15 January 2019
Vanessa* was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to make ends meet, so she often came home to an empty house. She dreamed about having nice things, but what she wanted most was someone to “see” her.
Then her school bus driver started to take an interest in her life. He was kind and made her feel safe. When he told her about a great job opportunity, she was excited – but her excitement turned to fear and confusion when he took her to a local strip club.
At the end of the night she received $150. To a 15-year-old girl, it seemed like a fortune. For the next six years, Vanessa was trapped in the world of exploitation. Vanessa was “groomed” by someone who should have been trustworthy.
Statistics show that 93 per cent of victimised children and young people know their abuser, and the average age to recruit someone into exploitation is 13.
Not in your backyard? Think again. It can happen in your own home.
Today’s youth have access to sexual images at their fingertips 24-7. Texting or posting risqué photos or videos on social media has become common. Recently, a police officer told me that even his daughter had been caught up in the trend.
Teens yearn to fit in, to belong, to be noticed, and may not realise the consequences of their actions. They may also lack the maturity to understand what a healthy relationship is, and settle for something that feels like love. This puts them at great risk.
There are often warning signs that a young person may be experiencing exploitation. There could be a change in attitude – withdrawing from family and friends, becoming secretive and reserved, exhibiting extreme mood swings and becoming angry and confrontational or abusive, or becoming protective of new boyfriends/girlfriends.
There could be changes in behaviour – coming home later than usual for unexplained reasons, binge eating or eating less resulting in weight loss; hanging around with new and a different group of friends, wearing expensive clothing or jewellery they can’t afford; wearing clothing that is bulky or provocative, using blocked or private phone numbers, carrying condoms or other sexual aids, or being secretive about internet sites and contact.
There could even be indications of physical abuse – unexplained bruises, cuts or broken bones, tattoos or branding symbols, particularly names tattooed on their neck, arms or legs, or marks like cigarette burns on their body. So what can families do?
The first thing is to listen without judgment. Far too often, we are quick to judge and talk when someone needs to be heard. We need to listen intently with our ears and eyes. Notice who is paying increased attention to your child (boy or girl) – teachers, coaches, neighbours or family members. These individuals may be “grooming” the youth and developing an unhealthy attachment with them.
Teach them to say no. We live in such a polite society. Teach your child that it is okay to say no and empower them to use their voice. Be sensitive to changes in behaviour or attitude.
Face it: the teen years are a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings that are often hard for parents to grasp. Don’t give up. Talk through these changes. Talk about sex and sexuality in a healthy way.
If we don’t teach our kids, they will learn from other kids or the internet. Have the difficult conversations. Create healthy boundaries. Help your children form a framework of what is healthy and what is not. Trust in the values of God’s Word to guide you.
Get to know their friends. Invite them over for meals, talk about activities and what your child will be doing during down times; discuss online safety. Many families have created a technology table where all electronics sit from 10pm until morning.
And create a family code word. Every family needs a code word known only to them. If a teen is feeling uncomfortable or in danger, they can use the word to alert you that they need to be picked up right away.
Sexual exploitation is closer to home than we think. As parents, we want to respect our children’s years of learning and growing, but we are still their protectors. Know what is going on in your child’s life so you can support them. Pray that you will see signs of exploitation if it is happening. Pray for your children’s friends and acquaintances. Pray for justice for all children and youth, and take action.
* Not her real name