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Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

How we can protect our children and develop their self-worth and resilience

As a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, I can’t even begin to tell you how many stories I have heard of children and young men and women being preyed upon because of their vulnerability and ending up in dangerous or potentially dangerous situations. It is essential for children and adolescents to grow up feeling loved and cared for, because the experiences they have as children can have lasting effects on the course of their entire life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity.” 

The bottom line is that if children don’t feel loved and safe and secure at home, they will go looking for that love where ever they can find it. With the progressing technologies that exist, from social media to ever changing messenger apps which allow strangers to contact each other, it is becoming easier for predators to reach out to their next victims. The children who grow up without feeling loved or valued will be more likely to be accepting of the “love” of a stranger they have just met, online or in real life, who tells them they are cute or pretty or beautiful or that they love them after only knowing them for one day. Children don’t have the maturity or life experience to differentiate between what is a true and appropriate form of love compared to the love that exists only because something is expected in return. 

It is the job of parents and grandparents and family and friends to help build children’s self-worth and create a sense of belonging. Oftentimes, if children are made to feel like they aren’t good enough or that they don’t fit into what society deems to be acceptable, they will go looking for that love and acceptance in the wrong places, from the wrong people.

I recently attended the Escape from Rape: A Cultural Change conference  and had the opportunity to hear some of the stories an FBI agent shared about children who were victims of extortion. It was clear these children all had one thing in common. They were the products of dysfunctional households in which they received no love or stability at home.  It is sad that these stories are the reality, but we all have the power to do our part in changing this reality, to keep our kids safer.

Parents, help build your children up and increase their resilience factors. Not only is it important to teach children about not talking to strangers, which is a given, it is essential to teach children their value and that they deserve respect. Children are sponges, so they model what they see and hear from their parents. The way their mother is treated by their father often sets the stage for how they determine what is appropriate behavior and how people deserve to treat others and be treated. 

Compliment your children and help them understand what makes them unique and special. Help them find their sense of purpose and how they make the world a brighter place. The words that children hear stick with them, even if they don’t share that with the person who spoke those hurtful words. If parents don’t teach their children their self-worth and make them feel loved, they will seek that validation in the wrong ways, and that makes them more vulnerable to be preyed upon by people with bad intentions. Children who are growing in abusive households are more likely to enter into abusive relationships, unless there are appropriate factors to break the cycle of violence and abuse. 

As such, parents can play an active role in giving their children the tools to make smarter choices in life and have a better sense of self-worth. You can do your part in helping keep your children safe. For more information about Adverse Childhood Experiences and protective factors, please visit: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html

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