Thursday, September 10, 2015

Warning Signs In Potential Abusers

A potential abuser is someone who either may be abusing a child, or may be at risk for abusing a child, but you do not yet know one way or the other. I got the inspiration for this post from Stop It Now, so, of course, I am borrowing some of their information and questions. As always, I come up with my own answers based on their ideas. This is a list of things to watch for in any adults who work with children, based on my own experience with abuse. This list is in no particular order, and any one of these things can mean nothing. 

The List

  1. Evidences cognitive distortions
    1.  A cognitive distortion is essentially a belief or thought process that does not add up. These are typically thoughts, but can be evidenced by something someone says or does. This feeds more into gut feeling: That someone says or does things that just seem off. One example might be someone who makes arguments that are worded unusually or have conclusions that are at odds with the overall argument. Things that they say or do just do not follow.
  2.  Ignoring Boundaries
    1. This may seem self-explanatory, but sometimes people are just unable to respect someone else’s wishes. They may violate social boundaries, like doing things that are socially unacceptable. They may violate emotional boundaries, like saying things to hurt other people and not seeming to care that they are causing emotional pain. They may violate physical boundaries, like touching, slapping, or poking when someone is telling them not to.
  3. Ignoring A Child’s Wishes
    1. Like the first behavior, but for children. The person may hug, tickle, kiss, roughhouse, hold, or touch a child when the child says they do not want to. Disrespecting a child’s wishes can be a way of testing the child’s boundaries to desensitize the child to other boundary-crossing behaviors or sexual behaviors.
  4. Refusing To Let Children Set Or Keep Boundaries
    1. Similar to ignoring a child’s wishes, but this can be done in a way that seems innocent (Joe, you will hurt my feelings if you don’t give me a hug and kiss) or in ways that are teasing, belittling, or bullying a child when the child tries to assert their boundaries.
  5. Using A Child For Emotional Support
    1. Children are not capable of handling adult concerns, and an adult who tries to sooth their frustrations or concerns by sharing them with a child may be having difficulty with something that is going on in their life. Normally, these concerns are issues that would ordinarily be shared with adults like personal, financial, confidential, or other kinds of activities and concerns that seem odd to share with a child.
  6. Using A Child For Physical Comfort
    1. This may be as seemingly innocent as requiring hugs from children to “get through a rough spot”, or snuggling with a child. It could also be something more upsetting, like having the child give massages, demanding kisses, or other odd behavior.
  7. Situational Obliviousness
    1. Sometimes, the person may say or do things that do not fit the situation (and not for comedy’s sake). They may say something that is insulting to others and not realize it, or ignores the social cues in a situation. A common thought might be, “They’re just not getting it.”
  8. Using Sexual Language Around Children
    1. This can take many forms, like telling a dirty joke when children are around, saying something that would be considered flirting if it were an adult being spoken to, or sharing a personal sexual issue with a child. This can also be pointing out sexual images to children.
  9. Secrets And Secretive Behavior
    1. This can also take many forms. Some examples might be sharing a game, sexual material, drugs, or alcohol with a child and asking them not to tell anyone about it. This can also be someone who texts, calls, emails, chats, or spends an excessive amount of one-on-one time with a child. Red flag words might be “Hush, that’s our little secret,” or “That’s our private time, no one needs to know about that.”
  10. Making Excuses For No Apparent Reason
    1. This usually comes with your reaction of, “Dude, you don’t have to justify yourself to me, I get it.” Or, something like, “Yeah, you did it, you know you did it, just apologize already.” Someone who justifies their behavior constantly, or defends choices that are clearly harmful to other people, or outright denies that something was harmful at all would fall under this category.
  11. Insisting On Alone Time With A Child
    1. Seeking time alone with a child may be natural, healthy thing within a family, but if someone inside or outside the family insists on being alone with a particular child, this can be cause for concern. Unusual amounts of time alone, unusual interest in a particular child, or that the time alone is uninterrupted or uninterruptible are also causes for concern. Another aspect of this is spending lots of time with children rather than adults.
  12. Drug Or Alcohol Abuse
    1. Many people do inappropriate things under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and while they are responsible for their behavior regardless, drug or alcohol use can be a sign that someone is unable to cope with the stresses of daily life. This is a warning behavior that may need an intervention at the direction of a professional trained in chemical dependency.
  13. Being Interested In A Child’s Sexuality
    1. This goes beyond simple concern that one might have for a child’s well-being, like inquiring about who a child likes or directing them to resources if they are struggling with particular issues. Concerning behaviors might be someone who interrupts a child’s dates with the child’s peer, interfering when the child dates others, or talking about the child’s body and how attractive they look. Behavior would look like jealousy from an adult interested in another adult, but is directed towards a child.
  14. Disrespecting Others’ Privacy
    1. This could be obvious, such as walking in on children or others when they are using the bathroom, but may be less obvious like peeking when no one appears to be watching or insisting on helping a child bathe or clothe themselves.
  15. Frequently Ignoring A Child’s Inappropriate Behaviors
    1. The person might turn a blind eye to a child’s behaviors when those behaviors are clearly problematic, or they might even encourage these behaviors. Allowing a child to violate other children’s boundaries, encouraging a child to be sexual with other children, or allowing a child to view pornography are also examples of ignoring inappropriate behaviors.
  16. Appearing To Be An Ideal Role Model
    1. Some behaviors might be giving gifts to children, babysitting for free, giving children money, going on special alone trips with children, and overall appearing to be “too good to be true”.

Notice how most of these connect in some way to your gut reactions. Most of the time, we see something that is off and justify it. In fact, when we are driving, we are taught to do this: Oh, they must be late for work. But if you are noticing things that do not seem right, write them down. Make a list. 

