Guest post by Nicole Braddock Bromley
I am overwhelmed and pained by the stories around us of coaches and teachers grooming players and students for sexual abuse. This scenario is every parent’s nightmare and terribly devastating when it happens under the leadership of someone you trusted as a coach and/or school professional.
90% of the time, children and teens are sexually abused by someone they know.
Kids are most at risk to be abused by someone they have regular contact with like relatives, coaches, teachers, babysitters, etc..
While there is no such thing as a fool-proof warning sign, there are things parents can do and watch out for. Parents must talk with kids and teens about coaches, teachers, pastors, or other adults who show signs of sexual interest in children.
Take the time to learn the signs of grooming, and if you see them, speak up before another child is harmed.
Teach boundaries to your kids.
People who sexually abuse children often manipulatively cross personal space or even ignore it all together.
Sometimes the adult will begin to hug, touch, kiss, tickle, wrestle with, hold, or cuddle with a child or teenager.
This is where it begins, but doesn’t end, and it is never okay.
Talk to your kids about why it’s important to tell them or a safe adult if anyone’s behavior makes them uncomfortable. For young kids, you can say something like, “Some people need help if they can’t remember the ‘rules’ for how to behave around kids.”
Since most of the time children and teens know, and often care about or like the person who abuses them, it is helpful to use neutral language like “the rules” rather than using terms like “predators”, “abusers”, etc..
“A teenager can stop sexual harassment before it starts,” says Todd Crosset, a sports management professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and leading expert on coach-athlete relationships. “Abusive coaches will test the waters, but if you put up any sort of resistance, they’ll back off.”
Watch the boundaries of your child’s coaches.
Coaches who are grooming children often show signs before they sexually abuse them.
- They can seem more focused on relationships with kids than adults.
- They may turn to a child for emotional or physical comfort.
- They may share personal or private information or activities with a child or teen.
- They may treat the child like a peer.
- They may give excuses as to why they are “friends.”
Some other signs include:
Coaches may seem overly interested in the players’ bodies, or their dating relationships, or talk to them about sexuality. They might allow their players to get away with inappropriate behaviors. Coaches or athletic staff may show the student sexual images, tell them dirty jokes, or talk with them about sexual interactions.
Oftentimes, the coach will spend excessive time emailing, texting, or calling their players or students.
Ask your child to tell you or another safe adult if this happens to them or a friend.
These activities may be a sign a child or teen is being groomed.
Parents should also keep a look out for coaches who seem to have secret interactions with players. Be wary of those who prefer certain ages or genders of student-athletes and who tend to have a “special” relationship with one player in particular.
Does your child’s coach insist on or manage to spend uninterrupted time alone with a particular player?
Often we hear of coach/teacher/youth leader relationships that seem “too good to be true,“ (i.e. takes teens to dinner or on special outings alone; buys them gifts for no reason; frequently babysits children for free). Too often these situations end with terrible outcomes.
Here is a checklist for parents to consider.
Experts say that if the answer to any of the following questions is “yes,” it is possible that a coach may be sexually abusing an athlete.
- Does your child’s coach make him/her feel like she needs him in order to succeed?
- Does your child’s coach spend time with you in an attempt to win your trust or try to be a surrogate parent?
- Does your child’s coach act differently with her when in front of others?
- Does your child’s coach try to control her (even off the field)?
- Does your child’s coach try to separate her from her teammates or other sources of support, like you or her friends?
- Does your child’s coach spend a lot more time with her than with other athletes?
- Does your child’s coach try to be alone with her?
- Does your child’s coach give her gifts?
- Does your child’s coach tell her not to talk about personal encounters the two of them have had?
Parents, for the sake of prevention, be bold.
One of the most effective ways to reduce the risk that your child or a teammate will be a victim of sexual harassment or abuse is to set boundaries at a pre-season meeting.
Boundaries provide clarity about the role of a coach, establish predictability for everyone in what the coach-athlete relationship is to look like, and promote a safe and healthy learning environment. It may feel awkward to bring this topic up as a parent, but honestly, it would be more awkward to face the reality of some type of risky behavior between a coach and a player after the fact.
Here are some helpful examples of boundaries for sports teams to observe:
- Coaches will only be allowed to touch athletes where appropriate for teaching new skills or while “spotting.”
- Coaches will not be allowed into the locker rooms when athletes are changing clothes or showering.
Some examples of social boundaries:
- Coaches will attend only sport-related social events and awards banquets.
- Coaches will avoid parties with athletes outside of sport-related situations.
- Coaches will not accept personal gifts from, or give personal gifts to, athletes.
- Coaches will not date their athletes.
- Coaches will never purchase alcohol or drugs for their athletes.
- Coaches will never have sexual relationships with athletes. There is no such thing as a consensual relationship between coach and athlete, no matter the age, because of the power that the coach has over the athlete.
- Coaches will never sleep in the same room with an athlete(s) in order to save money, or for any other excuse, while traveling for competitions.
Speak up if something seems suspicious.
If you observe interactions or behaviors that concern you, speak up.
Say, “I’m uncomfortable when you hug (athlete’s name) after every race. How about high-fiving instead?”
If your child suddenly loses interest in an activity they previously enjoyed, or tells you they want to quit their sport, consider the possibility that someone has caused them to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Or maybe the coach is pushing the athlete to quit for their own motives. Support your child’s decision while trying to understand what’s behind it by talking with your child further and then with the coach or leader.
If a coach seems to be spending a lot of one-on-one time with your child, say, “I’m not comfortable with you spending so much time with (name).”
This doesn’t mean you are accusing them of anything, it simply means you are being clear on your boundaries. Unfortunately, as a culture, we are not very comfortable speaking up to other adults. But,
We need to realize that we leave children vulnerable when we expect them to set boundaries for themselves.
Speak up for your kids. Help protect them!
If you suspect abusive behavior:
- Document in writing behaviors that concern you.
- Talk to other parents about your concerns. Work together; take turns being at all sporting events and keeping an eye on things.
- Every once in a while show up early or unexpectedly and observe interactions.
- Talk to your child straight-up. Discuss what goes on in practice (and outside of practice!). Ask questions.
- Stay involved and engaged.
- Don’t sweep suspicion under the rug. If you have reasonable grounds to suspect that a child may be suffering abuse, or is being groomed for such, report it to school officials, the local child protection agency, or the police.
Remember, the most effective prevention takes place before there’s a child victim to heal or an offender to punish.
If your child tells you that he or she is being harassed, groomed, or abused, take them somewhere they can talk freely. Assure them you will do all you can to protect them.
Listen and believe. Remind them it wasn’t their fault. Show that you are proud of them. Tell them they are courageous. Never ignore even seemingly trivial calls for help.
Support your child. Discuss their options. Help them restore a sense of control in their lives by involving them in deciding how to deal with the problem. Reassure them over and over. Walk with them on the journey ahead.
Always assure your child they a) did the right thing by speaking up about a suspicious situation and b) that you will be with them every step of the way.
Nicole Braddock Bromley is an international advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation. She has authored four books, produced two films, is co-host of the OneVOICE Podcast, and founder of an anti-trafficking nonprofit, OneVOICE4freedom. More info on her story and work at iamonevoice.org and onevoice4freedom.org.