A panel discussion last week to help parents talk to their kids about sexual safety was light on attendees but heavy in conversation.
Held in the Albert D. Lawton school cafeteria, the panel was organized in response to concerns parents aired at an August forum addressing the release of Sean Guillette, a convicted sex offender.
After serving 17 years for multiple convictions of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child in 1999, Guillette was released from Northwest State Correctional Facility on August 2. The now 51-year-old man now resides in Essex.
Toward the end of the August meeting, which attracted around 70 community members, village resident Tina Bleau expressed her hopes for further discussion on how parents can talk to children about taking care of their bodies.
Bleau, a psychologist who specializes in trauma, was one of three panelists last Wednesday who shared her professional insights with the four attendees, all mothers.
Panelists Tammy Leombruno, a specialized clinician in assessing and treating sexual abuse, and Kate Rohdenburg, the program director at WISE, an organization aimed at ending gender-based violence, also filled in the small circle discussion.
HopeWorks’ Fredrika Velunti-Hoffmann and Student Resource Officer Kurt Miglinas of Essex Police also provided input on the panel, which focused on starting a conversation without scaring children.
“When it comes to our young kids, we’re with them more. But how can we arm our older kids with the tools they need?” asked Leombruno, noting teenagers are often without parent supervision during neighborhood walks with friends or at high school gatherings. “We talk to them, we break it down for them.”
Bleau added the earlier a parent starts the conversation, the better off a child’s understanding is in the long run.
Being sensitive to a child’s developmental stages is crucial, Bleau said, and as a child ages and matures, the language a parent uses should parallel with the child’s development.
A theme of staying ahead of children’s curiosity overarched the night’s 90-minute session.
Karen Dolan, mother of two 6- and 7-year old girls, said she talks with her kids about sexual information but sometimes worries she’s too open.
“They know what a penis is; they know what a vagina is,” Dolan said, adding she showed her daughter an anatomical picture of a penis before the girl’s curiosity took over and possibly led to an unsupervised internet search.
“We don’t want pornography to be our sex educators,” Leombruno said, assuring Dolan it’s good to be honest with kids.
With the internet, video games and music permeating kids’ social culture, Rohdenburg said when a promiscuous song comes on in the car, it’s a perfect opportunity for dialogue with children about consent and coercion.
Recent remarks from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump saying he’s attempted to sexually advance on women without their consent is another good talking point, said Jill Evans, director of the Essex Community Justice Center, who organized the night’s panel.
The panelists agreed bringing up topics on car rides with kids is a good technique since it allows parents to check in, remind their children of safety habits and then move on once reaching their destination.
The group also discussed how children typically see all adults as trustworthy, and it’s difficult to break the notion that all people are “good.”
Telling kids that “nice adults” don’t equal “safe adults” is important, said the panelists, along with helping them develop inner and outer circles of trust.
Rohdenburg noted parents should help kids identify when they do and don’t feel comfortable. Starting the conversation about privacy and boundaries is critical, Bleau said, since it’s confusing for kids to learn that touch isn’t always good nor always bad.
Two of the three panelists were moms themselves and shared stories of experiences with their own children. Evans and other attendees were surprised by the low turnout, which contrasted with the sizable crowd of concerned citizens at the August meeting.
Attendees expressed their thanks for the panelists’ time but were disappointed more people didn’t benefit from it.
“It’s good to be ahead of these issues, and it’s helpful to have a conversation about it,” Dolan said. “It’s important to get in front of fear and to hear different folks, with different perspectives because everyone’s different.”