The ABCs of Abuse-Proofing Your Children

After my article on the HPV vaccine was published on CE, the director of teen ministry at my parish got in touch with me, and we began a series of thoughtful yet matter-of-fact exchanges about the best way to keep young Catholic women from experiencing life-long consequences due to what are often immature impulses. Two scenarios that we touched upon hit especially close to home for me: sexual assault (including "date rape") and domestic violence — the seeds of which are often sewn early in the relationship.

In the article that follows, I tell the story of "Karen." Though names have been changed, her story is true. It is my hope and prayer that parents reading this will be inspired to talk with their children — particularly their daughters — about staying safe. If you know of someone who is caught in the web of domestic violence, you may find the USCCB's recent letter on this subject informative. My own extensive article on domestic violence within marriage, "When Abuse Hits Home," was featured in the August 2006 issue of Canticle magazine. To order a copy of this issue (#29), call 800-558-5452.

If you met her on the street, you would never suspect Karen had been a victim. A pretty and outgoing cheerleader, Karen was active in her church youth group. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.

 All that changed her junior year, when Dave entered her life. After that she didn't have time for anyone or anything. Dave didn't want to hang around her family, or with Karen's friends. He wanted her all to himself. When they weren't together — by the bleachers in the gym, sitting by themselves in the cafeteria, out in his car in the student lot — they were on the phone.

"He's a sweet guy," Karen assured me. "He's always doing things for me and giving me little presents. He says I'm too good for him — he always puts himself down like that. His parents really treat him badly. But if I'm patient, he'll start to feel better about himself."

Unfortunately, it went the other way. Karen dropped out of cheerleading, then stopped using makeup. She stopped wearing her own fashions (at once stylish and modest, thanks to her parents' influence), and started wearing oversized sweatshirts because Dave didn't want her "showing off" in front of the other guys at school. He even hated Karen wanting to spend time with her family. "Who's more important — your sister, or me?" he yelled at Karen one day.

Near the end of her senior year, Karen called long-distance to ask me if I would be her bridesmaid that summer, when I was home from college. "But I thought you wanted to go to design school," I argued.

"That can wait. Dave says we should get our own place and work for a while first. So, how about it?"

I could hear the excitement in her voice. I hated to disappoint her — but I felt honor-bound to tell her what I thought. "Karen, I think you're making a mistake. If you marry that guy, I'm not sure I can even come to the wedding." A short time later, Karen and Dave broke up. Secretly I was delighted, but was silenced by her obvious pain.

The next time I called home, Mom told me that Karen had started dating someone much older; within a few months she was pregnant. The guy dumped her, her humiliated parents told her to take her stuff and leave… and the next thing we knew, she and Dave were married.

The next time I saw Karen was at my grandmother's 70th birthday party, almost a year later. Karen had lost a lot of weight, and had bruises on her arms and legs. She finally admitted Dave was beating her. She left him only after he threatened to kill both her and the baby. She was pretty sure he meant it.

Dating Violence: Is Your Daughter Safe?

In retrospect, Karen admitted that from the very beginning Dave had exhibited behaviors that should have warned her away from him. Would your daughter recognize these red flags? Help your child cultivate healthy friends and dating relationships by talking about these "danger signs." Give her a checklist of questions to consider privately:

Does your friend ever:

Give excessive compliments and gifts, especially early in the relationship? Does he say things like, "You're too good for me. I don't know why you like me." Don't argue — he may be right!

Believe that he is entitled to treat you differently than he expects to be treated (by you or others)?

Keep you "off balance" with frequent mood swings, one moment being sweet and charming and the next silent, moping, or angry?

Say things to make you feel guilty, anxious, or bad about yourself?

Become jealous, or try to control how you look, what you do, or whether you spend time with family and church friends? Does he get mad when you spend time with anyone other than him?

Express anger inappropriately — destroying (or threatening to destroy) property, hurting animals, or humiliating you or others?

Give you the feeling that he is "checking up" on you? Does he want to know where you are every minute?

Become angry when you have to change casual or last-minute plans, even if it's for a good reason?

Call you names or use manipulation or physical force to get you to do things you don't want to do?

