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In light of recent events—including the video of Ravens player Ray Rice punching his wife and the child abuse indictment against Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, not to mention domestic violence reports about Jonathan Dwyer of the Arizona Cardinals and Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers—it's clear that abuse is often hiding in plain sight.
Abuse is a real and serious issue and it starts with adults. Our children see the news and often read the newspapers, but do they really know what's going on? This is a teachable moment of epic proportions. If nothing else, it opens the discussion across the country about what constitutes domestic violence, and it also raises awareness of the negative and long-term ramifications surrounding abuse. These particular cases show that even sports heroes are held accountable for their actions.
Here are five ways parents can speak to their children when they are confronted with questions about these horrific events.
Consider the child’s age and give age-appropriate information: It is our responsibility as parents to put the world into context for our children. As much as we would like to protect them from the harsh realities of life, it is unrealistic in this day and age. Parents should give age-appropriate information. If your child is very young, try to minimize his or her exposure to the media. For older kids, this is a great opportunity to teach family values. Although everyone has a different points of view, it's acceptable to say, "In our family, we believe that it's never OK to hurt someone out of anger."
Answer questions and clarify any misconceptions: Children are intuitive and perceptive. Depending on their age, children may falsely think that all NFL football players are abusers. Sadly, child abuse occurs throughout the country regardless of race, geography or socioeconomic background. Abuse can happen to all kinds of kids, and it can happen anywhere—at home, school, daycare or the playground. An adult who hurts a child needs special help to stop the abusing. Begin by asking your child what he or she has heard. You can say, "A lot of people are talking about what's been happening in the news,” then ask your child what he or she has heard. Begin to offer age-appropriate information, answer questions and clarify misconceptions.
Listen to your children: Validate your child's feelings, even if you disagree. It's important to not dismiss or minimize what your child is feeling. Create an environment in your home where kids feel comfortable expressing their feelings without judgment. What are their concerns? Acknowledge and support their perspective, as this will build trust and a connection between parent and child. Then you can make an assessment and move forward with your discussion. Honest and open communication is key. As Mr. Rogers of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" always said, “What is mentionable is manageable,” and it still holds true today. Remember that abusing a child only teaches them to fear the parent. It is never an acceptable form of discipline.
Provide reassurance: Explain that most adults really care about kids and never hurt them. When it happens, it's hard to believe that someone you love or look up to, or someone who is nice, can hurt you or other kids. An adult who hurts children or women has a problem and needs to get help to stop. Make sure kids know that children don’t cause child abuse. It’s an adult problem, and if they are being hurt, they need to tell someone they trust and never keep it a secret, even if the person hurting you tells you that something bad is going to happen if you tell. Above all, no matter what, it is NEVER the child's fault. All kids deserve to have adults in their lives who love and support them as they grow up.
Teach: Live by example and let your children know that it's never OK to bully or hurt someone to make yourself feel better or to get your own way. Model the desired behavior you would like from your child. Help them to express their emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Remember, how you treat your children is how they will treat themselves.
Denise Daniels holds a master’s degree in pediatric nursing and psychology and is an award-winning broadcast journalist, author and child development authority.