Open communication between parents and children is probably the most effective factor in keeping kids safe from molesters, according to Dr. Susan Esquilin. With the approach of summer and the season’s increased chances for kids to come into contact with new people in unfamiliar settings, that communication can be more crucial than ever.
Esquilin, a longtime leader in the state’s efforts to prevent child abuse, will help parents find the right ways to secure their children’s safety at a workshop at the YM-YWHA of Union County on Tuesday, June 8.
The talk, “Keeping Your Kids Safe this Summer: The Conversation Every Parent (or Grandparent) MUST Have with Their Children,” is cosponsored by the Y, Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, Jewish Federation of Central NJ, JCC of Central NJ, and Project SARAH. The program is part of a statewide initiative that has been endorsed by, among others, Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz of the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth.
Esquilin told NJ Jewish News by phone from her office at the Center for Child Advocacy at Montclair State University, “There has been a lot of focus on education in the schools, working with the children, but prevention really involves working with the parents. They are the key.”
For children to be able to share their concerns, she said, their parents need to be comfortable talking about physical and emotional intimacy. That connection breaks down the barrier of secrecy that sexual abusers rely on.
But, Esquilin said, that kind of communication can be tough to achieve, especially in families with strict rules about modesty. In so many families, children are taught from the youngest age how to name their body parts, from their heads to their arms — and down to their knees and below, with the parts in between left out.
“If children sense that certain kinds of topics distress their parents, the last thing they’re going to do is tell them things they think will upset them,” Esquilin said.
An open channel enables children to tell their parents if someone is doing something to them they find physically or emotionally discomforting. The danger can come from a counselor or even a peer presenting him- or herself as “cool,” encouraging the children to break rules — and then convincing the children that they share in the guilt and the necessity of keeping secrets together.
Being able to speak out, said Esquilin, can spare children potentially scarring experiences.
Esquilin is a licensed clinical psychologist about to retire from the Center for Child Advocacy at Montclair State. She has held faculty positions at Rutgers University and at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ, where she was director of psychology training at the medical school, and clinical administrator for children’s services at University Behavioral HealthCare in Newark. She is a past president of the NJ chapter of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and has been the primary investigator on several service grants related to child abuse.
Esquilin pointed out that in one 45-minute presentation, she can’t undo participants’ lifelong inhibitions. “But if I can help desensitize these issues enough so parents can talk to one another about them, that in itself helps” in reaching out to their children.
Perhaps the most reassuring thing parents need to know, she said, is that having the knowledge and the vocabulary to discuss the subject does not lead to sexual experimentation. “When parents discuss these issues, they still convey their values to their children,” she said.
Esquilin’s talk has been organized by JFS social worker Shari Bloomberg, who told NJJN, “Too often, we believe that we are placing our children into the hands of responsible, moral people. Most of the time, that is accurate. Unfortunately, we have had cases where devastating incidents have occurred and the child was not equipped to handle the situation.
“And for each case that is brought to our attention, we know there are many, many more unreported cases.
“We hope by providing this program,” Bloomberg said, “parents will be able to open a line of communication with their children and we can therefore prevent the trauma caused by such incidents.”