Dr. Saltzman is a physician, mindfulness coach, author, former Stanford gymnast, and abuse survivor who is passionate about creating protective prevention programs and establishing comprehensive national policies to end abuse in sports and other community programs.
Research indicates children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of seven and thirteen. Unfortunately, engaging, age-appropriate educational materials that teach children to recognize and prevent abuse are almost non-existent.
“Spot a Spider” is a groundbreaking new training program started by Dr. Amy Saltzman, M.D, that teaches children, teens, and young adults how to protect themselves from all types of abuse: sneaky (covert) emotional abuse (also known as grooming), and obvious (overt) emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Let’s dig in!
Scroll down to read the full episode transcribed.
What You Will Learn:
- Recognize the subtle threads a spider weaves to trap others in their trap.
- How perpetrators use our fear and desire to control others.
- Understand the data that shows the more comfortable kids and families use proper body names, the less likely they are to be abused.
- The signs of a coach or teacher or someone of authority grooming your child.
- Why it’s so important to continuously have conversations about abuse with our kids?
- How parents can easily make excuses or not have their eyes open regarding abuse.
- Parents are also being groomed to trick you into believing the best about your child’s perpetrator.
- What we should be teaching our kids about boundaries.
- Tips for parents who are reluctant to talk to their kids.
Where to find Spot a Spider::
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And here is the episode typed out!
Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you were failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone and you have come to the right place.
Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.
I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our families and impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and becoming more of the mom and the woman that you want to be, welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.
SHERYL: Dr. Amy, welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens podcast. I am so excited to be interviewing you. We’ve already had an amazing conversation before I hit record, and I cannot wait for you to share your mission and the wealth of wisdom you have to share with our listeners.
DR. SALTZMAN: I’m so happy to be with you and your wonderful audience.
SHERYL: I want you to start by sharing a little bit of your story that you were just sharing with me and what led you to what you’re doing today.
DR. SALTZMAN: I think I’ll start in the middle, and we’ll circle back and arrive here. But in August of 2020, after completing a full neuropsychological assessment, seven hours of testing, two hours of the neuropsychologist speaking to my mentor, and an hour of the neuropsychologist speaking to my husband, the neuropsychologist determined that my relationship with my mentor of 31 years was a relationship of undue influence, otherwise known as covert emotional abuse, or coercive control.
That realization or understanding was pretty devastating. It felt like an earthquake in my life. I lost someone I had loved and trusted or at least the illusion of the person I had loved and trusted. I temporarily lost my spiritual underpinnings and my sense of self. And a relationship with a loved one was really damaged.
Being a gymnast, as a young person, and of course, being aware of all the abuse in sports is not just gymnasts. And it’s not just sports. It happens in schools and music programs, and religious settings. And so the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there’s really nothing out there to teach kids how to spot what I call spiders: How to Spot Abusers.
So how to spot and stop abusers, most of the abuse prevention is focused on adults, and I don’t in any way want to minimize teaching adults to prevent abuse, creating a club and teen policies to prevent abuse, creating national and international policies to prevent abuse, all of that super important.
There was nothing that was talking directly to the kids about how you recognize when someone is “grooming?” When we think about grooming, we tend to think of it as something that leads to abuse, but grooming in and of itself, whether there’s any subsequent, overt, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, is still abusive.
So how do you teach kids to recognize the subtle threads that a spider weaves to trap them in their web so that they can abuse them? And since I was joking with someone from another podcast, they said, “you really understand this.” I said, “31 years of experience really helps me explain how a spider weaves the web.”
So the whole point was to teach kids how to recognize the filaments and the patterns and the whole web of abuse so that they can come to an adult they trust and say, as you had said to me, “this is creepy.”
SHERYL: So you’re using your own experience to help others and to help kids really be able to recognize what was happening to you as an adult.
DR. SALTZMAN: Yes, so it was happening to me as an adult. My abuse didn’t actually didn’t start till I was 25. And it was so slow and so insidious and so patient. I didn’t recognize it until the neuropsychologist said, “your relationship is a relationship of undue influence 31 years of a slow patient leaving.”
