Raising Resilient Children and Protecting Them From Child Sexual Exploitation

By Dr Clare Bailey, GP, Parenting Specialist and creator of Parenting Matters Online

All doctors have patients that haunt them, where they feel they could have done more. Fifteen years ago I saw a distraught mother whose 15 year old daughter’s behaviour had changed. She had become secretive and defensive, taken to staying out overnight during the week. Then she disappeared for the weekend, after being seen getting into a smart car with a couple of older men. The police were involved and she was found at a local hotel, but refused to come home, so no action was taken.

I reassured the mother that with the police involved her daughter would be protected and the men who were abusing her prosecuted. I didn’t see her again and so I don’t know what happened. But in the light of what happened in places like Rochdale and Oxford, I fear that very little was done.

Since then, as a mother of four, I have acquired expertise in teaching parenting skills and also trained in safeguarding children. I am more aware of the threat, but also of what parents can do to help protect their child from exploitation.

Child sexual exploitation is when children are sexually exploited for money, power or status. Children (as young as 10) or young people may be tricked into believing they're in a loving, consensual relationship. They might be invited to parties and given drugs and alcohol.

It often goes something like this - The predator makes the child feel valued and loved. He is older and more sophisticated. He tells them that he understands them better than anyone. Perhaps he gives them cigarettes, drugs and alcohol and makes them feel important. He charms them and gains their trust. Then he makes the child do things they don’t want to – because they owe him.  And if they don’t, he hurts them.

There are manuals that share, in gruesome detail, how to gain a child’s trust and groom them.

The children who are most vulnerable tend to be those with low self-esteem and who are perhaps not getting the warmth and involvement they need at home. They may respond to attention and ‘love’ from elsewhere. Children from families who have few boundaries at home, or difficulty in maintaining them, are at greater risk, perhaps by allowing a child to stay out excessively late or sleep over at ‘a friend’s’ without knowing who they are with.

How can parents raise a resilient child, one who can make better choices? Or know if their child is at risk? Teenagers can be a mystery and it’s often hard to know what’s ‘normal’. Their mood can change instantly. They retire to their bedroom, become secretive, spend many of their waking hours on phones and devices, communication is no longer transparent, you don’t necessarily talk to or meet their friends and to make it harder, this generation has unsupervised electronic access to the world in a way no generation has had before…No wonder parents are worried and often feel at a loss as to how to protect their sons and daughters (see links below for more information).

Parenting is a balance of Love (sensitive care, involvement, appreciation) and Limits (opportunities to make choices and work things out for themselves, within clear boundaries which are calmly enforced).

Start early to build solid foundations. Finding ways to enjoy time together and show them they are loved – And it’s never too late to rebuild relationships. Engaging with the small but important things in a child’s life; joining in with their games, interests and activities makes them feel valued. Even 10 minutes a day of undivided attention, sharing and something interesting or fun together, following their lead makes a difference. This often gets harder as they get older and their friends become a more powerful influence. But it also becomes more important to maintain that vital connection.

Teaching children to accept a few important limits from a young age, and having a structure around them helps them feel secure and reduces confrontation. As they get become more independent there is then room to re-negotiate these boundaries.

They need to be able to make their own mistakes under a watchful eye, without blame or criticism. This is hard to do as we hate to see them struggle. Yet managing these small challenges for themselves is what helps them grow more confident in making positive choices and in resisting temptation.

As they get older talk to them about risks, about values. Even more important, they need to know their views and feelings are listened to and acknowledged – keeping communication lines open is key and works both ways. You can’t protect them from what you don’t know about.

It is a matter of combining love and limits -  And you need both.

A parent told me recently that her 13 year old daughter had asked to have her nails done. Mum’s initial reaction was no, wait till you are older. But after discussion and relieved it was not a tattoo, her dad took her. She was delighted and they had a lovely afternoon together. Inevitably she found the long nails awkward and said next time she would choose shorter ones... learning to make better choices and also building important relationships. This may seem trivial but it is often these small things that matter.

And next time she is more likely to go to her parents first, to respect their decision and hopefully less likely to need to seek affirmation elsewhere.

Understanding and awareness of Child Sexual Exploitation is far greater than it was. And thankfully professionals are better educated. We are more alert, proactive and I hope better able to identify and support those at risk. In addition, with better parenting support we can help to give our children the love and the limits they need, and also the good judgement and confidence to immunise them as much as possible against being vulnerable to exploitation.

Just as professionals need to use their individual instincts and judgements as to when to take action. The same applies to parents. To help parents raise resilient children I am working with Professor Stephen Scott to develop an accessible online parenting course, Parenting Matters Online, due for launch later in the year.

If you have concerns, seek advice.  Visit http://www.barnardos.org.uk/barnardos_be_safe_guide.pdf

Or for simple conversations to keep your child safe go to https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/underwear-rule/