Sun, 03 Aug 2003

Cooler heads prevail in protecting kids

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Fear has descended over many households in the last few months.

A spate of child kidnappings, including several allegedly masterminded by two brothers who are believed to have sexually assaulted and murdered some of their victims, has left many parents like "Nila" watching their children's every move.

"It's just so scary to me when I hear about what happened to the victims," said the working mother of two. "I now have to know what they are doing all the time, just for my peace of mind."

Even though many media have chosen to omit some of the more sensational and gory aspects of the cases, fearing it will spur the kidnappers to more heinous acts, whip up scaremongering and lead to copycat offenders, the basic facts are sobering enough.

While the concern of parents like Nila is understandable, there is always the danger that an overreaction will transfer irrational fears about others to their children.

"No matter what, parents must stay calm and speak to their child in a child's language," noted child psychologist "Kak" Seto Mulyadi told The Jakarta Post.

Parents can instill the concept of "constant vigilance" through example, such as showing them how they lock the door at night "to keep bad people out".

The latter can be described to the children as people who force them to do something or treat them inappropriately, particularly physically.

It is also important to explain to children that such behavior is not only done by "strangers", who are believed to be responsible for about 5 percent to 10 percent of cases of sexual abuse, according to the U.S. Family Refuge center. The vast majority of cases of sexual abuse are committed by those close to the children, such as a relative, or person in authority.

In the case of the brother suspects, they lived in an area for several months and gained the trust of locals before allegedly kidnapping the children.

Children must be taught the difference between a "good" touch, such as a gentle pat on the arm, and "bad", involving body parts, such as the genitals, which are private.

Seto added that children must be told that they have the right to say no to someone if they touch them inappropriately, and shout for help if the person persists.

Parents could tell their children, "Mommy and Daddy love you, therefore we hug and cuddle you", but nobody else had that same right.

Seto said parents must always be cautious about entrusting their children's care to others, even if it is a neighbor offering to take a child to the mall unescorted. Although most sexual offenders are men, in the case of the brothers, they are suspected of using a woman to lure the children.

And the stereotype of the older, sexually frustrated pedophile on the prowl is often just that; the Family Refuge Center estimates that 40 percent of offenders are adolescents.

If a child has been assaulted, Seto said it was essential for the parents to face the situation as calmly as possible -- and consider the trauma of their son or daughter before their own pain or feelings of guilt about being "responsible".

Parents should be sympathetic to the child, telling them that they realize they have been through a terrible experience but they have now returned to their family.

Bombarding the child with questions about the assault -- or leaving them prey to those seeking to sensationalize the story -- would only do more harm than good, Seto said.

Professional counseling would also be needed in helping the child's psychological recovery.