Helping parents talk safety with their kids

. Croix County Investigator Brandie Hart is all too familiar with how children can be victimized in her role as the chief investigator of child and sexual abuse for the sheriff’s office.

She is also always on the lookout for ways to prevent abuse and empower parents to protect their children against predators.

A year ago, Hart attended “Investigation and Prosecution of Child Abuse”, a training put on by the National Child Protection Training Center.  At that training, Alison Feigh, who is program manager with the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and the NCPTC, was a presenter on “Minnesota Cases: Learning from the Past.”

“One the pieces Alison talked about was having Family Safety Nights as an activity to do in your own home to generate conversations on aspects of personal safety and to have “what if?” conversations in a non-threatening setting.  Shortly after that conference, my first-grader (at the time) brought home a notice from Starr Elementary Guidance Counselor Lauren Glinksy which notified parents that October was the time of year the guidance staff taught personal safety lessons to the elementary students in our district.”

Hart contacted Glinksy about the curriculum and explained her  personal and professional connection to child safety. “I  told her about the training I’d received the month before from NCPTC and she thought it would be awesome if we could hold a Family Safety Night in the district for families.”

Hart said the district agreed to hold the Family Safety Night and Feigh agreed to present.

With support from a number of public safety agencies and area businesses, the night was designed for families. While their parents listened to Feigh’s presentation, the children got to learn about the difference between play guns and real ones, bike safety, and how much pills and medication can look like candy. They also got the chance to get up close and personal with police officers, first responders and firefighters.

Feigh told their parents that she knew firsthand about one of the most frightening cases of child abduction in the country — that of Jacob Wetterling who was taken by a stranger 26 years ago. She was a classmate of Wetterling in St. Joseph, Minn., and said it took her a long time to “get her mind around the fact that he was gone and we didn’t know where he was.”

Feigh was in the news last week as new information about Wetterling’s abduction was released, using the media attention to the case to reiterate the importance of talking to children about safety like she did in New Richmond Oct. 27.

Feigh told parents that “it is a kid’s job to be a kid and a grown-up’s job to keep kids safe.”

She said one important way to do that is to have “family safety talks” regularly and often with children.

“Personal safety is just like every other kind of safety. You need to have a plan of where you will meet if there is a fire at your house or there’s a storm and your kids need to know you family rules and  what to do if someone tries to get them to break your family rules.”

Feigh says safety doesn’t have to be frightening and the best way to accomplish that is to talk about it openly and often. She says fear freezes us and education about the right thing to do moves us to act.

Feigh says kids, like adults, often get what she calls an “oh-oh feeling” when something feels wrong. “They need to know you always want to hear about it. And that is never something to keep a secret no matter what anyone says to them.”

Feigh said “what if” games are great ways to reach children. She suggests using examples of situations that might come up and keeping it conversational rather than making it a lecture.

She suggests telling children to take “two steps back” from any person who gives them a funny feeling or asks them to break any of the family safety rules. That’s two physical steps back.

“It is hard to think and move when someone is in your space. Taking two big steps back breaks that bond. Then they can say I need to check with the person taking care of me and move away from the situation.”

Feigh said if someone online makes a child uncomfortable, children have told her they close their eyes and move away from the computer to get the same distance. “Kids get it when you talk with them about it and sometimes they have the best solutions.”

Children need to know they always have the right to say no to an adult if that adult wants them to break a family rule or gives them an uneasy feeling, and they always should tell an adult. “They need to understand that the ‘oh-oh’ feeling can keep them safe.”

Feigh says things do get more complicated as children enter their pre-teen and teen years. It is their job at that age to test boundaries, seek acceptance while at the same time feel invincible. It is also a time for bad decisionmaking, lack of self-esteem and changes in their bodies which are both exciting and confusing.

“Their brains aren’t done yet. In fact the last part of the brain that develops is that part that asks ‘is this a good idea?’”

Feigh told parents that their children will make bad choices and mistakes along the way, some more serious than others but it is important to let them know that they can get past those mistakes with the help of the adults who they trust and who love them.

She told parents about an eighth grade girl who told her she had sent an inappropriate picture of herself to a boyfriend. She had heard all the talk that once something like that is on the Internet, it can never be taken back and that it could ruin your life. She asked Feigh, “So am I done for the rest of my life?”

Feigh told the girl no, she was not done because of one mistake as a teenager. “There is nothing that goes on in the online world that can’t be handled in the real world with people who care about you.”

Feigh said no parent should be too surprised if teenagers make some foolish mistakes. “It’s the parents’ job to convert the mistakes into learning opportunities by making sure that our kids deal with the consequences.”

She used the example of a young person who used social media to complain about a boss. She loses her job and the information is out there available to a possible new employer.

“It goes like this — you acknowledge what you did and that you learned from the mistake and tell them to check from that date on. They will not find another incident anywhere. That’s taking responsibility and moving on.”

Feigh said online predators are very clear on who they target. “Kids are lured by attention and affection and are particularly vulnerable between the ages of 13-15. Predators said they target any child who is willing to talk about sex online and anyone who exhibits neediness, either in the social media postings or references to sad songs or poems. Those are the kids they zero in on.”

Feigh suggested that parents help their children identify five adults they trust and are comfortable talking to about anything as their safety net. “Someone they can go to if for some reason they can’t go to you or aren’t comfortable going to you.” She also suggested that parents think about five children they could be a safety net for.

“No kid is an island. If your dining room table is the one the kids end up hanging out at, then go with that and be that person, just like you want for your own kids.”

Feigh suggests that family safety nights happen at least twice a year — at the beginning of the school year and at the end. Include everything from bus safety to helmets to the Internet, a family password and the “oh-oh” things.

“Talking about sex and inappropriate touching can be uncomfortable. Let them know that you understand that. But the rule is you come to us and tell us or one of your five adults. You don’t have ‘the talk’ — you have lots of little talks. You don’t have to cover everything all at once.

And let children know that even if they don’t do the right thing, don’t take those steps back or didn’t yell or run, it isn’t their fault. “They may feel that because they didn’t do the right thing at the time, that they can’t tell you. They need to understand that they can always tell you anything.”

Feigh is the author of several books about child safety including “I Can Play It Safe,” that were available to all the adults who attended the evening free of charge as a result of community donations.