By Pattie Fitzgerald, child safety educator, founder of www.safelyeverafter.com and prevention education adviser to JCW.
When our kids are very young, it’s often easier to control who they play with and what they’re doing. As they grow up, we often question when to let go or what types of relationships are safe or healthy. A recent question from a concerned parent prompted this article:
Q. My son (“Child A”,) is quite friendly with another boy (“Child B”) who is the same age. Unfortunately, we have learned that his friend had been molested and is now in therapy. We’ve also learned that this abused boy had, himself, abused a younger child. I would rather not stop the friendship because my son is one of Child B’s only friends, but I also do not want to put my son’s safety in jeopardy. They only play together under our roof, with my close supervision. Am I putting my son in danger and how should we be handling this relationship safely?
A. This is such an important question and I commend this parent for not wanting to demonize a victimized child while at the same time recognizing the importance of maintaining a safe boundary for her own son.
There are a couple of different issues here that must be addressed. The first being that this victimized child needs to be supported so that he can heal, which essentially is a much safer way to keep him from repeating his abuse on others. Imagine if the victim was your child… would you want him to have no friends and be ostracized? If we shun Child B from friends and support, we are virtually guaranteeing that he will grow up and have serious issues with others, including possibly repeating the patterns of abuse he, himself, was subjected to.
However, as a parent, you cannot just blindly cross your fingers and hope that nothing else will happen.
A step by step solution.
1) These two friends should continue to socialize, but strictly, under the Parent A’s close supervision. This means they continue to play in an open and observable environment… a living room for example and definitely never behind any closed doors in a bedroom, den, etc. Parent A should check in often and see what kind of play they are engaging in. Making your presence known frequently is a good deterrent for any kind of inappropriate possibilities.
2) I would not allow any technology or computer time when they are together, as it would be far too easy to start sharing inappropriate pictures and content, even in an open environment. So… NO computers or cell phone play!
3) I’d also have a heart to heart talk with the victimized child’s parents. Let them know you want to support their family and not stop the friendship, but that you are insisting on very specific boundaries including… no sleepovers, no alone time, no wrestling, horseplay, etc. The parents of Child B should have their own specific talk with their son, privately, to go over the boundaries for when he is playing with his friend(s).
Child B should not be shamed for being victimized, but he does need clear & specific guidance in respecting appropriate boundaries with other children. He should be told that the abuse he suffered was not his fault, but that everyone wants to make sure that neither he nor any other child has to repeat this inappropriate behavior.
You are actually doing the abused child a great service by helping him learn to socialize in a safe way and addressing the issue clearly.
4) As far as Child A having a friendly relationship with the abused child: his own parents should have an open and honest discussion about safe touches among friends “now that he is a teenager.” Approach it in this way without disclosing information about what has transpired in the past with Child B.
Child A’s parents can remind him that as puberty approaches, it’s important to understand changes that all teens will go through and that everyone has the right to their privacy and to be respected especially when it comes to their sexuality or certain kinds of touches.
Make no mistake, this will probably be a “squirmy conversation.” Teenaged boys are not fond of talking about this kind of thing with their parents so expect the eye-rolling and groans of “oooohhhhh pleeeeaze….”
What YOU should say to your son: “I know this is a “squirmy topic” but we have to cover it anyway.”
Use a warm smile and then state your facts. The best way to get a teen to listen to you is to first acknowledge that you know where they’re coming from!
5) Most importantly, be sure to look your son right in the eye and tell him: “No one has any right to make you feel uncomfortable about your body or any kind of touches… not friends, relatives, or even teachers & coaches. If you get an uh-oh feeling about someone, please tell us and remember that no matter what, we will always have your back, even with the most uncomfortable topics!”
Parents often think their kids already know this… but they don’t. Kids need to hear this loud and clear from their parents (don’t assume!).
Important Note: IF your son comes right out and asks you if something has happened to his friend… (for any reason, including the possibility that maybe Child B felt safe enough to talk about it), only then would I recommend sharing the details of the abuse and subsequent behaviors, other abuse, and therapy. But for now, keep the dialog specific as to what is OK/NOT OK, without making things seem weird or yucky about his friend.
Finally, since they are going to be friends at the moment, it’s really going to be Parent A’s full time job to ensure a safe environment for their child… meaning the only way to really do this is for close supervision and monitoring. All interactions should be at Parent A’s home while they’re there! For now, I wouldn’t allow your son to visit the other child’s home. There simply is no way to insure that environment will be monitored or protected.
And this… is for the benefit of both of these children.
For more information or assistance, contact Pattie Fitzgerald at www.safelyeverafter.com