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The Road to Trust-Responding to Perceived Serious Situations by Deanee’ Johnson, Ph.D

Have you ever been in a situation where your child has come to you with information where your initial thought was, “WHAT ON EARTH AM I GOING TO DO?!” You are not alone.

Every parent has been approached by their child, expecting guidance and support for something that causes anxiety and perplexes us when we are expected to respond. This is completely normal. However, it is imperative to understand that how we respond to these “perceived serious situations” can really influence the child’s decision to come to us in the future for guidance, as these opportunities can either build or damage trust within the parent/child relationship.
So what is a perceived serious situation (PSS)? It has been said that perception is reality. Children have a very limited life experience to base their perceptions of reality. The same is true for how they are able to gauge what an adult would consider serious or not.
For example, think of a small child who drops their ice cream cone on the ground. Tears start flowing, and feet may stomp. Perhaps a scream of disapproval may be heard. This incident may seem devastating for some kids. I know, as an adult, it sounds ridiculous. But if you’re a parent, I’m sure you get it.
Another example of a PSS is an adolescent’s broken heart. Any parent of a teen who has experienced a breakup knows exactly what I’m talking about. The end of the world is near, and there will never be another mate in all of humanity. It’s all together, tragic! To adults who have lived experiences and the ability to recognize that these perceived serious situations are not the end of the world, the example responses may seem silly or even ridiculous. However, these responses are normal and developmentally right on target.

The previous examples are normal everyday PSSs that parents encounter routinely. When we do not have the tools or skills to respond to something as routine as an adolescent broken heart, it is no wonder that when we are faced with much more serious situations that we become anxious or even avoid the topic completely. As parents, we must prepare ourselves for those inevitable times where we will be approached by our children to discuss much more serious topics such as child abuse, addiction, bullying, mental health, etc.
Hopefully, the following suggestions will be helpful for you and your situation.

* Be okay with talking about uncomfortable conversations. Show a sense of maturity around topics such as sex and drugs. If you are uncomfortable talking about these things, your children will be too. Be prepared to talk about these topics with your child when they are young. Have these conversations often because if you’re not answering their questions, they will be answered by your child’s peers or, even worse, the dreaded Internet.

* When adolescents are concerned, it is important to realize that they value and seek out the input of their friends more than their parents. This is a completely normal part of their development and becoming independent. Approaching these topics as a friend can help minimize some of your child’s fears; however, your guidance should always come from a place of supportive parenting.

* Validate their feelings no matter how far off they are from your own. Meet them where they are and help them process the situation by listening with your heart. Listen to understand and not to respond. And most importantly, ask them what they need. They may not know how to articulate it at the moment, but they will recognize that you are willing to help them get to where they need to be.

As a trained child forensic interviewer, I was hell-bent on my child knowing about his personal space and appropriate touching. So, I began talking to him about his private parts as soon as he could speak. It was a normal part of his learning development. We typically went through each body part, such as the eyes, nose, fingers, toes, and threw in the penis as just another appendage. By the time he was five, he finally asked me if we could “stop talking about penises.” It was a very funny sound byte; however, it was also a proud mommy moment because I knew that if anything ever happened to him, he understood that I was comfortable with the topic and a safe person to talk to about those things.
This empowered him to bring up other issues concerning him and that he needed help with. He is now 15, and we have had several PSS conversations, and with each one, we get closer and closer in our relationship.

About Deanee’ Johnson, Ph.D

Dr. Johnson is a key player in advancing the victim services field at the federal level, specifically with respect to the response to child victims of sexual exploitation and polyvictimization.
She has over 20 years of experience in the crime victim field, working directly with victims and survivors, partnering with multidisciplinary professionals and teams to meet the needs of child victims and their families. She started as a volunteer mentor for adolescent sexual assault survivors in 1999 in Huntsville, Texas. She has since worked as a Survivor Specialist, Child Forensic Interviewer, Director of a statewide sexual assault coalition, and Director of a Court Appointed Special Advocates program in Southern Maryland. Most recently, she has led the working group focused on the victim services component of the 2016 National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction out of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Deputy Attorney General. She serves on the National Steering Committee for the Vision 21 Linking Systems of Care for Children and Youth, Office for Victims of Crime demonstration project. Dr. Johnson has advised large scale training and technical assistance efforts, policy and procedure implementation plans, organization management and has collaborated with a multitude of federal and state agencies serving child victims. She is a certified facilitator with Stewards of Children, Darkness to Light, a sexual abuse prevention program.
Dr. Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a master’s degree in counseling, and her Ph.D. in child development. As an OVC Fellow, she has assisted with collaboration with the DOJ ODAG to identify the range of child sexual exploitation programs available nationwide, illuminating best practices. She is currently the Chief Program Officer at the National Center for Victims of Crime.

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