SHERYL: What led you to that neuropsychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatrist? Were you starting to recognize some things?
DR. SALTZMAN: So in January of 2020, I asked, after 31 years, I asked to complete my relationship with my mentor or to graduate. I mean, honestly, at the time, I thought we would complete that phase, I would take a break, and we would continue in some other form.
But what happened is when I asked to complete, first of all, I was essentially paying for my sessions and a loved one session. I was paying this person’s living expenses. And she began – not she began – she continued to gaslight me and told me either I had early Alzheimer’s or that I was resisting my spiritual growth. I had been committed to my spiritual growth and my spiritual evolution.
And then she made a mistake. And she insisted that I get this evaluation. And my sense is that she thought that when she spoke to the neuropsychologists that she was going to convince them neuropsychologists that I was a bad student. I went into the evaluation actually thinking that would be the outcome that I would have Alzheimer’s, that I would have some other neurological condition, or that I was just in fear of my own spiritual evolution because that’s a tactic that an abuser, whether it’s a life coach, or an athletic coach, or, a music teacher or school teacher, they use your fear, they use your desire and your fear to control you.
So that’s one kind of pattern that you can look for. It’s so they’ll say, “without me, you’ll never become the spiritually evolved person or the athlete or the concert pianist that you want to be.” And then if you push back or challenge, then they’ll say, “Well, you’re acting out of fear, you’re resisting your growth, maybe you don’t have what it takes.” And so they’re playing on your desire and your fear to control you.
SHERYL: So it is like spinning a web. And you get so tangled up in it that it’s difficult to see it.
DR. SALTZMAN: Yeah, and especially if they’re super patient. A thread at a time. And so, not only do they tell you these things, but then at some point, you kind of absorb it yourself. And even if they’re not, it’s like, “oh, well, I must be resisting the coaching. It must be my fear that must be holding me back if I was just braver. I would get over this obstacle.” And so you start gaslighting yourself at some point – it gets absorbed and internalized almost like it’s your fault.
SHERYL: You‘ll lose big time if you don’t go along with it. So tell us about tell our listeners about the program. I think maybe that’s a really good inroad that you have developed. And it’s “Spot a Spider.”
DR. SALTZMAN: So it’s spotaspider.com. And the main two main pieces that are of most interest to your listeners are there are two videos. One is called “how to spot a sneaky spider.” And that’s all about how to spot these grooming behaviors. It’s showing your kids these behaviors that should cause concern. These are the behaviors that I want you to come home with and tell me if your coach or your guitar teacher does this.
And then the second video is “how to spot a sneaky spider,” which is covert emotional abuse or grooming, which I think is the hardest because it’s super subtle, super, super subtle. And then “how to spot an obvious spider” is how to spot obvious or overtly emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. And they are obvious, but I still think we don’t talk about them enough as kids and as parents.
And for some crazy reason, and I will say in this case, I think sports is the worst. We let coaches get away with stuff that we would never let a classroom teacher do. We let coaches yell at someone, and somehow it’s okay, or we let coaches throw things. And so one of the rules or suggestions in how to spot an obvious spider is if your coach is doing a behavior that wouldn’t be acceptable in a classroom for a teacher in a classroom, then it’s probably abusive.
And then, I do talk directly about the various forms of physical abuse. I talk directly using correct anatomical terms about sexual abuse because there’s data to show that the more comfortable kids and families use proper terms, the less likely they are to be abused.
And then, in the resources sections, there are discussion questions for each video. And in the obvious spider resources, parents can choose two different images. It’s super clear; click here for a nude, anatomically correct version of a male and a female body. And click here for a G-rated bathing suit version so that parents can choose how they want to discuss this with their kids.
