It sent shock waves through the UAE community. News that a Dubai-based expat music teacher at a well-regarded private school had been arrested in Florida for allegedly attempting to solicit sex with a seven-year-old. Every parent's worst nightmare, committed by someone in a position of trust, working with children right here in the UAE.
The school in question - Swiss International Scientific School in Dubai (SISD) - immediately suspended the teacher, Mr William Ball, following the allegations, and have offered counselling to students who may have been affected by having him as their teacher. They have also confirmed that Mr Ball was recruited through a reputable agency with stringent background checks in place.
It can sometimes feel that we live in a safe little bubble in the UAE, but stories like this prove that predators are everywhere, and there's no surefire way to detect them.
And yet, as much as we would like to wrap our little ones up in cotton wool forever, we need to allow them to live their own independent lives, and have to put our trust in the adults taking care of them.
Child abuse is not something that's comfortable to think or talk about, and it's an incredibly difficult topic to broach with our children without making the world seem like an incredibly bleak and scary place.
But there are some strategies that we can take to make children aware of appropriate behaviour and to foster healthy communication between our children and ourselves. Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, shares her advice:
Teach them about physical boundaries...
Often with younger children it is about helping them to understand the physical boundaries of interpersonal situations first. For example, it is not OK for anyone to hit you or to touch you in certain parts of your body and if someone asks to do that or to see parts of your body, it is absolutely fine to say no and tell someone about it. It is also helping them to understand what is OK for them to do to others and that each person has the right to decide what happens to their body.
Don't use euphemisms...
Euphemisms and nicknames can muddy the water of children’s understanding. They may sound cute and save our sensibilities as parents, but talk straight with your children. Let them know what body parts are really called and that they are private. There are some great charity campaigns out there that can help you do this if you are unsure. For example, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s (NSPCC) “Pants campaign”.
Talk to them about stranger danger early on...
Talking to children about stranger danger can start early as long as it is done with age and the child’s stage of language development in mind. Remember not all children’s language develops at the same rate. You can start with toddlers by talking about the people they know and who love them and care for them, and differentiating them from other people who they don’t know. As children get a bit older, around pre-school, and their understanding of language develops, you can begin to talk about safety and set some guidelines for staying safe without creating fear. For example, it is important that you can see me and I can see you when we are the playground, just in case you need any help. As they start school and they begin spending more time away from you and their other caregivers, it is important to start letting them know about what is appropriate to expect from those around them and about what the boundaries are.
Encourage open communication
We can be guilty of trying to push our children to tell us everything about their day but many times this is met with “Good”, “Fine”, “Stop asking me questions”!! It can be helpful to ask more specific questions about what was really good about the day or what didn’t go so well. “Did anyone feel sad today at school or need some help?” “Did anyone say something funny that made you laugh?” “What was your favourite part of the day today?”
You can also try talking about your child’s day at different times if they are tired after school. And make sure you both have the time to sit together and not rush. Always letting your child know that they can speak to you at any time if they want to means that they feel free to talk on their own terms, which can be more comfortable. If you are concerned that your child is not telling you everything, you should speak to the people in charge of their care through the day and try and speak to a few to get a picture of the whole day.
Use age-appropriate examples...
It can be hard to get the balance between letting your children know that not all people have their best intentions at heart whilst not scaring them. I think that giving them information that matches their developmental stage is the best way, and using familiar examples to illustrate this can make it more accessible. For example, Peter Rabbit wandering off alone and getting stuck in Mr McGregor’s garden might be a good way to let a younger child understand that it is not a good idea to wander off alone. Children pick things up and hear news, especially as they get older, and being straightforward and honest might seem difficult but it is better than leaving them confused or with their own unexplained fears. You can also let them know that most people are good and how to seek help safely when they need it.
Make sure you are comfortable with what you allow...
When your child is asking to go on sleepovers for example, it can be a tricky decision and ultimately, as the parent, you have to do what is right for your family. Don't feel peer pressure, and you must be comfortable that the sleepover is in safe place and is being monitored by a parent that you know and trust. Having the nanny or babysitter watch the sleepover does not count.
Keep things in perspective...
We cannot control every moment of our child’s day. And so the most important task we have as parents, is to equip them with the tools and the confidence to speak up when they need to and to solve problems when they arise. Teaching them how to speak to adults and to be assertive and not always talking for them, is a simple but powerful step to build their confidence. Making sure that you share time with them each day just being together will pave the way for comfortable conversations and discussions and you can talk about things that have happened that day or even hypothetical scenarios. Books and stories are also a rich source of discussion and you can use characters and story lines to discuss the skills and actions that you would like them to foster.