Pathways to Peace

Avoid Victimization

by Victor La Cerva, MD

Article #2 in our series
Creating Less Violence
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Victor La Cerva, MD, Mediacl Director of the Family Health Bureau of the State of New Mexico, retired, is the author of two books, a figurehead in the Men's Wellness movement and father of two lovely teenagers. Victor lectures nationally on violence prevention and shares his expertise and experiences with visitors to this segment of Pathfinders.

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Avoid Victimizaton

The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the Blade is idealized, in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and dominance.       -Riane Eisler

The skills needed to help our children live in a more peaceful world include self-protective measures against everyday violence. Increasing numbers of children carry weapons to school to protect themselves, but this is far from a peaceful solution to rampant violence. What is needed is instruction in how to avoid being victimized—training that most adults have never received. We can provide the needed lessons by homing in on areas of personal S A F E T Y.


S    Sexual security

A    Abduction protection

F    Family chemical use awareness

E    Everyday vigilance

T    Theft protection

Y    Youth suicide prevention

Sexual Security

The first line of sexual defense begins with the realization that children are most likely to be sexually abused by someone the know—either a relative, neighbor, friend, or baby-sitter. If you notice any one of these people spending time alone with your child, check out how the visit went, and observe your child's response.

To help young children defend themselves against sexual abuse, teach them that their bodies are theirs alone and that no one has the right to touch them if they don't want to be touched. By the same token, respect their "No!" or "Stop!" while kissing or tickling them. Don't force your children to hug or kiss people they don't want to be physical with. And help them distinguish between good touch (hugging, massaging, wrestling), bad touch (rough play that hurts, hitting, kicking, biting), and secret touch (contact that occurs in private, often accompanied by an admonition not to tell). Let your children know that if anyone tries to touch them in an area that would be covered by a bathing suit, they should say no forcefully, leave if possible, and tell an adult as soon as they can.

Sexual exploration is common and sometimes upsetting, more often to parents than to children. It is distinguished from abuse by three elements: the absence of coercion, comparable developmental or physiological ages of the children involved, and behaviors that are not usually repeated. Allow your children to talk to you about such experiences, and assure them that this type of behavior is normal. If you stumble upon them engaged in sexual play, avoid shaming them and instead try to understand what they are curious about. Always emphasize the importance of treating their bodies with respect.

Older youngsters need to know that the most common form of sexual assault is acquaintance rape. Of all age groups, teens are the most susceptible to this form of abuse. Acquaintance rape occurs both as an isolated incident and as part of the larger dynamic known as teen dating violence, which affects about 12 percent of all high school students. The best protective directive you can give your children is that it is never okay for a partner or friend to hit them.

Warning Signs of Teen Battering Behavior

Jealousy Verbal abuse
Controlling behavior Cruelty to animals or children
Quick involvement Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality
Unrealistic expectations Threats of violence
Isolation Use of force during arguments
Blaming Breaking or striking objects
Hypersensitivity Always wanting to know where you are

Dating Bill of Rights

I have the right to:                                         I have the responsibility to:

Ask for a date                                                                       Determine my limits and values
Refuse a date                                                                        Respect the limits of others
Suggest activities                                                                Communicate clearly and honestly
Refuse any activity                                                             Not violate the limits of others
Have my own feelings and express them                         Ask for help when I need it
Have my values and rights respected                              Be considerate
Have friends and space aside from my partner               Refuse attention
Tell my partner when I need affection 

Adapted from the Dating Violence Anti-Victimization Program of the Texas Council of Family Violence

Because of the immense confusion about sexuality in our culture, you may find it difficult to establish an open dialogue on the subject with your youngsters. Nevertheless, it is worth every bit of the challenge. Step one is to be honest and responsive, as opposed to reactive. Do you use real terms like "penis" and "vagina" for body parts? What is your response the first time you hear them say the "F" word? Do you have a conversation about where they heard the word and what they think it means? Do you explain why you don't want them to use it? Or do you punish them outright and create more confusion?

