ones that are not. This is also the time to ask them about touching, tickling, and other physical contact, particularly touching their “private parts”.
2. School-age Kids
This group knows more about the dangers in the world. They also are “rule bound” and need some specific guidelines about what to do and not to do. At the same time, they are clearly more “on their own” though still in “well-protected” environments. Sports teams, playdates and sleep-overs and after-school programs are all examples of the increased but controlled autonomy of the school-aged child. They are more advanced than pre-school kids, but still really don't know yet how to detect whether another person, older kid or adult, might harbor dangerous motives. They tend to be trusting, particularly of people they know.
They also should be told that if they are going out, they should go with a friend and the destination should be a place parents know. For example, if you're out at a restaurant, and your daughter and her friend want to go next door to the toy store, and you know the owner of the toy store, this may be just fine. You should let them know you are right there next to them.
This is a great age to begin talking to children about the emerging paradox that is central to these issues: The world is generally a safe place, but there are also adults who might not be as nice as they seem.
Give concrete examples: “Remember you thought your day camp counselor, Gary, was really nice, and then he started choosing favorites and picked on other kids?” Or closer to home: “Now remember how nice cousin Frank is until he starts getting into fights with dad and has a really bad temper?” These kinds of very simple vignettes help school-aged kids to begin to see that what appears one way, at first, may not be so good in other situations.
Teens increasingly have the capacity to understand that behaviors may be deceptive – that motives, even negative ones, may be hidden. They may have been deceived or betrayed by a friend or relative and they are often able and willing to talk about these issues. Perhaps they've experienced this all-too-common phenomenon: They may have been friends with someone on Facebook when suddenly their supposed "friend" makes nasty comments about them and they then lose their other "friends."
It's all the more important to have conversations with adolescents about the nature, course, and variability in relationships. But keep in mind that teens have a knack for listening when they want to, so choose your moments carefully. Share your own experiences – how you made and lost friends; how your friends earned and lost your trust. This will deepen their awareness of others, and also help build up their internal instincts about trusting or being wary of others’ intentions.
And, depending on your personal preference and your understanding of your child’s tolerance, you could watch some of the news together. Teenagers are old enough to process pretty terrible circumstances, and indeed they might sense your censorship of the news as a sign that you are not ready to address important topics. With this in mind, make the news into a discussion. How could these young teens get into that car? What would you have done?
Young teens pose difficult problems. Many early adolescents feel invulnerable and often do not have the judgment to discern safety. Take the 13-year-old who wants to ride the subway into town with a friend. Would you allow this? This is a personal and individual decision, and there are cogent arguments for both allowing and preventing these kinds of ventures.
Regardless, this desire by your teenager is an important signal: it means the time is coming when she and her friends are going to need some pretty concrete ground rules. Give them a cell phone if you can. Tell them you need to know where they are. These rules must be discussed in advance, and when your daughter comes home, it is probably a good idea to have a discussion of what happened, what went well, and what could have gone wrong.
Tough, But Critical, Topics
As always, guidelines for talking to teenagers cannot be rigidly codified. These are terribly fraught conversations to have, particularly because we have our own fears about their safety.
However, think of this as an ongoing, long-term process that is intended to help kids learn how to live with uncertainty and to minimize risk.
We want our kids to be cautiously curious about relationships, to avoid blind acceptance, and above all, to trust their emotional reactions in social situations. It’s a process, and that process is especially important to remember when horrendous news emerges.
Gene Beresin, M.D., is a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; Steven Schlozman, M.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Readers, can you add to this list? Please post or ask questions below, or tweet Dr. Beresin at @GeneBeresinMD or Dr. Schlozman at @zombieautopsies.
This program aired on May 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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