Lesson 1: Be on the lookout for an adult or older youth inappropriately touching or tickling a child. Abusers touch or handle children in ways that are inappropriate to test limits and push boundaries. They begin with non-sexual touches like a hand on the thigh, stroking the hair, or massaging the back. They also use roughhousing or “horseplay” where accidental touches can occur to all parts of the body. These touches often occur in the presence of others. Sometimes the child will appear visibly uncomfortable and this cue is ignored or minimized by the offending adult. The perpetrator is not only trying to desensitize the child but the adults surrounding the child. Sandusky reportedly tested children’s boundaries by touching them on the upper leg, tickling, wrestling, and engaging in other horseplay.
We can reject this behavior as inappropriate and interrupt the grooming pattern of the abuser. If you see this happening to a child you know, you can explain to the adult that his or her behavior is not appropriate and is making the child and others feel uncomfortable. The touch may be perfectly innocent but you are calling attention to a behavior that the adult may not recognize as inappropriate. If it is potential grooming, you are sending a strong message that you are watching. Most perpetrators will not pursue a child where adults are watchful.
We can also empower our children by allowing physical touch to be on their own terms. For example, hugs and kisses for relatives should be their choice not forced.
If you are at a youth serving organization, make sure you have policies that state the rules for touch within your organization. For example, high fives, pats on the shoulder, side hugs are ok; lap sitting, full frontal hugs and pats on the buttocks are not ok. You can also set some rules around touch related to staff attending to injuries or providing comfort to an upset child. Make sure it is clear to all the reporting procedure for rule violations and the process for addressing those violations.
Tomorrow – Check out Lessons from Sandusky – Grooming through Gift Giving.