by Sandy K. Wurtele, Ph.D.
When she turns off the lights in her Colorado Springs office, psychology professor Sandy Wurtele turns her attention from "heinous" to horses.
For 25 years, since her first teaching assignment at Washington State University, Wurtele has studied child sexual abuse, which she calls "the most heinous" of crimes. Preventing abuse, and providing resources for victims, is so emotionally demanding that Wurtele needs an after-hours outlet, and she's found it, in running a horse ranch 18 miles out of town, near the foothills of the Rockies.
At the K Bar W, she and her husband, a psychologist in private practice, raise, train and show paints, the spotted horses that share an ancestry with the American quarter horse and the thoroughbred. "Our passion is showing them in reining and working cow horse competition," she says, and almost every summer weekend, you'll find this 4-H and gymkhana "graduate" guiding a mount through a precise pattern of circles, spins and stops. Or you may see her astride a horse that is circling a cow, maneuvering it as directed by the competition.
Back in the University of Colorado office where she serves as director of the undergraduate psychology program, Wurtele is all business, focused on the never-ending problem of child molestation, and the parents, teachers and caregivers who refuse to acknowledge the frequency of abuse.
"Several studies have shown that parents who have appropriate material and support from schools can be very effective personal safety instructors," she notes.
In fact, kids who get information about abuse prevention from their parents in addition to school instruction:
Unfortunately, too many parents don't talk to their kids about abuse, or they refer only to "stranger danger." Worse yet, many don't allow their children to participate in school programs on abuse prevention.
"Some people believe their children are too young to understand the topic," Wurtele goes on. "Yet young children are especially vulnerable to this type of abuse. Their smaller size and dependent status, along with their difficulty in recognizing, resisting, and reporting abuse, put them at greater risk."
Other parents, those who believe that child molesters are "social misfits" or "dirty old men," think their kids are at little risk of molestation because the kids never have contact with these types of people.
"But children are most often victimized by family members, substitute caregivers, or trusted adults who function 'normally' in society," the author points out, who addresses this myth in her new books, Out of Harm's Way: A Parent's Guide to Protecting Young Children from Sexual Abuse and Safe Connections: A Parent's Guide to Protecting Young Teens from Sexual Exploitation.
When parents follow up at home with what children are taught in school abuse prevention programs, the parents can clarify any of children's misconceptions and reinforce important points. One technique that Wurtele recommends is "what if" scenarios.
"Start with simple questions like 'What if your ball rolled into the street' before moving on to more involved questions to reinforce basic personal safety skills—for example, 'What if your friend wanted to show you his father's gun?' and 'What if someone asked you to help him find his lost puppy?' "
Personal safety concepts can be introduced with "what if" questions such as, "What if a babysitter tried to touch your private parts?" and "What if your private parts were hurt? Would it be okay for a doctor to touch them?" she says.
"Such questions are helpful in teaching children to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touches. Letting children say 'no' to adults and older children—even if it's only to decline a friendly hug—allows them to set their own boundaries and empowers them to say 'no' to people who want to break the touching-safety rule," Wurtele emphasizes.
She also makes another important point: when parents discuss child sexual abuse prevention with their family and give developmentally appropriate answers to questions about sexuality, children will learn that their parents are approachable, and they will be more likely to disclose inappropriate touch.
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