I think one of the scariest things about parenthood is the fear of not being able to protect my children. Like the thought of someone bullying my kid, pushing him around, excluding him or even just hurting his feelings makes me want to go into full-on MAMA BEAR mode. Now, two things I can recognize here. First, MAMA BEAR mode is not a favorable approach and second, these are things that will probably happen in his lifetime. But guess what, there are steps we can take as parents to give our children the tools to cope, maintain perspective and protect themselves.
So I sat down to talk with Laurie Berdahl about her new book that she co-authored with her husband Brian D. Johnson PhD which just hit shelves this past summer. It’s called Warning Signs and it a tool for parents to help coach kids through difficult situations and to remain safe.
Laurie is an Ob-Gyn, physician, author and speaker and has published articles in Medical Economics and Parenting; Science and Practice. Brian Johnson has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Iowa and is a licensed child and adolescent psychologist with over 20 years of counseling experience.
So here are some practical strategies Laurie walked me through to protect our kids from (being victims and perpetrators) of all the types of violence and aggression. This includes but is not limited to: bullying, gun violence, media violence, sexual violence, manipulation, hate and so much more.
1. Have a close parent/child relationship.
Laurie says having a close parent/child relationship is paramount to parenting success in every way. Kids and teens need us all the way through their early 20’s. We know this because brain development studies show that kids brains don’t fully develop until then – so this applies to children and teens of all ages.
With a close parent/child relationship, kids are more likely to come to parents with concerns. They are more likely to take and seek parent’s advice. Without, they will seek advice from friends and media over parents. So with this you will still have to monitor you kids lives but it won’t be such an aggressive form of monitoring because you know they will come to you willingly. With this, they won’t fear judgement or negative repercussions but instead they will trust their parents to do whats best.
Laurie says its important not to interpret this relationship as “being friends” with your children or spoiling them. That feeling of “My kid will love me if I give them what they want” is not true at all. Gifts on a special occasion is one thing but a relationship built on a cause/effect of “I will love you if you give me what I want” is not healthy.
2. Teach/talk about risky behaviors with children.
Do this gradually and repetitively over time.
These are risky behaviors like casual sex, talking about sexualized media, drug use, alcohol use, not being engaged in education, having dangerous or manipulative friends, abusive dating partners, harmful media exposure…
Talk in little doses and over time about behaviors that pose a risk to their overall wellbeing. The point is not to scare children but to show them you are coming from a place of concern and support. Explain that experimenting and impulsiveness is normal but you also have to consider real consequences, real risk and real truths. Allow them to make decisions over time that are safe but put your foot down on other things that arn’t, because you care.
I asked Laurie for an example so we could see what this looks like with real words. I asked her how to handle a 17 year old senior who wants to go to a party with her friends.
17 year old teen: “Mom I want to go this this high school party tonight.”
Parent: “I want you to have your high school experience but I also don’t want you to be hurt. Therefore lets agree on some parameters so I won’t worry. This way you will be okay but you can still have some fun.”
So talk about how to have fun AND be safe. For example:
- Don’t accept an open drink from anyone.
- Stay together, don’t leave with anyone.
- No drug use is occurring that you’ve agreed on. (And Laurie says, don’t make a senior high school party the first time you talk about using pot/drugs. This should be a conversation that is happening gradually and often over time.)
- Make sure that someone at the party is sober and watching over the party.
- This may include talking to their friends so they can have each others backs.
- Or proposing things like: “If anything happens, you can call me right away and I will come an get you – no questions asked. We can talk at a later time. I won’t be mad.”
Laurie says the worst way to respond is to say “NO.” That shuts down the communication and eliminates a teaching moment. But if you have been having these gradual conversations all along then kids will be open to a conversation. So to prevent something from happening in the future you have to work on it all along. And employ consequences if the parameters are broken.
For kids 5 and under, these conversations will mostly be talking about street safety and stranger safety.
Talk about who your “trusted adults” are with you kids. The phrase “stranger danger” doesn’t work because kids don’t truly understand who a stranger is. So this will look like;
- Who are the adults that you know who are safe?
- Who is okay to go to if they call you name?
- Who are the adults that you know who are safe?
- Who is okay to spend time with when I am not there?
- Who do you go to if you are feeling scared?
Also important is how they travel to and from school and what are “safe touches” and “bad touches.” Laurie recommends teaching this by using the concept of “the areas covered by your swim suit.”
Another good strategy is when you venture out to a museum or a mall or anywhere public, when you arrive, pick out a person they can go to if they get lost. Here are some ideas:
- A mother with children or a mother with a baby
- Somebody behind the counter
- Someplace with a lot of people. Like you can always walk into a store where there are lots of people around.
3. Do things our of concern NOT out of a need for control.
Use phrases like “Because I care about you” or “Because I’m worried about you” instead of “Because I said so.”
And really consider only setting NECESSARY limits – ones based on safety and overall wellbeing and maturation. And this applies for discipline as well. This is a tough one to work through sometimes and this tool can help parents decide when to set rules and when not to. If kids have too many rules they will start to rebel.
This will also protect the overall relationship. Keeping them safe rather than trying to control or force personal preference.
4. Pay attention to what’s happening in their lives.
This includes their friendships, activities and media use.
A close parent/child relationship will make you much more trustworthy and influential and will help your child see you acting out of concern rather than taking away their fun. With this approach, overtime, monitoring will be less and less because the kids will come to you with questions or to ask for help.
5. Don’t wish away warning signs.
Often when Brian sees parents and children in the clinic – parents often feel blindsided and ask questions like, “How did this happen?” or “How did my child become a drug addict?” There are warning signs for each type of violence that we can look out for. Know what they are and know how to ask for help.
In their book, Warning Signs, for each type of violence or aggression there is a list of warning signs accompanied with a practical action to take. These include; bullying, school violence like shootings, news media like terrorist attacks, war, gun violence, hate, rage, suicide, dating sexual violence and more. It’s all in the book!
I also love that Laurie and Brian include the language to use and what to say to kids. Like they basically give you a script! For example here is an example of how to open up a conversation with your child about bullying.
Sometimes kids are afraid to tell their parents when they’re being bullied, but because I love you, I need to know. Have you ever been bullied? (Help normalize your child experience by saying) This happens to a lot of kids. (If your child seems reluctant to talk or indicates fear that telling will make it worse say) It isn’t your fault and you don’t deserve it. This happens to other kids too. It isn’t about you – it’s about the bully. Do you feel you can defend yourself and deal with this? (Weather the answer is yes or no say something like) I will help you until it is better. I don’t expect you to handle this all by yourself- your a kid and you shouldn’t have to. (It’s crucial that you believe and do not make fun of your child’s concerns).
Don’t you love having a guide? Something to help us parents through these tough conversations? These scripts are peppered throughout the book and are written for all different aggressions.
Also included are scripts to use when approaching other parents or school officials about concerns without causing defensiveness.
Head to WarningSignsForParents.com for a large list of parenting resources for parents. Plus more information on their first award winning book 7 Skills for Parenting Success. It’s all there, so check it out!
Have you read either of these books? Do you have a parenting book that you love?