Step two is to believe what your children tell you, and to make it safe for them to tell you anything that may happen. When they do, praise them for not keeping secrets, regardless of their fears. And assure them that another person's violence is never their fault, even if they did something thoughtless, such as getting drunk and accepting a ride with a stranger, or breaking a curfew or safety rule. Castigations such as "You should have (would have, could have) done it differently" serve only to re-victimize the victim.

Abduction Protection

Despite the preponderance of milk-carton campaigns designed to step up the search for "missing children," the chances of a stranger-initiated child abduction occurring are about one in a million. Most abductions are carried out by noncustodial parents. And many children reported as missing have in fact run away of their own accord.

Even so, abduction precautions may prove helpful. Hear are some guidelines to share with your children.

1   Never get in a car driven by someone you don't know.

2   Never allow yourself to be picked up from school by someone you don't know or someone your parents didn't tell you to look for. Stay with a teacher until your expected ride arrives.

3   If you are ever lost in a store or other public place, ask a clerk or cashier for help. Stay with this person until the adult you were with comes to get you. (Note: For easy identification, print your child's name and phone number inside a belt that is worn every day.)

4   If someone grabs you and tries to lead you away, do whatever you can to attract attention. Yell, call for help, or scream as loud as possible, "Let me go. You're not my parent!" or "Leave me alone. I don't live with you anymore!"

5   Never hitchhike; always arrange for rides.

Family Chemical Use Awareness

Alcohol, especially beer, is often implicated in the tragedies that affect our youth. Consequently, it has become imperative for parents to share with their children information about chemical use of all sorts, including over-the-counter remedies, prescription medicines, legal drugs (caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol), and illegal substances (marijuana, LSD, inhalants, crack, cocaine, and heroin).

What your children will hear more than anything else in these discussions is your personal point of view. If you are unsure of your position on alcohol and drug use, or uncomfortable about your own use of chemicals, ask yourself some preliminary heart-to-heart questions: When is it acceptable to offer alcohol to a young person? What will it take to ensure that my teen never gets in a car with a drunk driver? Why do I use drugs? Is it okay for my children to use them for the same reasons? Is alcohol essential for a party or a "good time"? If the parents of my children's friends have an approach to alcohol and drugs that differs from my own, what can I say to them?

Talk about these matters with friends and family members. Let them help you arrive at a coherent and articulate point of view. Then, in teachable moments, share your perspective on chemical use with your children. Clearly state your expectations of them.

Everyday Vigilance

Begin establishing a basic sense of watchfulness by monitoring the whereabouts of your children. Did they get home from school safely? Who is picking them up from that birthday party later in the day? Where are they going now, and with whom?

Long before your children are likely to be at home without an adult, introduce them to these Home-Alone Rules:


1   Dial 911 if an emergency arises.

2   Don't give out information over the phone unless you know who the caller is.

3   If someone calls and asks for "your mother" or "your father," state, without mentioning names, "My parent is outside at the moment. Can I take a message, or would you like to call back later?" (For some children, the best guideline is: Don't answer the phone at all, or answer it only at the time you'll be calling to check on them.)

4   Don't, under any circumstances, let a stranger into the house.

In addition, encourage your children to pretend they are detectives observing their surroundings. How well lit is the area? Is it run-down and filled with debris? If your neighborhood is starting to look dilapidated, get the community to clean it up. Areas that look as if no one cares are those most likely to attract crime.

Theft Protection

Teach your children theft prevention by reminding them never to leave valuables untended in public and, if possible, to avoid bringing them to school. Also show them how to center themselves in the event of a possible robbery. A good approach is to breathe deeply, relax their bodies, expand their sensory awareness, and pay attention to what is happening; the key is to expect nothing and be ready for anything. With practice in this technique, your children will be able to muster some degree of calm and confidence in a variety of threatening circumstances.

In addition, encourage your children to trust their instincts. If they feel uncomfortable in a gas station, they need to get out of it; if they feel ill at ease going into an apartment building, they need to stay out of it. Be sure they know of safe neighborhood places they can retreat to if they ever feel scared.

