When secrets are about surprises, surprises that are meant to make someone happy such as planning a surprise party, they are harmless and can bring joy.
But secrets can be very dangerous for a child. A predator can trap a child in a sticky web of secrets through duplicity, pressure and manipulation - part of a process called "grooming." A child who keeps these secrets, becoming a victim of abuse, will often suffer a lifetime of emotional damage.
The recent broadcast of the HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland," which delves into the lives of two men who say they were sexually abused when they were children by pop superstar Michael Jackson, has put a new spotlight on the idea of "grooming."
Similarly, Lifetime’s documentary "Surviving R. Kelly," about the R&B singer - and recent criminal sexual abuse charges against the star, whose full name is Robert Kelly - has sparked conversations about the grooming of potential abuse targets.
The technique can be quite slick as the abuser methodically grooms a child over time. The abuser may first ask a child to keep a secret that seems innocent, saying things like, "Let’s keep this treat our little secret." Then, when certain the child has kept that secret, the perpetrator will move on to acts of sexual abuse, demanding secrecy about that behavior as well. At that point, the child may feel so guilty and ashamed that he or she feels they cannot tell.
It would be hard to explain to a young child the dangers inherent in secrets. A simpler way to go is to tell young children that they must never keep secrets from their parents. If they follow that rule absolutely, they are far less likely to be targeted and entrapped in a molester’s web of secrecy.
When a child is old enough to understand, a parent may want to explain that certain secrets, the kind that are meant to be happily revealed later on, surprises, are fine for them to keep, but just temporarily. Surprises are things you want to tell, but wait for the right moment to share.
Here are five strategies to protect children:
1. Review your rules about private parts with your child.
Teach your kids to raise a red flag in certain situations. In order to identify dangerous, "red-flag" situations, kids need to learn body safety boundaries. It is essential that parents teach young boys and girls to keep the parts of their body that are covered by their bathing suits private.
Kids need to be taught that only a few people (such as a parent, caregiver or doctor), under certain circumstances (like help with hygiene or supervised checkups), are able to see their private parts.
2. Teach children they must never keep red-flag secrets.
Teach your child that once an adult or friend violates their body boundaries, they must go to a trusted adult right away and tell what has happened, for their own safety.
3. Help your child make a list of trusted adults they can talk to.
Your children may be too scared or embarrassed to tell their secret to you directly. So, have your child make a list of at least three additional adults that they can contact in red-flag situations. Make sure you know and trust these adults to act responsibly.
4. Kids need to know that red-flag people lie!
Abusers use lies, bribes and tricks to keep children quiet. Remind kids that if a person asks them to keep a secret about private parts and they say, "you can’t tell anyone" - that is not true. They can and must tell a trusted adult.
Brainstorm with your kids things that a red-flag person might say that could trick them into keeping secrets.
Examples of some bribes are:
- "You are special, let’s keep this our secret."
- "If you keep our secret, l will bring you a treat."
- "If you keep this secret, I will give you money."
Examples of some threats are:
- "If you tell, nobody will believe you."
- "If you tell, your parents will be mad at you."
- "If you tell, I will say it was your idea."
To stay safe, it is important that children rehearse scenarios and responses to these kind of events.
5. Remind kids that even if they have been keeping a red-flag event secret for a long time, it is never, ever too late to tell.
Make sure your kids know that it is never their fault. They should feel comfortable telling you anything and trust that you will believe them, no matter what.
If your child does reveal an abusive incident, as upsetting as it may be, try to remain as calm and supportive as you can manage. That will encourage your child to speak freely and will avoid the possibility of compounding a child’s fear or shame.
Kimberly King is a certified early childhood education teacher and certified sexual abuse prevention facilitator. She is the author of "I Said No! A kid-to-kid guide to keeping private parts private," a book for children on sexual abuse prevention. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.