The conviction of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of sexual abuse of children has, once again, put child sex abuse on the front page.
Like the vast majority of child sex abuse cases, Sandusky's crimes took place in the physical world -- they were not Internet related. And, while parents do need to remind children about the potential dangers of talking about sex with strangers online, the fact is that in most cases, the victims and perpetrator have met each other prior to the start of the abuses. Like Sandusky -- it's not uncommon for the abuser to be someone in a position of trust and authority. That's one of the reasons why child safety experts educate children not so much about dangerous types of people, but dangerous types of behavior.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has numerous online resources for parents including a Child Safety FAQ that advises parents to educate children to "Say no if someone tries to touch you, or treats you in a way that makes you feel sad, scared, or confused" and to "get out of the situation as quickly as possible." Kids are also advised to "tell a parent, guardian, or trusted adult if you feel sad, scared, or confused."
"Stranger Danger" is a myth
NCMEC also reminds parents that "stranger danger" is largely a myth: "In the majority of cases the perpetrator is someone the parents or child knows, and that person may be in a position of trust or responsibility to the child and family." The organization suggests that "It is much more beneficial to children to help them build the confidence and self-esteem they need to stay as safe as possible in any potentially dangerous situation they encounter rather than teaching them to be 'on the look out' for a particular type of person." (I serve as an unpaid member of NCMEC's board of directors).
Stop It Now! has a web page with warning signs of possible sexual abuse in children and adolescents and although one sign doesn't necessarily mean that a child is sexually abused, " the presence of several suggests that you begin asking questions and consider seeking help."
Some of the warning signs, says the organization include unexplained nightmares or other sleep problems, a child who is distracted or distant at odd times and a child with changes in eating habits. The organiation also warns parents and caregivers to watch out for "sudden mood swings: rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal" or if a child 'develops new or unusual fear of certain people or places."