But the more you discuss it, the more openly you discuss it, and the less likely your child will be abused. Sexual abuse is kind of the worst-case long-term scenario. But what I’m trying to do with “how to spot a sneaky spider” is to back way, way up, go way, way upstream, so that kids can recognize, for example, if someone starts texting you individually or if you’re on a team, and the coach wants to drive you home, or something that sounds great, like, “Oh, I’d really like to work on your free throw with you.” With no one else they’re like that, that’s the place where I want people to start thinking about
SHERYL: Yes, I am so grateful that you’re doing this because that’s where I think we go. We don’t want anybody to sexually abuse our kids. But there are so many things that we’re not talking about – the abuse that begins to happen.
It happened with one of the teachers I told you about at my kid’s school before we got on here. And it ended up that this teacher started messaging my kid, and it was in eighth grade or freshman year in high school, and then he started showing up at a game, and he was like, “this is creepy.”
I was minimizing it at the time. I didn’t know better. I was like, “well, that’s so nice. He’s coming to your game.” That was probably, 13 or 15 years ago, maybe not that long, maybe ten years ago or 12 years ago. Now I realize he had that red flag feeling and paid attention to his gut that it did not feel right.
DR. SALTZMAN: Again, going to the game, a single text message, or a hand that’s just a little too low or a little too high. Like each one of those, as a child and as an adult, they’re really easy to write off. And this is why I want people to start to see the pattern.
Because what happened to me with the neuropsychologist was in that moment when she said, “it’s a relationship of undue influence.” It really was for me, like there had been a spider web there all along. People who loved me in my life said, “don’t you see this thread?” And for each thread, I had an excuse. Like, “why do you jump and help her when she calls?” And I would like to jump. It had a certain urgency to it.
I would say, “Oh, well, she’s not feeling well. And she just needs support.” I thought I was being kind, but I didn’t realize that I was being controlled. And so, going back to your son, it probably wasn’t just the game. The guy was coming to the game, or it was the text message. Or it was the comment. And it was the subtle, weird thing and your son saw the pattern.
I want to make the pattern super explicit so that someone can say, “oh, there’s a whole web there. And there’s a spider. I don’t want to get trapped in this web. I want to get an adult I trust to come to remove this spider.”
SHERYL: Yes. He ended up a couple of grades later, and he got caught.
DR. SALTZMAN: I wish your son was here because I’d love to hear from him. What were the other threads and patterns? Because he picked up on it. And he told you, and he also stuck to his guns with you, even though you said you were kind of dismissing it or explaining it. And that is what kept him safe.
SHERYL: Yeah. I want you to talk about some of the signs. I think there are seven. But as you say that there were some things. He was coming to me, and he was saying, “Oh, he told me that I’m his favorite student.” And then he would come up to him, and he was maybe a little too close. There was a little too much interest that felt like it crossed a boundary line.
DR. SALTZMAN: So the first thing that sneaky spiders do is they’re super charming. They make you feel special, and they do something called love bombing. So you’re my favorite student, or they might give you something simple. A pencil or, for example, with the gymnasts. The gymnasts were food restricted by Bella and Marta Karolyi. And so, Nasser would give them something to eat.
It doesn’t have to be big. It just has to have kind of that sense of specialness. And then you have that sense of specialness. And that sense of being seen. And you don’t want to lose that. And you’re in the inner circle.
Especially if you’re in a situation like sports, or a band or an orchestra or something where your playing time or your solos are dependent on this person, you want to play, and you want to have a solo. And so you want to be in that inner circle. So that’s all playing on the desired part.
And as long as that works, they’ll just be charming. But then, if that part stops working, if someone says as your son says, “This is creepy,” they’ll often be more charming. And see if that’ll work and get the person to kind of chill out, then they’ll say stuff like,” you can trust me. This is what all supportive English teachers do for their favorite students. There’s no reason for you to be nervous.”
They’ll say these types of things, and then the person will think, “well, I thought he was creepy, but maybe he’s just trying to help me, maybe he really likes me, maybe he does see something special in my writing or whatever he’s saying.”
But then, if being charming doesn’t work, to calm someone’s health worries, like your son’s health worries, they’ll often get nasty. And they’ll start bullying you and saying, “Well, maybe you don’t really have what it takes to write the great American novel.” Or “maybe you don’t want to have what it takes, in my case, to spiritually evolve, or in Simone Biles’s case, maybe you don’t have what it takes to be a world champion or an Olympian.”
