Abuse Prevention, Part 2: How to Recognize Abuse


Abuse Prevention, Part 2: How to Recognize Abuse

Yehudis Litvak

Whenever another heartbreaking case of abuse comes to light, we wonder how the abuser managed to get away with it for so long. Why didn’t anyone notice? Weren’t there warning signs? In this article, we continue the conversation about preventing abuse by discussing what warning signs parents should look out for and what parents can do to protect their children. Our interviewees are Rabbi Dr. David Fox, a clinical psychologist and director of Project Chai at Chai Lifeline, and Mrs. Debbie Fox, LCSW, founder and director of Magen Yeladim International.

Look close to home

As parents, we teach our children not to speak to strangers. We warn them about accepting candy from strangers or getting into a stranger’s car. These are certainly important precautions. However, they are not enough to prevent abuse because most cases of abuse – up to 90% — are perpetrated by someone known to, and often respected by, the victim, explains Mrs. Fox. When a child accepts a candy, a ride, or simply extra attention from a teacher, an uncle, or a brother-in-law, neither the child nor the parents think twice about it. But these little things could be the beginning of a grooming process.

How to recognize the grooming process

Mrs. Fox explains that the grooming process begins with the perpetrator developing a special relationship with the victim, which does not include the victim’s parents. Eventually, the child begins to turn to the perpetrator more than to the parents. Slowly, the abuser becomes more physical with the child. It begins within the normal range, such as bear hugs. However, eventually the physical relationship becomes inappropriate.

At this point, the child is so attached to the abuser that he or she can’t refuse. “[The child thinks,] ‘This person has been so nice, gave me so much attention. How can I say no?’” says Mrs. Fox.

She advises all parents to pay close attention to their children’s relationships with other adults or older teens. No one should be taking their place and playing the role of a parent. Adults should not have special relationships with children that do not involve their parents. If an adult is paying special attention to a child, buying the child gifts and spending extra time with them, parents may have a reason to be concerned. It is important that parents step in and reclaim their central role in their child’s life. They might need to end the child’s unhealthy relationship with that adult.

Talk with your children about uncomfortable feelings around other people

Another important precaution is paying attention to our children’s feelings, especially around other people. There are a number of misconceptions in the frum community when it comes to emotions. Some attribute negative emotions to the yetzer hara.

Rabbi Dr. Fox explains, “It’s very interesting that the Torah uses the word ‘heart’ for what clearly is the mind or the brain. So many times in the Torah, or in the Neviim, or even in our Jewish vernacular, we use the word ‘lev,’ but we’re not talking about our cardiac heart but about the brain … So are we dealing with emotions or thoughts? The Arizal notes that the Torah … also uses the word ‘levav’. There is a cardiac heart, but there is a dual channel inside of us which is called ‘levav.’ Our great Torah authorities have told us that the ‘levav’ is the brain, but there are different compartments in the brain …  There are the thoughts and the intellect and the logic and the rational, and then there are parts of us that don’t work on logic and don’t work in what we would call a rational manner, but they are not necessarily irrational. Those are what we generally refer to as our feelings. And both of them are part of the healthy human experience. Maybe, ideally, the majority of our decisions are made by that part of the levav which is the intellect, but meanwhile, when the other part of the levav, our emotions, are activated, they are not always yetzer hara or a sign of something … negative going on.”

Rabbi Dr. Fox brings examples of healthy emotions, such as grief due to a loss. He continues, “There are many emotions which we are wired by Hakadosh Baruch Hu to experience. That doesn’t mean that we should be making decisions based on how we feel, but … in order to … make rational, clear decisions, we do need to pay attention to what we’re feeling.” While some feelings might come from the yetzer hara, “if a person is being abused or molested or coerced, or a person feels weak or threatened, mental health demands of us that we are sensitive to that child’s or that person’s emotional experience and allow them to express it,” says Rabbi Dr. Fox.

When our children’s emotions involve other people, there is even more confusion. Some parents believe that in order to train our children to refrain from speaking lashon hara, we should not allow them to express any negative sentiments about others. Rabbi Dr. Fox says, “When a child has had a frightening or a confusing or a painful experience and they are turning to a parent in pain or in fear or in sadness, there is no lashon hara taking place.” He explains that the child’s intention is not to bad mouth anyone but to get help. Similarly, the parent’s job is to provide support and remedy the situation to the extent possible. He adds, “There are many children, and even adults, whose neshamos are in agony, which is amplified when no one wants to listen to them.”             

Proper supervision at home

Sadly, sometimes abuse takes place within the home, such as between siblings. Mrs. Fox urges parents to supervise their children. She recommends leaving children’s bedroom doors open when they are playing and coming in occasionally to check on them. Before going to bed, or when waking up in the middle of the night, parents should check on their sleeping children. Children should know that their parents love them and check on them periodically at night.

Can an abuser be helped?

In a tragic situation when one’s own child exhibits abusive behavior, what can the parents do? Rabbi Dr. Fox explains that there could be many different causes for abusive behavior, and there is no single treatment. Mrs. Fox adds that the sooner the offender gets help the better chances for recovery. It’s important to find an experienced therapist who is trained to help the offender recover. And yes, she says, there have been success stories!

For referrals to mental health professionals who are sensitive to the Jewish community, both Rabbi Dr. and Mrs. Fox recommend contacting the local branch of Relief Resources at dberman@reliefhelp.org or through their website, https://www.reliefhelp.org/.