Trigger warning: Please note that the following blog may elicit difficult or uncomfortable emotions for some individuals.
The barn should be a safe place and a sanctuary for children and teens. A place to learn and grow, surrounded by people with the best intentions. While there are so many opportunities to tap into bravery, become a more responsible person, and to develop deeper friendships, it may also be a place where someone who appears to have your child’s best interest in mind, has more deviant intentions. Heartbreakingly, some estimates suggest that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. With that, 9 out of 10 times, the child knows their abuser. When it comes to sexual abuse, oftentimes the perpetrator is someone the child knows and trusts. As parents, you cannot always be with your child to keep them safe. However, you can provide them with education and tools they need to protect themselves.
It Is Never too Early to Start Talking to your Child About Body Safety
There are many books and resources that can help facilitate this discussion. For younger children, “I Said No! A Kid-to-kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private” by Kimberly King is a great book to begin these conversations. Starting the conversation while your children are young allows for you to keep the lines of communication open all throughout adolescence as well. When your child asks you questions, be open and honest in an age appropriate way.
What are Boundaries and How do You Keep Them?
Within the conversation on body safety, it’s also important to highlight what boundaries are and how to enforce them. First, you can discuss with your child or teen that boundaries help us stay within our comfort zone, but also set expectations for how we would like others to treat us. It may be helpful for you to provide an example of one of your own boundaries to your child. For example, it might be okay for you as the parent to help your child get dressed for the horse show but, it would be crossing a boundary if a coach or another barn staff member offered or attempted to help.
It’s Okay to Say “No” to Adults
Growing up, children are taught to respect adults, and especially adults in authority, such as a coach. It can feel difficult for children and teens to practice assertiveness, especially if this coach is a person whom they believe has their best interest in mind. For example, your child or teen might feel uncomfortable saying “no” to a coach if the coach is doing or saying something that feels off-putting to your child. Educating your child and having them practice assertiveness at home may help them feel empowered to put these into play when they are faced with an uncomfortable situation at the barn (or anywhere else).
Intentionally Deceitful People
Informing your child that there are people in this world that do not always have the best intentions is important. Sometimes child abusers make situations look coincidental. For example, they may manipulate a situation to end up alone with the child. This may appear to be coincidental for your child when in reality, it was planned out. Let them know that if the situation appears to be off putting, they should absolutely listen to their gut. This may look like a trainer ending up alone in the same car on the way to the horse show. While this may appear to be innocent, it creates a situation in which boundaries may be easily crossed as there is no one else around.
Know the Signs of Grooming
Equestrian sports can often be very independent as a trainer (or other barn staff) may work closely with child and teen athletes. Because of this dynamic, it is important to be educated on what grooming is. Grooming is when a child predator lures a child or teen by gaining their trust, beginning the abuse, and keeping the abuse a secret. An abuser may purchase gifts or do special things for a child. As previously mentioned, they will also find opportunities to get the child alone. The abuser may then also begin touching the child or teen “innocently” at first by acting playful or giving hugs. This is typically used to desensitize the child before the sexual touching begins. Once the sexual abuse occurs, abusers may use threats or guilt the child or teen into keeping it a secret. For example, an abuser may say, “If you tell your parents, you will lose everything you have worked for and will no longer advance in this sport. Everything will be taken from you.” This keeps the child or teen from disclosing the abuse out of fear, allowing the abuse to continue.
Grooming may also entail abusers convincing children or teens that the sexual relationship is “consensual.” The abuser may tell the teen that they will be leaving their partner for them and then the abuser and teen can “finally” be a couple. It is essential to inform your children and teens that any relationship with an adult is illegal and under no circumstance could the relationship be considered consensual.
You cannot be there to protect your child at all times, but you can provide them with the tools and education to keep themselves safe. Remember to always keep the lines of communication with your children open and provide a space for them to ask questions and receive non judgmental feedback.
Written by Lisa Weiss, MSW, LCSW
Lisa is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children, teens and adults. Lisa provides her clients with the skills to overcome traumatic events such as equestrian-related injuries, pregnancy loss and sexual assault. In session, Lisa incorporates her training in EMDR, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as well as mindfulness.