You are not writing this list and looking at these warning signs so you can catch a child molester red-handed. That is the job of the police, teachers, and social workers. You are looking at this list because you are concerned, and you want to make sure everything is alright. 

How can you talk with someone you know and trust about the possibility that they are sexually attracted to children, or that they may be abusing children? Where do you start? Stop It Now has advice on that too. I also have my own suggestions for starting a conversation, and why. Stop It Now also has a hotline you can call (1-888-773-8368, M-F, 9-6 EST). 

How To Talk About It

You must start the conversation by voicing what you are seeing, and that you are concerned about them. Above anything else, they need to know that you care and you want the best for them. They need to hear that they are not alone, and that you want to help them. Minimize any aspect about child safety and emphasize that the conversation is about protecting them, period, end of sentence. Not protecting them from abuse. Not protecting them from themselves. Not protecting their favorite child. All of that may be true, but what they need is that you are there for them. If they hear that you are concerned about them hurting a child, it will end the conversation and they will not talk to you. It will immediately make you an unsafe person to talk to.

If they are dealing with attractions to children, they may, as I did, tell themselves that no one can understand them and no one will care if they knew the truth. They need that belief challenged, and you can do that by telling them, repeatedly if necessary, that you care about them. They need support, not suspicion and judgment.


If I were to write to someone I think might be dealing with attractions to children, I would write the following:

I need to talk with you. I have seen some things that I am not sure I understand, and I want to ask you about. I care about you, and I want you to know that will not change no matter what. It feels like something might be bothering you, and I want you to know I am here to help you with whatever that might be, if anything. It does not matter what the subject is, I promise to listen and hear you out.

What Is Primary Prevention?


Primary prevention is a term used by the ATSA (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers) to describe prevention that results in a person at-risk for sexually abusing a child getting help before the act can occur. Okay, I answered the question, end of blog post, right? Not quite.


Primary prevention, at its core, is different from any other prevention method currently in use. The most popular method of child abuse prevention is currently Erin's Law (website and brief biography). This prevention method involves educating children about good/bad touch, the difference between a secret and a surprise, and who to tell if someone is abusing them. In other words, the law requires teachers and educators to be aware of the above-mentioned education and teach it in an age-appropriate way to children. It also requires that parents and guardians be given information about warning signs for abuse, and resource information for victims and their families

The difference is that the expectation that children- yes, children- put this education to use, and tell a trusted adult who can intervene and report if abuse happens. It places the burden of telling on and stopping the abuse onto the child, and identifying the abuse on an adult's end once the abuse has already occurred. This method relies on being able to spot the abuse after it happens.

What Parents Are Told

Most recommendations for parents include this same information: Talk with your child, learn the warning signs, tell children the differences between what is appropriate and not appropriate, know who to trust, etc. Only recently has it become common for parenting sites and advice columns to teach the warning signs of a potential abuser. The biggest recommendation for parents, of course, is to know where registered offenders are in their area. In some cases, teachers and parents are taught that sex offenders are the people who abuse children. Not only do known/registered sex offenders make up a very low percentage of sex abuse crime, only 10% of abuse victims actually report it. Part of current prevention focuses on ensuring that children will report abuse when it happens.

Why Current Prevention Fails

All of the prevention methods discussed above are great for building a child up. It is excellent to teach a child boundaries, as Erin's Law does, because it means they will be more mentally healthy and able to stand up for themselves. I am far from convinced that this actually leads to children being able to fight off a would-be abuser. In the words of Stop It Now, "Children cannot be responsible to determine what is abusive or inappropriate." These prevention methods fail at what they are designed to do: Prevent harm from coming to children. What they do accomplish is stopping that harm where it does occur. While there is certainly value in stopping existing abuse, calling it prevention is neither accurate or wise.

Challenges to Primary Prevention

Primary prevention is a great idea: Child abuse, frankly, sucks. Children should have the right to live abuse-free lives. However, practically making primary prevention happen is extremely difficult for several reasons. The current attitudes towards sexual offenders have also been directed at and felt by true pedophiles- those with attractions to children, not just those who have harmed a child. Most sex offenders who are caught are being caught for the first time. The majority are not repeat offenders, yet parents are still being told and the government is still perpetuating the idea that sex offenders, because they are sex offenders, are dangerous to children. Even the 19-year-old sex offender who had consensual sex with a 14-year-old, someone viewing sex abuse images, or the guy that was caught urinating behind a bush.

The severe attitudes towards sexual offenders have been well-documented. Many justices have struck down residency requirements of sex offenders, and many states and cities are having discussions about how helpful it is to require all offenders in their area to be a certain distance away from schools, parks, and child care facilities. Many believe that by punishing sexual offenders, a deterrent for sexual offenses is created. However, this relies on victims in order to work. The idea behind prevention is to reduce victims.

These attitudes make it extremely difficult for anyone to seek out help, even if they want it and are concerned by their thoughts. The risk of being exposed is extremely high, and the fear of facing the attitudes towards sex offenders makes it very unlikely that someone with attractions to children or concerns about their sexual thoughts will get help.

There are also many myths regarding sex offenders that prevent otherwise rational people to concluding that help is possible for people with deviant sexual thoughts or attractions. One example the idea that all sex offenders are psychopaths with no empathy (I believe reading my blog you will find that I have empathy), or the idea that offenders cannot take responsibility, or that sex offenders cannot be cured (horrible way to put it). Then there are the stereotypes, like stranger danger, white vans, mustaches, and homeless people.

While Wikipedia has accurate information on the subjects, the myths and attitudes still persist. I believe that as long as these myths and attitudes exist, child abuse will remain a serious issue and continue to happen. In order for primary prevention to happen, people must come forward- on their own- for help, and in order for that to happen, education must be available in the right circles.