And so it’s this idea of building up someone’s self-confidence that’s dependent on the abuser or eroding someone’s self-confidence if they’re not cooperating with the abuser.
So it’s like, “you need me to succeed. And without me, your dreams won’t come true.” As a society, we’ve done a pretty terrible job in setting up our systems because, especially again, with sports, but a lot of our systems, if the coach doesn’t like you, you’re not moving, you’re not playing, you’re not moving forward.
We’ve given people, individuals, way too much power. And then there’s already an imbalance of power between the coach – I’m just going to use coach and athlete for now. There’s already an imbalance of power there. And then we as a society give someone even more power because they’re determining the playing time if you get recommended for the Olympic development program, and if you get a spot on the Olympic team. You’ve got just this crazy imbalance of power.
SHERYL: Yeah. What are some of the other signs?
DR. SALTZMAN: Bragging and false humility, alternating. So one day, they’ll tell you, “Oh, I’m the greatest, and I’m going to stick again with athletes. I’m the greatest coach. I’m the greatest piano teacher.” And then, often, if they don’t want to be overtly narcissistic, then the following day, they’ll say, “Well, I would never say, I’m great.”
And then they’ll often get people to refer to them so that they’ll say, “Well, your friend, your teammate, told her five friends that I’m great. And now all those five friends want to train with me too.” And the other one is that they’ll deny their behaviors. They’ll say, “I didn’t say that,” or “I didn’t do that, or you do not remember it correctly, or that’s not how it happened.”
And that creates doubt in the person. Because actually, you did do that. But then the person’s thinking, “did he or didn’t he?”. And then the last one is, they’ll start to see if you’ll lie on their behalf. And just like with the touch, it’ll usually start with something little like they’ll say, “Oh, you didn’t finish your drills,” or “you’re being disrespectful.”
And because you don’t want to get into it, and you just want to do your sport or play your oboe, or whatever it is, you just say, “I’m sorry, I’ll finish my drills,” or “I’m sorry, I’ll be more respectful.” And then they know you’re susceptible to lying in a way that may harm you in the long run. And then they start amping that up.
It’s the same thing with a touch. Again, maybe the touch is just a little too close to the butt or a little too close to the breast. But if you brushed it off because you don’t want to make a big deal, and you just want to get through the practice, you’re not really sure if it was on purpose. Then the next time, they might be closer, and then it almost starts to feel normal.
Most of this is super gradual. You sure have people who are just abusive from the beginning and yell at their athletes or musicians. But more often, it’s this subtle thing that that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s really hard to detect.
SHERYL: So one thing that I’m just thinking is, how much are we missing in it? Because we want our kids to be successful, and something is happening, and we’re seeing it, we’re just thinking, “oh, that’s what coaches do, they push them really hard,” or they tell them that they’re really special. And that can feel good to a parent you hear them saying that they’re so gifted, and we can miss those signs. What would you say to the parents?
DR. SALTZMAN: I would say a couple of things. Groomers are super, super sneaky. They’re not just grooming the athlete, the musician, or the church parishioner. They’re grooming the parents, and often they’re grooming the community.
Nasser’s the epitome of that. He groomed entire and multiple communities for decades. And we can as parents, and we want our kids to succeed. Part of what made me so susceptible to being abused, I believe, and the more stories I hear about other people who were abused in the same way is that we’re good-hearted, kind, compassionate people. And we kind of can’t fathom that someone would operate another way.
So most of us want to see the best in someone. And in most cases, that’s warranted. But we need to be able to detect the three or 4% where it’s like, that that act of generosity is grooming, or it is love bombing, or, as your son said, it should seem nice on the surface, but it’s just a little creepy.
And again, I want to be careful not to have people throw the baby out with the bathwater because there are amazing coaches that go above and beyond for their athletes, particularly in low socio-economic settings where someone’s really struggling. And so you just want to look to see if there is a whole web there? Or is this person going out of their way to support a kid who’s struggling, and you need to be discerning about it, and you can’t be discerning about it if you’re not thinking about it in the first place?