Threaten to hurt you, someone you love, or himself if you try to break up with him?

Don't mistake these signals as a sign of love or commitment. Those who are genuinely committed to our well-being do not "use" us or try to control us. They want us to be happy and to realize our full potential. Real love frees us to be the best we can be.

ABCs of Keeping Teens Safe

There are a number of ways that parents can protect their children from inappropriate and destructive relationships.

1. Acknowledge and eliminate factors that will attract abusers.

Many women who become victims of domestic violence are first exposed to abuse or neglect as children, by a parent or other authority figure. In her book Real Solutions for Abuse-Proofing Your Child, child psychiatrist and family therapist Dr. Grace Ketterman identifies fifteen "red flags" to signal that a parent may be capable of child abuse:

Parent feels excessive and unrelenting stress

Parent has feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem, or isolation

Parent struggles with social or financial problems

Parent puts own needs ahead of child's

Parent has difficulty recognizing or controlling anger

Family relationships are uncomfortable

While an individual factor may not necessarily signal a problem, the existence of several factors within a family could be cause for concern. Parents who recognize the above tendencies in themselves may simply be in need of some temporary assistance. Or the parents may need professional help to break unhealthy patterns of control or discipline.

Ignoring these tendencies, however, could have far-reaching consequences. In Karen's immediate family, for example, two out of three of her siblings later became involved in relationships that were physically or emotionally destructive. As a child, Karen's mother had also suffered abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Her mother's need to control her environment had tragic consequences in the lives of her own children.

2. Boundary setting and maintenance.

Teach your teen to trust her instincts, and to avoid associating with anyone who makes her uncomfortable. Karen observes, "Whenever teens experience that 'Uh-oh, something's wrong' feeling in the context of a dating relationship, they need to know to talk to someone else about it — to get an unbiased perspective other than their partner's."

There are many things a parent can do to help their children make healthy choices in future relationships:

Give clear limits and consistent correction. You have the right and responsibility to intervene when your children put themselves at risk by what they wear, with whom they associate, and how they spend their time.

Express confidence in their ability to make good choices. Avoid forms of discipline that are harsh or vindictive. Respect an older child's need for privacy. Encourage healthy friendships, and affirm all the ways they are using their gifts to serve God and His Church as well as the world.

Acknowledge their need for greater autonomy and responsibility. Discuss candidly and positively physical changes associated with puberty. Talk with your child about how to handle someone who uses pressure or manipulation tactics, and how to spot emotional "predators." Consider a self-defense course for your college-bound senior (and for you).

3. Confidence is contagious!

Predators and "players" tend to seek out and isolate those with self-esteem problems, who need a boyfriend to "prove" how beautiful and popular they are. By contrast, children who grow up secure in the love and respect of their parents (particularly the parent of the opposite sex) will seldom try to get their need for affection filled in unhealthy ways. When the "war of independence" is raging during those difficult teen years, try to defuse the power struggles by trying to see both sides of the problem, and by acknowledging and respecting your adolescent child's feelings even as you hold the line on the family rules. If and when they make mistakes, encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and do what is necessary to repair the damage to property and to relationships. All these things help to instill a sense of dignity and self-worth in a child, and teach her to expect the same treatment from others.

The transition from childhood to adulthood is often as difficult for parents as it is for our teens. Our children need us to continue "standing in the gap" in prayer, asking God to watch over them when they are away from home. It can be frightening to think of turning our children loose in such a sex-saturated society. And yet, the Lord tells us,

"In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

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  • Guest

    God loves you .

    Heidi, or Mrs. Saxton – (or, how can we address you, dear?)

    I was wondering if you minded if I copied and put this up as a two-part blog in MySpace. I ‘hang around’ there because my granddaughter, Rachel (and her Mom, my daughter, Helena) and Rachel’s closest school friends are active there.

    I’d give Karen’s story and your signal questions for girls about ‘the guys of dating’. (After all, good answers to the questions indicate a ‘keeper’, eh?) I’d leave a teaser about the next blog concerning ‘ABCs of Keeping Teens Safe’. Then blog a day later with that.

    Do I have your permission? I would of course first give you full attribution; plus be willing to set links to your Internet sites and any others you think would be appropriate.

