Empowering Youth to Protect Themselves

Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking at an anti-trafficking seminar in a rural town in Minnesota. We had a pretty full house, and I was thrilled to help raise awareness on this issue and, hopefully, inspire people to get involved.

My topic was on how to help young people protect themselves, because let’s be real, once adults learn about this issue–they want to lock their kids away because they do not want them to be hurt. But, obviously, this can’t happen. Adults can, however:

1) Empower young people to protect themselves; and

2) Instill a message of worth and value that has nothing to do with what they have done or what’s been done to them.

So here’s a little snipit of what I shared with them.


Before talking about safety, it’s important to understand what vulnerability looks like. Interviews and surveys done with survivors of human trafficking have identified some of the following as being indicators a young person is vulnerable to trafficking:

  • Insecurity
  • Desire to be loved or have affection
  • Often left unsupervised
  • Own or have access to a computer
  • Feel misunderstood
  • Live in poverty or near poverty
  • Homeless or runaways – in fact, the common average is that 1 in 3 youth are approached by a trafficker or recruiter within 48 hrs of leaving home

From this list, we determine that almost all youth are vulnerable in some form or fashion, while certain populations may have a higher risk than others.


So, how do these vulnerable young people get into a trafficking situation in the first place? We often think of movies like Taken or the stories about children who are kidnapped and then sold, but a big chunk of trafficking, especially sex trafficking the US, happens through recruitment. So what does recruitment look like?

  • An older guy notices a girl, compliments her, even starts pursuing her like any normal boyfriend; and eventually, has her falling in love with him. Then, he starts asking her to do things that push beyond her boundaries. Or the first part of the relationship may look amazing, but then one night, he rapes her and sells her to his clients.
  • False advertisements for modeling, acting, singing or acting opportunities.
  • Peer recruitment – there have been a handful of cases where girls sell younger girls at parties in exchange for drugs or alcohol.
  • Internet and social media, video games, any way to meet new friends or acquaintances.
    • In fact a study sites that 1 in 7 youth experience unwanted sexual solicitations on the internet.
  • Hang out spots – recruiters will go where they know youth are. Malls, movie theaters, coffee shops. You can click here for a story from a survivor who was picked up at a mall.

Traffickers prey upon a person’s vulnerability. Whatever the youth or adult needs, that’s what the trafficker offers. If it’s love, they give them love. If it’s stuff, they give them stuff. If it’s a place to stay, they give them a place to stay. Whatever it is, the trafficker offers help and gains the person’s trust.

Empowering Young People to Protect Themselves

So, how can we help young people protect themselves? Many of these tips and topics are probably common for parents and teachers to share with young people, but I think it’s important to reiterate these from this lens. When I talk with teenagers, this is exactly the stuff I bring up with them.

Encourage young people to:

Go to a trusted adult when struggling with something

Young people often go to peers to sort out issues, but peers can’t always help solve issues. This is why mentors and strong parent-child relationships are vital.

Adults can create an environment where young people don’t feel judged by if they came with a problem or question. Listen when they bring something to you. Ask them questions to help them solve the problem instead of simply tell them what to do. This empowers the young person to learn how to come up with creative solutions.

Be careful who you trust and how you trust

It is essential to help young people navigate friendships and relationships to learn what trustworthy people are like. Model it to them. Help them understand why they may be hurting in a friendship if trust was broken and talk ideas on how to navigate those situations.

Help young people assess who is trustworthy too by giving examples of “fishy” things. For example, if you’ve just met someone and he/she is asking very invasive questions, he/she may not be the safest person to trust information to.

Understand the reality of pornography, abuse, violence and sex trafficking

Education and understanding make a huge difference. I highly suggest having numerous conversations about these topics so that young people are very aware. With the average age of entry into sex trafficking dropping to 11 or 12, you cannot wait until a young person is a teenager to talk about these things. Obviously, use age appropriate language, but do not avoid the conversation. If you don’t tell them first, they will find out some other way, and most likely in an unhealthy or harmful way.

Be specific in your training. Make sure they understand how they could be lured in, what to be keeping an eye out for, what abuse looks like, what questions to ask themselves in different situations.

This is important not only for your child but also for him or her to be able to also keep an eye out for peers. In a survivor video by Shared Hope Intl, the youth survivor said it was a friend who saved her. He noticed what was going on and told her parents before she was taken by her new “boyfriend” to a different state.

Don’t put yourself in situations where you do not have control

Remind them to be careful whose cars they’re getting into–even friends of friends. I remember getting in so many cars of friends, especially when I was younger and the kids were older than me. Make sure they know how they can get around and from place to place without having to rely on people they don’t know well. Or set up a system where they call or text you before they get in a car so that you know where they are at all times.

