Local officials say children need adults they can trust when ‘something terrible is happening to them’

ST. GEORGE — Recently, it was reported that the number of child abuse allegations reported to the Washington County Children’s Justice Center had risen over the last six months. The center’s director said she actually took encouragement from the increase in reported case as it meant more children and their families were getting the help they needed.

Kristy Pike, director of the the Washington County Children’s Justice Center speaks to the Washington County Commission, St. George, Aug 3, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

St. George News asked center director Kristy Pike about the case numbers and, more specifically, what people can do to help encourage children to come forward with suspected cases of abuse and how that abuse might be prevented beforehand.

“The No. 1 thing an adult can do is to be the person a child will come to if something terrible is happening to them,” Pike said.

Children are very watchful of the world around them and can determine who may and may not be trustworthy through their examples, she said.

“Kids know whether or not you’re being truthful,” Pike said.

Adults need to build relationship of trust with children in order to be considered someone to whom the children can confide in and ask hard questions, she said, adding that they can’t feel shamed or belittled for doing so. Parents and extended family of children also need to be comfortable, or at least nonjudgmental about sensitive subjects a child may come to them with.

“Kids aren’t going to ask the questions if they know their parents (and other adults) aren’t comfortable with them,” Pike added.

Stock image | Photo courtesy of LSOphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

This includes talk about sex and teaching children how to have healthy relationships with each other, as well as how to respect their bodies and those of others and to understand where the boundaries lie. Doing this could help avoid a lot of heartache later on and also potentially help prevent dating violence and sexual abuse.

Pike said a majority of the cases at the Children’s Justice Center are related to sexual abuse, and she  added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 5 children will be sexually assaulted before they’re 18. If these cases occur within the home, it is all the more important for a child to be able to go to a trusted adult.

In some case, those trusted adults end up being teachers or others who work in education. The vast majority of abuse cases come about because of teachers and education professionals, Pike said.

However, that doesn’t mean other adults shouldn’t strive to be a potential safe space for abused children looking for help.

Posted on the wall in the medical examination room of the Washington County Children’s Justice Center, St. George, Aug 9, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Paula Frehner, a mental health and behavioral specialist for the Washington County School District, echoed Pike’s sentiments and provided additional advice on how adults can help children be comfortable with them, as well as how those relationships may help prevent abuse.

“The more we are all connected in healthy ways the more children are protected,” Frehner wrote in an email to St. George News.

Frehner said adults need to put in the time to develop healthy, in-person connections with others versus having their faces buried in electronic devices.

“We need to spend at least 30 (minutes) or more a day undistracted playing, eating dinner, talking, hugging, complimenting, speaking each other’s love language, laughing, doing activities and making memories with the ones we love,” Frehner wrote. “Quality and quantity time is essential to building healthy trusting relationships. Healthy and trusting relationships prevent loneliness, chronic sadness, shame and the belief that they are not enough which is the recipe for potential abuse.”

Frehner offered the following three other suggestions:

Do not fix children, teach them.

Often we see parents who love their children, want to fix everything for them, fight every battle, and make sure they are not ever stressed out, anxious, or sad. This is actually counterproductive. When we fix everything for our children it actually sends the message that you are not enough to deal with your own issues, you need me to do it for you. Stress, sadness, and anxiety are normal emotions that all humans will experience.

Having big emotions needs to be normalized and skills need to be taught so children learn to regulate their emotions, build resilience, confidence and not feel dependent on, but supported by others when they are having big emotions. Children need to realize nothing is wrong with them when they are experiencing big feelings or emotions. They need to be taught needed skills and supported while they work through them. This builds confidence and resilience which prevents abuse.

Use skilled listening.

When children talk to adults, be careful not to react, judge, or get angry. Instead model emotional regulation. When adults react, judge or get angry our children feel shamed and or believe adults can’t handle hard situations either so they talk to their peers who most likely do not have the ability to deal with the situation either or they don’t go to anyone at all. When they talk about hard situations and adults regulate their emotions it lets them know adults can be trusted with hard situations and together we can get through anything.

Be careful not to make the conversation about you. Often adults make the mistake of saying, “I know just how you feel” and then go on to tell an experience about their lives or give advice about how to fix the issue. This often makes children, especially teens feel you don’t care about them, you are assuming you know how they feel, and you are making it all about you so there is no point in sharing personal things. Children need to talk and most of the time our job is to listen without judging, validate, and thank them for trusting us with that information. Adults have fully developed brains which youth don’t. As we listen we can figure out what skills to teach them so they can work through their own issues with our support.

Don’t keep secrets.

Children need to be taught their whole life that there is no need for secrets. It is safe to share anything with trusting adults. They should be told regularly, “nothing you share with me will ever lessen how much I love and value you”. We need to make our homes safe, judgement free zones to talk about anything, be allowed to make mistakes, to be taught and supported, feel connected, and loved.

Under Utah law, anyone who suspects a child may be a victim of abuse is required to call 866-323-3237. However, this is not a substitute for calling 911 when the need is considered immediate.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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