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    I agree there is too much violence,especially on the domestic scene with people you are supposed to love.Probably the reason is because the aggressor feels that their domestic victim won't make a court case out of it.

    However,while women will generally get the worse of it,domestic violence is a two-way street.I knew a guy who used to play for a senior soccer club and suffered violence from a girl friend.He was the type who

    wouldn't hit a woman under any circumstances.(My father was like that.)I remember finding this guy badly scratched under both eyes,caused by his girlfriend's fingernails.At first,i had thought he had got drunk and had been walking into street lamps.What was his crime?He had repaired a record player in her house.Her children,by a previous relationship,were trying to protect him.I reckon she sabotaged the record player.Either she just didn't like the music,or the neighbours thought it was too loud.

    I wonder why her children's father was no longer around.It is not just

    100 pound weaklings who suffer from this violence.  

    I'm just a bit different.I don't go around looking for people to hit but,if a woman hit me,i'd hit back. 

    Chat shows here in Scotland sometimes make me want to throw up.Only

    one presenter,a woman,has ticked off her audience for giggling when a

    discussion about domestic violence was about the man being the victim.

    I suppose the male presenters were worried that,since it was daytime TV and their audience was mainly female,it would not be a good idea to

    antagonize the female viewers.

    When a woman is violent to her husband or children,reasons such as stress or depression are trotted out.These reasons may be valid but,somehow,these reasons are not acceptable for men.

  • Guest

    This is a tough issue to address once it is in full swing, eg the girl is already dating a "David".  At that point, she won't be able to hear her family or friends when they express concern…kind of like an addict!

    I think Heidi's best advice is for the girl to follow her FIRST instincts–quickly–when she gets the "Uh! Oh!" feeling.  After that initial reaction, I think she could get seduced by the compliments, gifts, and even the possesiveness.

    As a teen  ager I went out with a couple of guys who had the potential of involving me in a controling, unhealthy relationship.  I definately had the "heeby-geebies" about the gifts and attention. Funny enough, it was My Mother's own low self esteem that could have kept me in those potentially destructive relationships.  I didn't feel comfortable explaining to her why I "broke things off" (even though she thought we had excellent communication), therefore, when I had ended the relationships and the guys would come over to my house bawling and wanting to see me, she would try to pressure me into a dialog.  Frankly, I've resented her behavior during my dating years ever since.

    Complicated factors go into who a person dates.  I think a person's dating partners reflect not only their needs, wants, and desires but are also anfluenced by the supporting family, community, and peer group.  (Head cheerleader dates the QB!)  Kids need to be taught prudence early on and emotional well being is imperative in building dating relationships which really should be premised on "is this the person God sent me to grow in holiness so that our family can attain heaven".

    By the way, I've been married to my college sweetheart for 21 years, we have 11 kids and my mother approved of him some of the time–when he did what she wanted!  Now she knows for a fact that he is the most wonderful man in the world (albeit human) and that my instincts were correct regarding him!  God is good and merciful!  I will forever rejoice in His divine manuevering during my dating years…and so will my kids!

    Pray for our teens!

  • Guest

    Call me Heidi, please.

    I would be grateful for anyone and everyone used this article to help keep a teenager safe. If the article is reprinted in any form, please include the following credit line. "Copyright 2007 Heidi Hess Saxton. Reprinted by permission. Contact author at"

    Violence — whether by men or women — is not acceptable. However the vast, vast majority of those who are abused are women … and many of them are afraid to talk about it. If anyone suspects they know of someone who is being abused, and wants to intervene but doesn't know how, please get a copy of the Canticle article. It outlines a very practical strategy to help someone break the cycle of violence.

    Heidi Hess Saxton Editor, "Canticle" Magazine Blogroll

  • Guest

    You are right about getting the dating teenager to break things off. Knowing what I know now, I would do whatever was necessary — including moving to another state, or sending the teen to live with out-of-state grandparents — to break up that relationship. A less drastic measure might be an "intervention" of friends and family, to help teen understand their concerns. Family counseling might also help.

    Heidi Hess Saxton Editor, "Canticle" Magazine Blogroll

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    You know, the Bible pastor with whom I took advanced Bible study had one idea worth considering.

