It’s been an emotional time for our community as details emerge about the tragic death of Jacob Wetterling – a boy who has been in our hearts and on our minds since being abducted from his hometown at the age of 11 in 1989. Last week Gov. Mark Dayton ordered the Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi River to be lit blue for 11 days leading up to Jacob’s memorial service to call attention to child abuse prevention.
Child abduction and abuse are serious and painful experiences that no family should have to endure. In times like this parents want to know what they can do to keep their children safe. One of the best things families can do is talk early and often in a non-threatening way about tips and precautions, including:
- Set boundaries around interacting with strangers. Talk with your kids about the safe adults in their life, such as family, caregivers, teachers, police, neighbors, etc. Make it clear that a stranger is someone that the family does not know well and that while most strangers are nice, we cannot tell by appearances alone. Explain that they should not interact with adults the family does not know, and to find a safe adult immediately if a stranger asks them for help, wants to offer them candy or gifts, or asks them to go somewhere. Let them know what to do if they need help and a safe adult is not available.
- Make them aware of their surroundings. By the time they are preschool age, your children should be learning their address, phone number, parents’ names, and how to call ‘911’. If your kids stay home alone, teach them not to tell people over the phone that they are alone or answer the door. As kids reach middle school parents should have conversations about online safety.
- Talk about sexual abuse. Teach children as young as toddler age the names of their private body parts using real terminology and explain that only specific people need to look at or touch them. Let them know that if someone touches them in a way that makes them feel icky or scared, they should say “no” and tell a safe adult right away. Remember that 90 percent of kids who have been sexually abused know their abuser[i]. Read more prevention tips by Dr. Alice Swenson, child abuse pediatrician, Children’s Minnesota.
- Give them real-life examples. Role play with kids starting in preschool to teach them not to interact with adults they don’t know without a safe adult present. Identify scenarios where an adult (strangers and non-strangers alike) does something inappropriate and teach your child how to react and find help.
- Teach them to trust themselves and confide in you. Let your child know there are times when a person may make them feel like something isn’t right. Remind them to leave that situation immediately and seek out help from a safe adult. Impress upon your child that they have the right to say “no” to an adult when they feel uncomfortable. Asking questions frequently about your child’s life and listening and engaging with them about their feelings will let them know they can come to you.
For more information on this topic, and for tips and examples on how to talk to your kids, please visit the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.
For other questions, please contact the Midwest Regional Child Advocacy Center & Midwest Children’s Resource Center, Children’s Minnesota at 651-220-6750.
Dr. Mark Hudson is a board-certified child abuse pediatrician and Executive Director & Medical Director at the Midwest Regional Child Advocacy Center & Midwest Children’s Resource Center, Children’s Minnesota.
[i] Finkelhor, D. (2012). Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center