Perhaps you, like me, have childhood memories of being relegated to a basement room to watch a movie with all the other kids during holiday parties. For the most part, this wasn’t a bad deal. Your parents got to whoop it up with their friends upstairs while you got to eat cookies and popcorn and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Between the noise from the movie and the loud Christmas music playing upstairs, you were in a tight spot if you needed to get your parents’ attention. No big deal, right?
In today’s world, however, after our collective eyes have been opened to the realities and horror of childhood sexual abuse, this scenario is (hopefully) becoming extinct. Overall this is a good thing. It’s not as if bad things didn’t happen when we were children at those holiday parties. It’s that we as a society weren’t as aware of how these bad things happen. We certainly weren’t aware of the prevalence of sexual abuse, even in supposedly safe places like church.
Studies by David Finkelhor, the Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, indicate that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. According to the Department of Justice, the vast majority of child victims of sexual assault know their perpetrators. Of the assaults reported to authorities, only seven percent of the perpetrators are strangers to the child while 59 percent are acquaintances and 34 percent are family members.
The sad reality is that while the Christmas season is a wonderful time to catch up with old friends and your relatives, holiday parties and family get-togethers are sometimes optimal places for abuse to occur. Not to mention all the extra public outings that get thrown into your family’s normal schedule. Trips to the mall, recitals, etc.—while fun and potentially safe for your kids—should also be treated with care and perhaps a little extra diligence on your part. Instead of scaring you into not going anywhere this Christmas season, though, the aim of this article is to help you and your family utilize practices that will keep everyone as safe as possible. (I am indebted to Pattie Fitzgerald, whose blog SafelyEverAfter.com is the source for many of the tips below.)
Tips to Keep Your Children Safe at Holiday Parties and Other Outings
Set expectations beforehand – Have conversations with your children before going to a party or on an outing so they know what the rules are (a good place to start is here). You may also want to implement what Fitzgerald calls the “two giant steps rule” for your younger children. IE: they need to be within two giant steps of you at all times in the mall, at the party, etc. You also want to make sure your children know your cell phone number, especially if you are going to an event with a lot of people and the potential of being separated from you is present. If necessary, write your cell phone down on a piece of paper and put it in your child’s pocket. Additionally, tell your child if they do get separated to find a mom with kids (be sure to specify this point) to ask for help.
Be careful with drinks – Remind your kids that they shouldn’t drink out of any cup or container except the one you’ve given them. Sometimes children unwittingly consume things (like alcohol) at parties because they lose track of their own cup or get curious about the special drinks the adults may be drinking.
Avoid leaving kids alone in a room – As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, sometimes children get shuffled off to a room in the house with little to no parental supervision. While this may seem ok, keep in mind that older children can be perpetrators of sexual assault. And, as demonstrated by the statistics above, it shouldn’t lower your sense of caution if your child knows all the other children in the room. It’s perfectly fine to hang out with your kids in the movie room if need be, or check in on them regularly. Additionally, insist on the door remaining open if kids are in a designated kids’ room.
Don’t force hugs or kisses – Oftentimes with family gatherings, children are told to “Go give Uncle Sam a hug,” or something similar. If your child doesn’t want to, don’t force him or her. A big part of training your children how to spot potential predators is to teach them to trust their intuition about certain people. If you force them to hug someone they feel uncomfortable around, you’re essentially teaching them to ignore the red flag they’re feeling. If a relative insists on receiving a hug or kiss from your child, stand up for him or her, saying something like “She doesn’t feel like hugging right now. That’s ok. Please respect her boundaries.”
Using public restrooms – If your child of an opposite gender has to use the restroom at a mall or store (and they are too old to accompany you to your assigned restroom), stand outside the entrance and wait for them. When they enter the restroom, call after them (loudly) “I’ll be waiting right here for you.” According to Fitzgerald, this sends any potential nefarious people in the bathroom the message that your child is being watched. If you feel your child is taking too long, don’t hesitate to call for them or walk into the bathroom if you don’t hear a response. (It’s also a good idea to give your children a heads up before going in to the bathroom that you will be calling if they take too long and to ask them to respond right away if they are fine.)
While these tips are just meant to be guidelines during the holiday season when you are likely going out more than you do the rest of the year, the best thing you can do to protect your children throughout the year is talking to your children about sexual abuse and safety. This really is best done as an ongoing conversation that evolves as your child grows. Arguably the best defense a child has against sexual predation is a healthy relationship with a parent or trusted adult. Again, the point is not to scare you but rather to equip you with the information you need to keep your children safe.