    He would have teen girls make a covenant with their fathers (and/or older brothers, maybe) to have any ‘suitor’ ask her father for his approval to ask his daughter out. Prior to the ‘interview’, the girl could discuss with her Dad how interested – or, not – she was in the young man; so Dad could form his interview with her completely in mind.

    BTW, if you’re interested in how I treated Heidi’s article on MySpace, go here( to pull it from my blogs there.

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    I think a big part of the problem is teenagers entering into serious dating relationships way too early.  A teenage girl is very vulnerable and doesn't have the maturity or strength to handle a relationship that gets too serious too fast, and can often get sucked and trapped quickly.  I think parents need to set very firm limits on teenage dating to prevent a situation where a girl's self esteem can be permanently damaged.  Her teenage years are years that she'll never get back. I've seen this happen to friends of mine.

  • Guest

    Very infomative article.  Thanks, Heidi!  Another great strategy to consider is worth mentioning.  All families should consider a family policy that prohibits what has been called "recreational dating".  Thanks to Steve Woods ( and others, there are some great resources to help you develop and establish such a policy.  Even though it is counter cultural, most, if not all teenagers, need not, and should not date for recreational purposes.  My three teenagers have an excellent social life, and yet, do not "date."  The oldest was one of the most popular kids in the class, the second oldest was elected president of the class, and the third will likely do better then that! 


    Before you pass off the idea of a "no dating policy" as fringe thinking, think about it. As someone once said, dating teaches children to bond and break up, and then to repeat the pattern sometimes dozens of times until they "find the perfect match."  In the meantime, they have been "trained" to dispose of relationships, sometimes with little charity, and have now become well programmed to accept divorce as an option.  Whose idea was this anyway?!?  Could the typical case of abuse be prevented by not allowing young people (under 18) to form an intimate relationship (exclusive dating, kissing, etc.) before he or she has matured enough to know the difference between a healthy relationship and a bad one?


    Of course, such a family policy is best implemented when all of the children are young.  Talking about it and the reason for it in an appropriate and matter of fact way before children reach the middle school years is a wise thing to do.  The bonus for having this policy in place is that you, as the parent and head of the family, then have a better chance of involving your children in more productive activities with noble purposes.    

    God bless you and yours, TJO (2 Cor 5:14)

  • Guest

    Tjeo:  you are so right!  That's exactly the point I was trying to make.

  • Guest

    Very good article. Keep in mind 1 of every 3 women and 1 out of every 6 men are sexually abused before they are 18. It's an epidemic!


    wljewell you have a good point about interviewing before the date…but if the brother or Dad are the abusers in the first place…she won't get a fair accessment.


    TJO is also good advice. I like the idea of not "casual" dating but actually getting together in groups of kids..preferably with an adult guardian or a public enough place for all to see what's going on with the group of friends.


    Speaking as a woman of 40 and an Incest survivor(My parents were both the perpetrators) make sure your teens report to their parents suspicious behavior of those on the "outskirts" of their "group". As Heidi said, there are kids out here who are hurting in bad family life and need help. Being a teenager is hard enough without the pressures of bad family life.


    If your parent is an alcoholic or has mental problems..please please find help! There is Alateen available for teens and Adult Children of Alcoholics for adults. You've got to understand the cycle of abuse you are caught up in. AND then need to learn the tools to get out. AA is just a stepping stone. The framework of the Sacraments in the Most Holy Catholic church have graced my life for healing. Especially weekly confession and receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.


    God Bless you Heidi and all others who have a sincere heart to help teens/tweens early!

  • Guest

    I don't know what the secret formula for success is, but I have 4 teenagers and none of them "dated" before 18, included going on "a date".  It has never come up as an issue.  These kids are also popular in H.S. and on their various athletic teams.  They hang out in mixed gender groups (and see lots of kids in skimpy bathing suits–they're competitive swimmers!Wink)

    Why have our kids been successful so far?

