Educating Teens About Trafficking

Growing up in New Jersey in the 90’s, the world was a bit smaller than it is today.

Places like the west coast seemed like another world and other countries were things we read about in history books and saw on the news. To book a trip to a foreign country would take planning and lots and lots of saving. Most middle class families like mine looked at air travel as a luxury. Even traveling from coast to coast was often done with the family car in typical “road trip” fashion.

Since the 90’s however, travel has become much simpler.

With a few taps of your phone, you can have a ticket booked to an exotic location of your choice. People can even book a trip for someone else. But what if that person is a minor?

TSA does not currently require minors to present identification for domestic flights.

On August 31st 2017, two teenage girls age 15 and 17 were stopped by an American Airlines customer service agent in the Sacramento Airport. As they checked in for their flight, the agent realized they had no identification, no adult traveling with them and that the tickets were one-way.

The American Airlines employee was concerned and immediately alerted local authorities.

The girls told police that they had come to the airport without their parents’ knowledge, and believed their contact in New York had bought returned tickets.

You may say “my kid wouldn’t do that” so let’s unpack this a bit more.

These girls were found through Instagram and lured to New York for the weekend with the promise of earning $2,000 for modeling and appearing in music videos. For a teenager, being seen and feeling valued is hard enough to pass up. When there is a paycheck and free travel attached, its practically a no-brainer.

This process is called “grooming” and it is used often in human trafficking.

Grooming is a series of manipulative steps that can make someone take action that they otherwise wouldn’t do. If someone asked you to cross a street for $1, you probably wouldn’t bat an eye. If that street were turned into a busy 4 lane highway, your answer may change. But if the number went up to $1,000, $10,000, or even $100,000, would you change your mind? Better yet, what if someone said they could provide you a helicopter that went across the highway, that would keep you safe?

Traffickers often target people’s need to feel important, and to earn a living.

The CIA breaks down human needs with the acronym: RICE. This stands for Reward, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. These needs are used as levers to pull and make people act in a predictable or desired way. As the saying goes, everyone eats RICE and everyone relates to these levers in different degrees. Some people react more with the promise of money (reward). Others with a feeling of belonging or a sense of purpose (ideology).

In the case of the two teenage girls, they were targeted using ego and reward. They were told they would be featured as models and in music videos, and they would be well paid for their time.

“What can I do as a parent to safeguard my children against this?”

When kids are young, you are their hero. You magically know the answer to everything and are trusted at your word – often to a fault. This relationship dynamic primes us as parents to want to fulfill that hero role as our children grow into young adults.

Being involved in your child’s life, especially in the teenage years can be hard. If you’re anything like me, you probably remember most conversations from your teens going like this:

Teen comes home from school

😃 Mom: Hey honey, how was your day?

😑 Me: Good.

End scene

This can be a hard barrier to break down.

Positioning yourself as a guide rather than a hero can strengthen your relationship.

If you try to be the hero to your teenager, they will shut you out every time. They don’t want to be saved. They want to explore and they want to do so independently. It is up to us as parents to guide them as they do. You won’t have an answer to everything, but there are three tools that you can use to be a guide:

1. Listen.

Take the time and effort to listen thoughtfully. Approach their lives with genuine curiosity and interest. Leave your preconceived notions at the door and listen with intention. Resist the urge to listen to half their story, then immediately try to relate with your own personal experience. If you do this, you will likely shut them down. Instead, convey that what they are going through is unique to them – because it is. Meet them where they are.

2. Equip.

Talk to your children about the real threats and dangers in the world. Explain why it is important to not disclose personally identifiable information on the internet, or trust people you meet online. Learn about and discuss the realities of trafficking, and unravel the narrative that will turn into Liam Neeson and come save them from a brothel. Equip them to make smart decisions about their internet habits and relationships. provides a number of talking points and ways to approach this difficult conversations on their blog site.

3. Empower.

Remind them that you are always there to be the hero – but your primary role now is as a guide. In this new role, you are there to help them find their own way. You can make observations, and be a guiding light. Tell them about times you’ve been targeted by a phishing email or received an unsolicited message.

A friend once told me that as a parent, we are shaping arrows. The intent was never for them to stay in the quiver, but to be shot out into the world. The best we can do is make sure they fly straight.

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