Monday, July 11, 2016

Parenting Pointers: Early Predator Warning Signs

So many issues swirled around the Brock case and now domestic abuse issues are abuzz with the stabbing of a woman in Chicago. The Atlantic recently did a piece on how violent men are the elephant in the room. While this may be true, what can we do? It may feel outside our control. I had a chance to interview Dr. Laurie Berdahl and Dr. Brian Johnson, authors of Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression [Chicago Review Press, August 1, 2016] right away.They say we need to stop this behavior in young boys (and girls) before it’s too late; we need to understand the warning signs in youth and intervene, as this is the only way to stop this madness.

• What are some early signs that children or teenagers may become sexual predators and what can parents and other adults do if they spot them?

Because most perpetrators of sexual violence are male, we’ll answer from that perspective. Warning signs of possibly becoming a perpetrator of sexual violence include: showing disrespect for females including mothers and teachers via language or behavior; general aggressiveness with people persisting into adolescence; low empathy; witnessing domestic violence or being abused; frequent use of pornography or preference for media portraying violence against women; saying things indicating male entitlement to sex or belief in rape myths; early sexual activity (early to mid adolescence), having multiple partners, or preference for impersonal sex outside of relationships; and objectifying women (talking about their sexual body parts instead of other personal characteristics and that their value is based on attractiveness or sexual nature).

If you see these warning signs, train your child in empathy, model and teach respect for females as people using rules with consequences, monitor and limit unhealthy media exposure while explaining your concern, and limit unsupervised time with other kids to reduce opportunities for sex. Discuss the harm of objectifying women and of sexual violence.

• What are some common myths about rape, and how can parents educate their children to separate truth vs. fact?

One common myth is that women dressed in scanty or tight clothing (or anyone flirting or acting in a sexual manner towards someone) wants to have sex no matter what she says, or even deserves to be raped. Other myths are that women who go out alone at night are responsible for being raped because they were being unsafe; that it’s appropriate to have sex with people who are too intoxicated or high to consent; and that it is only rape when the victim is physically forced or injured.

The simplest way to counter these myths is to ask your teens what they think about these situations and then clearly state that these false beliefs lead to sexual violence that seriously harms victims. Say that you expect them to only have sex with a relationship partner who freely consents each time, and that if someone pressures or forces them into sexual activity it is assault or rape and you always want to know about any concerns.

• How can parents start a conversation with their children about getting consent?

We suggest telling preteens and teens that it is never okay for anyone to pressure or force them to do sexual things when they don’t want to (from showing genitals and breasts, to touching and intercourse), which would mean they haven’t given permission or consent. Likewise, tell them that it’s never okay to pressure or force someone else to do these things, and that no means no. You can say something like, “When people have sex, they both need to give consent, which means freely agreeing to it because they want to, without feeling pressured or forced. It is against the law to have sex with people who can’t consent because they’re drunk or high, too young, disabled, ill, unable to understand, or are unaware of what is happening for any reason. If someone says yes and then says no later, sex must stop right then.”

• What are important messages that both boys and girls need to hear about healthy sexual encounters?

Healthy sexual encounters occur when both members of a couple freely consent, trust and care for each other, and don’t feel taken advantage of. Healthy sex also requires that people are old enough to understand the risks, be assertive about what they are comfortable with, and know how to protect themselves from danger. It also means respecting each other’s wishes and using protection from infection and unwanted pregnancy.

Keep in mind that having a close relationship with children continuing through emerging adulthood is the preeminent way that parents can influence their kids and prevent them from becoming victims and perpetrators of sexual violence and other types of violence and aggression that permeate society.

Drs. Berdahl and Johnson are authors of the newly released book, WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids From Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression, available now at bookstores and online booksellers. Find parenting resources, and more about WARNING SIGNS and their previous award-winning book, 7 Skills for Parenting Success at

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