SHERYL: What about boundaries do you think we should be teaching our kids? You talk about that. That’s where I want to encourage parents to go to your website because I watched part of the videos, and they are really good. You’re very clear. What signs should they be aware of?
DR. SALTZMAN: When someone’s kind and supportive and telling an individual athlete that they’re special, or when they’re focusing on one kid or at least one kid at a time – the setting where the sign says “no parents allowed” makes me super nervous. A coach or theater director that doesn’t let a parent in the setting or texting individuals is questionable.
If your kid comes home and says, “I’m confused,” or “the coach yelled at me,” or “coach runs hot and cold.” Those are all kinds of signs. And the videos go into it in more detail, but anything that for you or your kid – your son did it so beautifully, where it’s just like, “that feels icky,” or “that was creepy.”
Then parents need to be really open, really nonjudgmental. You – and I’m not criticizing you at all because I think it’s totally normal. But you said you dismissed some of it. If your kid is telling you something, it’s probably the tip of the iceberg.
And so, even if all you do is say, “Tell me more. Tell me how you feel. What do you see the coach doing with other people?” But the more open-ended questions – part of my practice is mindfulness. So I explained mindfulness as kindness and curiosity. If you can approach anything suspicious that your child says, with curiosity, like you’re a detective, almost, that’s going to be the most helpful thing.
Being an open listener, where your child feels safe to bumble around because unless they watch Spot a Spider, and unless you’ve had some of these conversations, it’s really hard to explain the behaviors. So they’re going to start with “mom, it felt creepy.” And then you can say, “well, what felt creepy? And is there anything else that felt creepy? How do you feel when he comes to watch your games? What other concerns do you have?”
I’m 58, and it happened to me 31 years. It took me another year and a half to lay it out in a super simple, easy, and accessible way. And it’s so small. It’s made to be dismissed. I mean, you dismissed your son because it’s intentionally made to be dismissed. You told me before we talked that the guy came with his wife. So the logical thoughts for any healthy non-abusive person are, “Oh, He came with his wife, and he was a nice guy.” It’s made to be deceptive in that way.
SHERYL: Yes. And it wasn’t just a baseball game for high school. He was playing; he ended up playing on a farm league team. So it wasn’t like he was coming to watch all the baseball players. It was just him, and he drove far with his wife.
DR. SALTZMAN: So there was a specialness.
SHERYL: Yes. And I love that we’re talking about this. And that’s why I wanted to say I was dismissing it because I don’t want parents to dismiss it. There was a piece of me that was getting something out of that. I was like, “Oh, see, my son, he’s just so special. He’s such an amazing kid.”
I love “Tell me more,” and then a little red flag goes up for us. If we see a teacher really treating our kids like they’re singling them out or giving them that love bombing, certain things that we should have a red flag to say, “tell me more.” Because what ended up happening is he was telling me he wasn’t answering his messages, and then he would love bombing more.
DR. SALTZMAN: That’s the thing. If the first charm doesn’t work, the first go-to is to be more charming. And then after that, they can if someone’s pushing back, they can get kind of nasty, or they’ll go to someone else. But, often, it’s “charm on top of the charm.”
SHERYL: So good to be able to recognize our listeners and to help our kids. Tell me more. What about the parent that’s reluctant to talk to their kids?
DR. SALTZMAN: I have two answers to this. First, I want you to think about it the way you think about any other preventive care for your kids. So I’m just going to start with crossing the street. When your kid was young, you taught them to stop at STOP signs, stop at red lights, look both ways, and if the cars are speeding up, don’t cross the street.
And the thing is, this is what’s in our control as parents, and we can talk later about what society needs to do to address these issues. But as a parent, the thing that’s in your control is teaching your kid the warning signs in their relationships. All I can say is as awkward as this conversation will be for you. I don’t think it needs to be awkward. And I actually hope that I’ve made it super, super easy for people, super easy, super approachable.
There are discussion questions that accompany each video; I’ve made it as straightforward as it could be. But I promise you that as awkward as you feel about this conversation, and I hope you don’t feel awkward, you will feel way worse about having a conversation if your child experiences abuse.
