Almost every year when the weather here in the Northeast is warm, e-mails seem to circulate about a mysterious white van whose occupant stops to talk to neighborhood tweens.
On occasion, the accounts make the local paper. In talking with many parents across the country I was surprised to hear that many of them also have tales to tell about white van sightings -- aka ‘the abduction mobile.’
It leaves a parent to wonder if the white van is simply an urban legend.
In reality whether child molesters utilize white vans or not is really not the issue. The white van represents control, a way for parents to create a profile to pass on to their kids about red flags for child molesters.
It is indeed understandable. It is important, however, to prepare our kids by being aware of the facts.
Research reflects that in the majority of child abductions and/or sexual abuse cases, the child actually knows their abductor.
Even more often the perpetrator is someone close to him/her in their life.
In many cases, the abuser has groomed the victim to trust them. And yes, the majority of perpetrators are indeed male, though there are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Tweens and young teens, both boys and girls, are particularly vulnerable to victimization.
The reason this age group is so susceptible is actually quite logical. Tweens are aged between 8-12.
Boys typically lag two years behind girls in their physical, emotional and social development. Tweenhood is marked by rapid developmental changes, which literally propel kids into their teens.
During this time kids begin to become more autonomous and independent. It is during the tween years that parents in turn encourage their children’s autonomy by allowing them to take on this independence.
While a parent may accompany younger children to the school or bus stop, by the time kids reach middle school it is not uncommon to let them walk on their own, perhaps with a group of friends.
Tweens have growing brains. The older they get the more competent and confident they feel especially about the ability to take care of themselves. The problem is that in many ways they are still children and naivete can go hand-in-hand with a false sense of confidence.
Predators know this. Unfortunately pedophiles are often professionals at their ‘craft.’ They specialize in winning the trust and comfort of their victims. We know that they often take time to ‘groom’ their victims in a stepwise process.
People such as John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted have done much to introduce ‘stranger danger’ programs and curriculum into our schools.
Children are now routinely taught that a ‘stranger’ is not necessarily someone who is scary looking or mean.
So how can parents strike a balance between educating and empowering their kids without making them feel scared and skittish? The answer is in teaching our tweens what types of behaviors to be wary of instead of whom to look for.
Signs to look for:
An adult in your tween’s life who takes a particular interest in your tween. Often this starts off with small favors for the child and/or gifts. Over time the amount of attention increases, as do the gifts. Kids are often told by the predators grooming them not tell their parents about the gifts. If you suddenly find your tween in possession of new clothes, gadgets, etc. talk with him about it immediately.
Predators find excuses to spend time with your tween alone. It can start off as something small such as offering a ride or working on a particular skill with your tween. You avoid this situation by insisting that you will be present on occasion and making it clear that you will be randomly popping in.
If you notice that your tween looks upset or sullen after meeting with this individual check in with her. Look for behavior changes such as disinterest in activities she previously enjoyed; lack of interest in friends or being with family and changes in clothing. For example, sometimes kids who are being sexually abused will wear layers of clothing as if to cover up. Changes in appetite are common; eating too much or too little, as are a noticeable decline in academics and/or increase in acting out behaviors at home or at school. It is important to note that these may be signs and symptoms of depression and/or a mood disorder, as well. It is important to be aware that these are common red flags that something is not as it should be with your tween
Related: 5 Concerning Tween Trends
Have your tween text or call whenever she is accepting a ride from someone. If the person protests to this at all, this might be a red flag. Even if she has no cell service tell her to act like she is calling you. If she is the only one who would be in the car and it is a neighbor or parent of a friend she really doesn’t know, tell her to politely decline.
Research indicates that kids who walk in groups of at least three are less vulnerable to abduction. Ensure that your tween and her friends make this a regular practice.
Avoid allowing tutors, music teachers, etc. in your home alone with your tween. If your tween goes to the instructor’s home or private office be sure to accompany him. It’s okay to step out and do an errand, just make it clear you will be right back.
Worried that your tween is vulnerable? Get together with a trusted friend or neighbor and set up a test. If for example, your tween doesn’t know your friend’s husband or older son that well, ask him if he would be willing to participate. Ask him to offer a ride to your tween and see if your tween follows protocol. It might sound a bit over the top, but it is an effective prevention.
Check in with your tween often. Know where he is and with whom.
While it is true that the majority of predators are male, there have been numerous abduction cases in which victims were lured by a predator’s girlfriend, wife, or even other children. Talk with your tween; make sure he is aware of this. Also, be sure your sons are aware that they are also vulnerable. While statistics indicate that girls are victimized more often, young males are at risk, as well.
If you are in a particularly vulnerable situation, (e.g. recently separated, divorced or widowed), now is the time to be particularly wary. Unfortunately predators are often well versed at picking the most vulnerable victims.
We live in a complicated world. Stories of victimization such as Jaycee Dugard, Elisabeth Smart and the victims of Jerry Sandusky are a reminder that we live in times where we need to strike the balance between prevention and paranoia.
We can all agree we are always better off being safe rather than sorry when it comes to our kids A double dose of caution never hurt anyone, but it could indeed protect your tween.
How will you teach your kids about independence and safety?
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Jennifer Powell-Lunder and Barbara Greenberg are authors of the hit book, "Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual." They've set up an interactive website for parents and teens to listen, learn and discuss hot topics and daily dilemmas. You can find it at www.talkingteenage.com.