The best shield is an adult who listens

27th January 2006 at 00:00
There is a danger that recent media hysteria about paedophiles teaching in schools could miss the point of how to protect our children from sexual abuse. Which is, one would have thought, the point of the exercise. Surely if we harness all the energy used in the moral outrage pouring forth from the media and politicians, our children will be safer.

But will they?

The current simplistic model is that if we are paranoid and vigilant enough about keeping convicted paedophiles out of schools, then children will be safer. But there is less sexual abuse from adults in schools compared to adults in a child's home or community, although the statistics are somewhat controversial. Carers must be suspicious of adults who want to spend unusual amounts of time with their children, even if they're neighbours, good friends or relatives. I'm still shocked by how many of my patients have been sexually abused in their parents' homes, often a direct result of those parents' neglect or disinterest.

Any anti-sexual abuse strategy hinges on communication: something missing from many children's lives.

If a child believes that what they have to say is genuinely important to adults around them - parents, teachers or other adult relatives and friends - then they will easily communicate early on concerns arising from a dodgy relationship. Time and again in my clinics I see that it's the child who isn't listened to, who doesn't voice concerns, or feels too ashamed of strange feelings when they are with an adult who is beginning to be inappropriate, who is most vulnerable to future exploitation.

It's vital that adults listen to children. That means sitting down, talking and attending to them; not just chatting while you're driving them to and from school, while you're cooking or watching TV. This quality communication can save them. Paedophiles groom their victims partly by giving them the kind of seductive attention some vulnerable children are denied elsewhere in their lives. A child who feels valued and listened to will not fall for "love bombing" or unconditional regard.

Unfortunately, cherishing and listening to children, combined with personal vigilance, is not an approach that will ever be popular with a media obsessed with witch-hunts. We all have a responsibility here. The sooner the public, the Government and the media stop trying to find schools or teachers or the education system in general to blame, the better.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry, and director of the Centre for Public Engagement, King's College London.

His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email:

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