Child sexual abuse is a crime that is as disturbing as it is destructive. The judiciary is fighting back with vigorous legislation and little success, as indicated by news of a rise in crime and the discovery of whole networks of perpetrators.
Like any bureaucracy, the judiciary will demand more staff and better access to digital underworlds based on current statistics. But what can concerned parents do? Should they put the friendly neighbors, loving babysitter, caring stepfather under general suspicion?
There is no childhood without risk, but there are ways to boost children’s self-confidence, as well as their caregivers’ awareness and protective abilities. A caring attitude that is respectful and lovingly related to the well-being of the child creates the best guarantee that a child will resist unpleasant approaches and talk about the experience early on.
Conversely, where children must have the impression that their parents are disinterested in their feelings, they would find them annoying, even disgusting, the danger also increases. The neglected, attention-starving child is not just easy prey for the pedophile’s offers. It is also difficult to talk about what has happened, to show wounds, to get help.
A child whose feelings and desires are mirrored makes an experience that is central to its mental health: it learns to trust its own body and its messages. Parents who do not want to optimize and normalize their child, who watch and accompany them as they grow and learn, support the elementary autonomy and defensiveness that makes the pedophile soul catcher’s job more difficult.
Adults who are at peace with themselves and their sexuality and appreciate the joys of mutual eroticism are unlikely to assault children. This is mainly done by people with limited self-esteem who have not been able to develop a positive image of a sexuality carried out by two equals with equal power.
For them, the innocent, dependent child who is completely at their mercy acquires a magical attraction. In many cases, the perpetrator projects his own desires into his victim and ultimately believes that the victim wanted what he did to him.
The most important early warning system are parents and educators who are very interested in the experiences of the children entrusted to them and who create as few taboo zones as possible in contact and dialogue. This creates a climate in which dangers and damage are not only recognized early, but can also heal well.
If a small child is punished for playing doctor with peers, those responsible should not be surprised that it later conceals sexual abuse. Not control, but joy in a tenderness carried by empathy are the most effective counter-forces.
A child has fine antennae for whether the adults can empathize and try to put themselves in their place, or whether they are primarily concerned that things work without problems, that they can be cleaned quickly, eat properly and pay attention at school.
The child whose need for closeness and tenderness is undersupplied will have a harder time defending itself against attacks. But be careful: there is no child strong enough to stand up to a determined perpetrator. Anyone who tactlessly blames parents, possibly without looking very closely, has no business here.
Perpetrators are often “nice” to children. They have that advantage over parents who are too stressed and self-centered to accompany their children in everyday life and not only react when they cause problems. They arouse the child’s interest, play attentively – and do not want to comply with the limit that protects the well-being of the child and inhibits the egoistic interest in sexual satisfaction.
The Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenzci distinguished the language of tenderness from the language of passion. The first language connects children and adults. The second language is only suitable for dialogue between adults. The child cannot understand them and is traumatized when encountering the rupture between the tender and the passionate aspects of the perpetrator.
Children are entrusted to our protection, but they are not our property, they are creatures with their own thoughts, fantasies, desires and even secrets. Concerned parents consider: What can I do to get my child to talk to me about something that they may be ashamed of, which, in the worst case, the perpetrator uses threats to protect themselves from disclosure?
But the question of what to do is pointing in the wrong direction. It’s not about asking particularly clever questions or offering rewards. It is about allowing openness and exchange in general.
Parents who worry and want to know exactly if someone or something could harm their children are at least saved from the most common parenting mistake: the deaf ears that are often reported and lamented by victims of abuse. The victims wanted to speak, but no one listened. They had to discover that the parents were more concerned about not getting into trouble, about not wrongly suspecting anyone than about protecting their child and investigating every suspicion.
There are no harmless criminals, but the differences in criminal energy are enormous. There is no effective protection against sophisticated sadists without a conviction in court. Other people sense temptation, seek therapeutic help, and resist it. They deserve recognition and respect.
If our neighbor at the street festival refuses the offered glass of wine and admits that he is a dry alcoholic, a sensitive host will pour him water. However, if the neighbor does not want to take care of a child and comes out as a pedophile who abstains from action, tactful dealings become much more difficult after this admission.
Although the man has shown courage and deserves a trust that he would not deserve by remaining silent about his inclinations, he has stirred fears. These are not easy to process and reveal the power of our suppression needs. This neighbor shouldn’t exist! If he had kept his mouth shut and pretended to be “normal”, then we would have preferred that in the first and possibly also the second feeling, because then our whole neighborhood would remain “normal” and we could sleep peacefully.
The alcoholic only harms himself, the pedophile endangers my child? That’s not entirely true, because families of alcoholics suffer little less from the addiction than the drinker himself. In any case, it’s not easy to take a positive view of openly stating a problem and realizing that a abstainer isn’t just an abstainer perpetrator, but a person who appeals to us to protect him and us with him.
Is he now “better” than a stranger? Or “worse” because we don’t know anything about the stability of his abstinence? These are uncertainties that we have to endure if we want to make any progress with our early warning systems.
The author works as an author and psychoanalyst in Munich; His 2008 book, He Never Talked About It. The Trauma of War and the Consequences for the Family”.