Finally, let your children know how to behave if an encounter should occur. Pointer number one: If someone wants your valuables, do not resist. Give up the jacket or the sneakers or the lunch money. Escalating an already threatening situation in the presence of a weapon is particularly dangerous. Pointer number two: If the attacker has a gun and, unsatisfied with the objects appropriated, forces you to go with him, turn and run erratically.

Fifty percent of all attackers do not shoot people who have given up their possessions. Of those who do, 50 percent miss their mark. Of those who shoot down their victims, 50 percent fail to hit a vital organ. Of all victims who are shot in a vital organ, 50 percent survive. In short, running erratically results in only a 5 percent chance of being killed—far better odds than getting shot at point-blank range!

Youth Suicide Prevention

To prevent the most tragic form of victimization, familiarize yourself with the symptoms of depression in young people, the warning signs of suicide, and what to do if a child is harboring a death wish. The first order of business, however, is to realize that the current method of choice for both male and female victims of youth suicide is shooting. So if your teen is depressed, get the guns out of the house until the crisis has subsided. This advice is doubly important for depressed teens who have a drug or alcohol problem.

Warning Signs of Suicide


Loss of interest in classwork, or decline in academic performance.
Decrease in the amount of effort expended, or too tired to finish assignments.
Giving up easily when attempting homework, or turning in unfinished or messy work.

Social and Behavioral

Disruptive, risk-taking, or antisocial (lying, stealing) behavior
Withdrawing from social contact
Extreme fearfulness
Appearing tired or falling asleep
Alienating peers, or becoming unpopular


Inability to concentrate, or forgetfulness
Suicidal thoughts or intentions, or preoccupation with death
Indecisiveness, or lack of confidence


Poor self-esteem
Irritability, or excessive complaining
General mood of unhappiness, or feeling guilty


Changes in sleep patterns Ongoing pain or illness Changes in appetite, with sudden weight gains or losses Acting slowed down or speeded up The signs of depression are often more apparent to observant family members than to the person experiencing them. The presence of four or more of the following D E P R E S S E D symptoms, persisting for more than two weeks, is an indication that additional help or counseling is needed:


Down mood most of the time.
Energy decrease, fatigue, and a slowed-down feeling.
Pleasurable activities are no longer enjoyed.
Remembering, concentrating, and decision making are more difficult.
Eating problems.
Sleep problems.
Sense of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, and guilt.
Ever recurrent aches and pains that do not respond to treatment.
Death thoughts, or a suicide plan.

Parents who talk about suicide issues with their children often help "immunize" them against it. The greatest protection we can offer is to allow the young people in our lives to voice the sadness they feel and to see that bad feelings do go away. We can also encourage them to reframe the experience by saying, "I feel really sad and hopeless, and I'll get through it" instead of "I want to die. I hate my life." To stave off any likelihood of tragedy, remain alert to the warning signs of suicide and the preventive measures summarized in the charts on the preceding and following pages.

These S A F E T Y strategies are a form of victimization immunization. They will prepare your children to encounter potentially dangerous situations with increased awareness and self-protective know-how. Booster doses will most likely be needed.

Additional Resources


Aaron, Jane. No More Secrets for Me. Waltham, MA: Little Brown & Company, 1983.
Bishop, Bob, and Matt Thomas. Protecting Children from Danger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1993.
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Organizations and Hotlines

American Association of Suicidology, 202-237-2280.
National Adolescent Runaway Hotline, 800-621-4000. Assists young people and their families in a crisis, including potential suicide.

Victor La Cerva, MD

©Victor La Cerva 2001  

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Editors note:

Victor's Pathfinder series offers an opportunity for visitors to understand the roots of violence and to explore the ways of understanding and addressing it at home and work. This begins with your own personal tapestry of internal issues.

Contributions and questions that arise from your personal experience are valued and welcomed.We wish you well on the path and look forward to your participation.

© dwij 2001
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