    • My husband and I are chaste in our marriage,therefore, we lead by example.
    • My husband and I are in unison on the issue, therefore, we don't send mixed messages regarding the core values of our family.
    • My husband is a strong, loving father.  He has a presence and never makes it felt
    • The kids have strong family bonds through homeschooling and the family's formation on Christ and His Church.
    • The kids have always been encourged and supported in their pursuit of excellence in sports, music, and other activities, therefore, they feel strong in themselves and have been taught to give glory to God through their talents.
    • My husband and I point out postitive and negative role models vis-a-vis this issue and actually carry on reciprocal dissusions on it.
    • We don't talk about dating as if it has a value for them at this point.  (I reference my mother again.  I feel like she placed a value on me having a boyfriend.  If you're dating you must be likable.)  Steve Woods is correct in all his counsiling on this issue.

    Our kids have never signed chastity pledges to us, themselves, their future spouse, or anybody else that I know of.  My opinion only, but I think that process seems artificial and contrived…but I'm glad if it works for others and I'll always leave that process open for my other kids.

    Parenting is complicated.  Forming other human beings is an awesome task.  Unfortunately, we as parents don't always know the significance for the good or bad of our actions.  In my case, I do reflect on what I think has been successful thus far.  I hope that my husband and I can stay the course for another 20 years, literally.

    PS My 2nd child turned 17 today and she went to prom with 3 of her best girlfriends:  fancy car, fancy dinner, fancy dress and the smiling pictures to prove it!  I'm sure her future husband would be smiling somewhere today if he knew about her!

  • Guest

    What a fabulous article.  It really touched home for me.  The check list is a great idea, I had a friend in High School that could have benefited from it 25 years ago.  For myself the check list is irrelevant as my first husband starting abusing me after marriage and did not display the "typical" behavior before marriage.  His parents were shocked when they found out, my parents were less sympathetic and to this day do not believe that it happened.

    I came from a broken family with a history of abuses all over the board.  If your child has a friend with such a family, please do not hesitate to take that child in and show them how it can be different.  Our actions are very important and we have the means to break the circle of abuse.  God has intrusted us with such gifts and grace.

    Remember domestic violence is not just a "poor man's" desease.  It is very prevalent among the well educated and is more often "not" reported or ever disclosed in social circles.  It is very "UNBELIEVABLE" in those circles.  I know all to well!

    In Christ,


  • Guest

    I'm heartened to see the interest in this topic, and the spin-off topic of "dating." 


    Thank you Heidi for allowing the reproduction of your article with credit.  Mary K. if you are reading this, perhaps you would see the merit in inviting Steve or Stephanie Woods to submit an article on "dating" and the alternatives to it from a Catholic family perspective. I don't know the Woods' personally or have connections or I'd suggest it myself. 


    Thanks, and God bless you and yours, TJO (2 Cor 5:14)

  • Guest

    In human history, dating is a relatively recent and obviously disastrous development.  For most of human history courtship was done in the context of family and community.  It still is done this way in many "backwards" parts of the world.

    The fact that our culture thinks two teenagers of the opposite sex going off in the evenings by themselves is not a recipe for trouble, but instead a good and normal thing to do is plain nuts.

    Can we not see that by accepting and even encouraging our children to date and break up repeatedly from the age of fifteen or so until their mid twenties, we virtually train our children into the no-fault divorce mindset?

    Sowing and reaping.

  • Guest

    Thank you for this article. I reprinted it on both my blog and website.

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    My daughter, Helena, already has made her daughter and my sweet granddaughter, Rachel, read my blog on this.

    Helena has in the past decreed that she will give her beloved Rachel permission to date five years after Rachel has successfully left the nest – ‘NOT BEFORE!’

    She may eventually suggest to her son that priestly chaplains get to jump with the paratroopers to get him into something other (and less dangerous) than ‘girls’.

    :))) – (got several chins . . .)

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    Triangulate this with –
    – Friend-of-CE Thomas Augustine O’Toole’s Friday the Thirteenth and the Horror Show Headlines and
    – the news that ‘Births to Unwed Mothers Increase to Record Proportion in US’ and
    – you can see why I feel like I’m in a ‘. . . cold sweat in a hot pan . . .’

    Remember, I love you, too

    Reminding that we are all on the same side – His,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    Great job spreading this around Warren.  Maybe they will share with friends too.