In today’s society it is difficult to tell where there is safe space for children. In the past, home was always considered the only safe place; however increasing incidents of child abuse from parents and relatives makes all who work with children more observant of physical condition and behaviors that might indicate acute domestic problems. There is also a greater challenge today for parents who send their children to camps, schools, and churches ; these have traditionally been considered locations where staff and faculty could be counted on to provide safe space for children, but not necessarily so today. It is almost a common occurrence to turn on the television or read news stories about horrible accounts of sexual or physical abuse of a child by a trusted family member ( and most child abuse is by a family member) or a trusted teacher, counselor, neighbor, pastor, priest.
It is imperative that we work as parents, primary care givers and youth workers, to create safe space for the children and teens. As they go off to school and take part in after-school activities, children and teens are learning to navigate the world, they tend to be trusting of adults and other children. There is a delicate balance to be strived for here because we don’t want children to be fearful of the world to such an extent that it immobilizes them or inhibits their natural abilities. Yet wisdom demands that we help our children become better in assessing danger and become more capable of speaking up for themselves. I make the following suggestions:
- Building Trust and Communication: The first safe place ought to be within the relationship that parent, guardian, and/or the primary care givers in a child’s life. Children learn in that first essential relationship how much they can trust and be trusted in talking about what happens to them. Children need to know at an early age what a good touch and a bad touch is. They need to know that no matter what has happened they can tell the care giver. Predators (especially those known to the child and family) rely on the fact that they can scare a child into not revealing what they have done to them. Children and teens also need to know that no matter what anyone may say, the parent or care giver will do all in his/her power to make sure that they are safe. Child and Teen care givers also must be willing to take necessary steps to prevent and prosecute those who abuse children.
- Present Proactive Parent and Primary Care Givers: Another way to provide safe space is for Primary Care givers to make themselves known in the places their children frequent. Meet the teachers, meet the parents of your child’s friends, attend the local meetings, participate on committees, and take a role in policy setting, investigate whether background checks are done. Be present, let your children know you take part and let them accompany you to some events. Showing that a Parent/Care Giver has voice communicates a sense of authority and shows children and teens (even if they are embarrassed) that you have the power of your own voice in impacting change. The most vulnerable young people are those who have no sense of voice to speak out in a crowd or meeting. Parents/Care Givers should never take for granted that a place is always safe—regardless of who leads it.
- No one is above suspicion: This next point is very touchy—no one is above question when it comes to the safety of children and teens. It is important to keep tabs on what happens when you child is away from you and have conversations with your child about the activities they are involved in, notice the mood swings, the way your child behaves when they come from a visit or activity is vital to your ability to catch signs of abuse. Too often children and adolescents are abused by relatives, close friends, neighbors whom one would never suspect. The abuse persists because children are fearful and the abuser makes them believe that they can tell no one or if they tell, someone in their family will get hurt. Find ways to talk with your child about activities and people at an early age so that it becomes a routine as they get older.
- Helping our Girls: Girls are especially vulnerable to abuse because they are often socialized to be nice, to be obedient, and they usually don’t learn how to fight or defend themselves. I’ll never forget one of the child predators who appeared on a television show who said that girls were really easy because no one has ever taught them about the likes of him. They can be lured into a dangerous setting fairly quickly. I think we should have self-defense as part of the physical education learning experience for children in all schools, churches, youth centers and homes. Self Defense communicates to girls that THEY are not to be ill treated and it sharpens the instinct to run, yell, and also to tell what happened.
Creating a safe space for children and adolescents is really about raising and nurturing individuals whose confidence is developed in a trusting relationship with adults in the home and adults in other institutions. The sense of self and learning about the importance of speaking out encourage awareness, provides lessons in observation and gives hope to young people that they can work through difficult situations. Finally, creating a safe space means that young people learn to judge when a person or an area is not safe for them. Key to preventing and stopping abuse is protection of and vigilance of adults who care enough to teach children, and to fight for their safety.