When I think back about the dysfunction I grew up around, I can’t help but think about how easy it was for adults to be inappropriate in front of children, and no one say a word about it. In the ’70s, nobody said anything about the creepy cousin who stared at them or the inappropriate uncle who touched them where they didn’t want to be touched. No one talked about sexual predators or molestation, much less discuss that those things can and do happen within families.
I’m glad the world is more open about this kind of thing. It’s topics like these that can lead to horrendous abuses happening right under our noses if kept under wraps.
As I’ve thought about my experiences as a child and how this can happen, I realized that most grooming for molestation took place right in front of other adults. When parents are immature, mentally ill, alcoholics, checked-out, a combination of all of these, and lack boundaries of their own, all kinds of inappropriate behaviors and talk can happen in front of kids. When that happens, and the adults we rely on don’t speak up on our behalf, kids typically think that there’s nothing wrong.
But, the predator puts the victim and the entire family through a grooming process most are not aware of. The grooming process is when a predator is gauging others reactions to a set of simple boundary violations and inappropriate behaviors . When there’s little to no reaction from those adults around, the stage is set to go even further the next time, until the predator achieves inappropriate touch with their victim of choice.
My husband and I discussed this topic at length and came up with some red flags to watch out for from our childhood experiences from living in toxic family dynamics and raising our own kids.
Things to watch out for:
- Inappropriate talk around kids. (*this is listed first for a reason. If someone can get away with this, they will go further.)
- Adults offering to watch your child overnight, or offering to stay up with them while you sleep, work, or do something else.
- An adult staring at or studying a child.
- Adults who allow excessive drinking and drunkenness to happen around children.
- Fighting occurring in front of children. This makes them feel unsafe. They may seek out anyone who may seem familiar, no matter how predatory.
- An adult plays favorites or gives special privileges to a child.
- Any male relative mentioning, touching, making fun of, mocking a young girl’s developing body. (*Please note that women can also be sexual predators, but this list is from my experience as being preyed upon by a male family member.)
- They ask inappropriate questions about boys at school or their dating life.
- Adult males referring to a developing girl as a “whore,” a “cunt,” or a “cock-tease.”
- Offering expensive or rare gifts “just because.”
- An adult who focuses on one child out of all the others who may be around.
- Excessive praise and or attention paid to a child for a talent (baseball) or trait (beauty) they possess.
- This adult wants this particular child to touch them, sit on their lap, touch their face, hug them, give kisses to, tickle, wrestle with, etc.
- This adult tries to be alone with one or many children.
- This person acts like another child to seem cool and “with it.”
- This person schmoozes the parent or parents to get access to the child.
- This person talks about sex or offers the child sexual material in books, movies, or images of some sort to gauge their reaction.
- This person exposes themselves, undresses, is naked in front of, or touches themselves in front of the child to gauge their reaction.
- They ask the child to show them their private parts or ask them to touch their private parts.
- This person asks for promises from the child not to tell others. They say things like: “This will be our little secret.” Or, “nobody else will believe you” or “your mother/father will kill us.”
- They burden the child with threats that should anyone else find out, “we” will be in trouble.
- This adult doesn’t respect privacy during the child’s bathing, dressing, or toileting when they no longer require assistance with such tasks.
- You notice that your child lashes out, becomes depressed, or checks out after being around this person.
Now for story time!
Because of my molestation, I was a hypervigilant mother. Back then, they called it “over-protective.” I did not trust easily, but as a single mother, with little to no help, I eventually had to trust others around my son by learning to listen to my gut. That meant that although my son joined Cub Scouts, he didn’t stay in very long. A few weeks if that? I’m not saying that men who are troop leaders are sexual predators; I’m sure most of them healthily love children and do it for pure intentions; I’m saying that I couldn’t trust an unknown group with my child when I wasn’t allowed to be around. It meant that when I wasn’t home from work and my son forgot his key, I had to trust that when he asked our maintenance man to let him into the apartment that he was safe doing so.
My abuse in childhood meant that when the guy next door came knocking on my door, knowing I wasn’t home to deliver a stack of comic books to my son “just because,” I freaked the fuck out. After freaking out and lecturing my son about not opening the door when I wasn’t home, I walked across the hall, knocked on this guy’s door, shoved his comic books back in his face, and told him if he ever came to my apartment again when I wasn’t home, I’d call the police.
And because boundary-crossers cross lines with ease, he came knocking on my door the very next day. Before I could say a word, he shoved a warm cardboard box in my face. He quickly announced he had baked them “just for us.” You know, “to apologize.” I smiled. Thanked him. And shut the door. I opened the box to reveal giant, fresh-from-the-oven, ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies that looked like they came from a bakery. My son was thrilled. I took them to my kitchen, opened the box, and dumped them straight into the garbage can. My son pitched a royal fit.
I may have been over-reacting, but I didn’t care. In my mind, I was protecting him. It was my job. And, I didn’t care if I hurt a well-intentioned neighbor’s feelings. I wasn’t actually sure what his intentions were, but I knew my intuition was sending all kinds of alarm bells I couldn’t ignore.
The next day as he heard my son and me leaving, he ran out of his apartment and yelled down the steps to me from two landings above, “So, how were the cookies?”
“They were great,” I said.
When we got to the car, my son asked me why I was so weird. “I’m not weird, he’s weird! I don’t trust him. He gives me the heeby-jeebies,” I said. And, because I was a young mom, I added, “He could have poisoned them for all we know and is shocked we’re still alive! At the very least, he could have put E-Lax in them and is wondering why we’re not in the apartment still shitting ourselves half to death!”
Yes, I broke the horrendous chain of abuse I grew up with and protected my son from a possible child sexual predator who baked chocolate chip cookies and read comic books. But, I’m also quite sure I went on to create other chains of dysfunction due to paranoid parenting born from my conditioning. That, and probably from watching too much Unsolved Mysteries.
My son and I talked openly about molestation in general once, I didn’t tell him I was, and he assured me he was never touched inappropriately or abused by anyone, so I’m not sorry for
acting like a weirdo being hypervigilant.
What would you add to the list of things to watch out for? What story can you share about your own “dysfunctional” parenting style that may have protected your child from abuse?
You can read my childhood memoir Steel Town Girl available on Amazon, in paperback and Kindle e-book.