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Conversation with Kids: Grooming and Complicity

Many years ago I took the mandatory Safeguard the Children course through our parish. It’s unpleasant and intense because it contains interviews with actual pedophiles detailing their tactics, and victims detailing their experiences of not being able to communicate with their parents.

It struck me that these people took their time finding their victims, and they described specifically asking kids about their parents and family life to get a sense of the parents’ involvement and the closeness of this relationship.

One of the abusers in this video described leaving porn around for the neighbor kids to find, so he could “catch” them and see their reaction, and tell them they shouldn’t let their parents know because they could get in trouble for looking at stuff like that. The kid, feeling complicit, would remain silent, starting a bond of secrecy between the abuser and soon-to-be victim.

After this I realized I needed to have a different kind of conversation with my kids, besides the “no one touches you”, because before the perpetrator ever tries that, he’s often built a relationship and a feeling of complicity that prevents kids from talking to their parents in the early stages.

I thought long and hard about what to tell my girls, then probably 8, 6, and 3. I didn’t want to introduce the topic of pornography, so I tried to think of something that would be definitely horrible to them, but they could imagine looking at from a certain curiosity. Since they loved animals, the example I used was pictures of people hurting animals.

I explained “Most people are nice, but every once in a while, a person is weird and might want to do weird things to other people. One of the ways they get people to do weird things with them is by making them feel guilty, like they have a secret to keep. The weird person might leave weird pictures out for a kid to find, like picture of animals being hurt, and see if the kid finds the pictures interesting. And the kid would be horrified by the pictures, but might keep looking, too. So then when the adult “catches” the kid, the kid feels weird about looking at something so horrible."

"The kid doesn’t know that the adult set up the whole situation. The kid doesn’t wonder why the pictures are there in the first place. He just feels guilty, and now he doesn’t want this weird adult to tell his parents. So now the weird person has the kid starting to feel involved with him in a secret way. And this makes it easier to do other weird things later, because the kid is nervous about telling the parents.”

We also discussed more generally how abusers don't take no for an answer, and will ignore your unwillingness to be hugged, held, or otherwise touched in normal ways. This pushing of boundaries causes weird feelings in the victim and is an early sign of weird people who will continue to push the line.

During this part of the conversation, my 8-year-old said she'd had that happen once with a boyfriend of someone we knew. He insisted on her sitting on his lap when he went down a slide. She said no more than once and then he just picked her up and put her on his lap. She had avoided him for the rest of the party. I had a vague memory of her sticking around me more than I would have expected.

I was shocked that this had happened when I was there, and this guy had sized up the moment when I was paying attention to the baby or using the restroom or whatever, and done this in a public place. He could have just been socially awkward and pushy; I'm not saying this means he was a pedophile. But it surprised me that my daughter had already had an experience of her "no" being ignored when I was on the scene.

I hope these examples illustrate why the conversation needs to happen early, and suggests a way to approach this subject with young kids. Please share if you've had experience broaching this topic.

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