It is also important to talk about substances (drugs and alcohol) from this angle, because substances limit your ability to protect yourself. Becoming drunk or high put you in a position where you could be taken advantage of.

Also, remind young people that they don’t need to stay in situations where they are uncomfortable; especially in social situations. Young people have the power to make their own decisions.

Create safety plans

If youth are ever in a vulnerable situation, they need to know how they can respond. Set up safety plans. If they go to a party, have a plan for how they can get home quickly without relying on a friend to get them home.

If they feel they cannot tell you what’s going on in that moment, have a safe word they can say or text to you so you know they feel uncomfortable. Something like, “I feel like there’s an elephant in the room,” may seem just like a random phrase to those around him or her, but you will know exactly what your child is trying to say.

Make sure they know your number by heart (not just in their phone).

Make sure they also know of safe resources in your community. They need to know where there are safe places.

Be safe on social media and through text messaging

Remind them not to give away too much personal information to people they meet on line. Remind them how easy it is to forward or mass produce content. Teach them responsibility if they do get something from another friend, not to spread it or use it against them.

Recognize some of the most unsafe social media trends. Ask kids what is hip and then ask what each of those platforms do, what is shared and what is talked about.

Recruiters and kidnappers use this kind of information to find vulnerabilities.

Reminding girls (and boys too) that any picture they post online is there forever.

Any photo that you post is ALWAYS online. There is no way to delete it; even if it looks like it’s gone, it is not gone.

Also, text messages to significant others can very quickly end up online or forwarded to other kids. So, reminding them that there is never a good reason to share seductive pictures. Again, remind girls especially that their worth and value is not in their image, and that no boy should be asking them for that.

Just a side comment, this has become increasingly common as many boys are addicted to pornography. It’s essential to help young people become free from their addiction. Read more on this topic here.

How to approach the conversation

The right approach for these conversations is essential. Start by reminding the young person that his/her worth is not tied to anything he or she does or experiences.

The biggest struggles that children and teenagers face is that they are still figuring out their identity. And often, in that struggle, they perceive themselves as:

1) a failure because they do not measure up to expectations–yours, teachers, friends, significant others,

2) because of harmful things done to them, they must deserve it or not be worth as much somehow.

These negative messages are incredibly loud and overwhelming to a young person. They desperately need people constantly sharing positive reinforcement in their lives.

When I think back to my teenage years, the moments that meant the most to me are ones where an adult or peer emphasized to me that I had worth–despite my faults or scars. I would not have gotten out of the abusive relationship I was in if people hadn’t been reminding me constantly that I have worth and value.

I heard an analogy once:

The speaker held up a brand-new, crisp $100 bill and asked the congregation if anyone wanted it. Of course, we all shouted that we did. The speaker then scrunched the note up and jumped on it. He held it up again, only this time all scrunched up, and asked who still wanted it. Again, everyone shouted that we still wanted it.

He then described the history of that bill. He proceeded to tell us that the $100 bill had been used to buy drugs, to pay for sex with a prostitute, and then had been stolen. He finished by asking us who still wanted it. Undaunted, the entire congregation immediately raised their hands; we were all still willing to take it. We all understood that the value of money was not determined by what it had experienced or even how it looked. Its value was determined by the Treasury Department that had printed that bill. The speaker then drew the parallel between our view of the $100 bill and God’s view of a lost person. (original source: The Highest Value by Christine Caine)

No matter what, a young person is worth Jesus’ blood on the cross. He died despite our sin or failures or experiences. Start with the Gospel when talking with kids about these hard topics.

In practice

You care for your child or the young people in your classroom or church or youth group. But how are you listening to them? How are you engaging in conversation with them that is open, nonjudgmental and safe? How are you empowering them to assess situations and realize they have the power and freedom to move out of vulnerable situations?

If you found out a your daughter sent a suggestive photo to someone, how would you react? Would you remind her that she is worth more than her body image or what her significant other thinks of her? Would you ask her why she felt like she needed to send this photo? Did she feel pressured? Did she feel like you had to compete with other girls?

Don’t misunderstand. You still talk to her about why that was not okay for her to do. But, by sharing that her actions put her in a vulnerable state empowers her not to do it again. By starting the conversation with concern for her, you just amplified her self-worth before you pointed out any unwise decision she made.

More to come

I know some of you will have more questions about how to talk with your kids, how to handle social media, etc. I will be pulling together a few more posts for you. One great one to start with is the 5 things youth wish their parents know when talking about pornography. This is a great series of tips on how to talk with your kids about such a hard and accepted topic.

More to come!