So you have to compare. Would you rather talk about it, have it be awkward before and prevent it, or have it be really excruciatingly painful afterward and not prevented? And if you’re a parent who didn’t talk to your kid and whose kid was abused in some way, emotionally, physically, or sexually, what’s done is done.
You want to have compassion for yourself. You did the best you could with the knowledge that you had. And now you want to have supported conversations, or at least make sure your child’s having supportive conversations with a trauma-sensitive person to untangle what happened and heal from that. But you would prefer to have the awkward conversation now than have your child have those conversations later.
SHERYL: Well, and it’s nice that you have made these videos so accessible, and it can be a tool for conversation because I think that’s what we need we need those tools to help us. It’s just really helpful. And it really explains very clearly what to be looking for. It can be really confusing in your mind when this is happening. And you want to dismiss it, and it just spells it out.
DR. SALTZMAN: The idea is to make it simple, easy, and approachable, do it in the comfort of your own home if you find it valuable and you’re in a position where you’re on the PTA, or you want to take it to your club director or to the director of the orchestra or to your the leadership at your church and say “look I did this with my kids.”
As important as it is for us to protect our own kids, that’s the place where we have control. There are things that we can lobby our schools, our clubs, our theater groups, and our robotics groups to put in place also to protect our children.
So on the website, in addition to the discussion questions, there are hiring questions and screening guidelines so that when a team is hiring a coach, you ask these questions, and if they have certain answers, you’re going to go, “ah, this guy sounds like a spider or this woman.”
Again, I want to ensure that we know it can be any gender. “This woman sounds like a spider, I think I will pass.” These are the things that we want to train people to look for. And then, there are broader policy recommendations.
So, for example, a sports club should encourage people to watch Spot a Spider and do the screening and hiring for the coaches. They should train the coaches and the staff to spot spiders. They should have clear anonymous reporting, be committed to a zero-tolerance policy, and have a system for promptly addressing abuse. And that should involve a trauma-sensitive adult who’s really the youth participant’s advocate.
And then, there should be international rules and international databases. So I want this to go from you, with your kid at home on the couch, watching the videos, all the way to the International Olympic Committee. Here’s what we need to do. For example, abusers often hop from club to club or sport to sport. And so we need international databases. And the databases should not include just sexual abuse. They should include emotional and physical abuse as well.
SHERYL: Yeah, hopping around and having been reported and then and nobody knows.
DR. SALTZMAN: Right. So one of the things in my code of ethics is, if we let someone go because this is super common if we let someone go, we’re not going to say, “Oh, they left for personal reasons, or we had different coaching philosophies,” they’re going to say, “we let this person go because we had concerning reports of abuse.” And if they’re really on their game, they’re going to say that publicly to the media so that Nasser doesn’t go from gym to gym.
SHERYL: Yeah or the teacher doesn’t go from this school to this school.
DR. SALTZMAN: The priest doesn’t go from this church to that church or the youth pastor.
SHERYL: That has happened. Churches that we know, locally, that’s happened.
DR. SALTZMAN: Right. And you could take this to them and say, I’ll just tell you my humorous one. The Pope recently came out and started apologizing for the abuse in the church. I wrote my PR person and said as a joke, “what if the Pope promoted Spot a Spider? How many people would that protect if the Pope promoted “Spot a Spider” worldwide? And it would be a way for the church to make amends for all the abuse in the past.
SHERYL: Because it’s one thing to say we’re sorry. It’s another thing to really proactively do something to stop it. Thank you, Dr. Amy. This has been super helpful. I want to get the word out about your Spot a Spider and all that you’re doing and the resources you share and talk to their kids and their schools about it and their churches and places that really need your program. So tell everybody where they can find you.
DR. SALTZMAN: Yeah, it’s super simple. I’m at www.spotaspider.com. I’m most socially fluent right now on Twitter, and that’s @spotspiders. But the website is a really good place to start. And anyone with a group of any size can use the fundraising piece. So even if you want to start with your girl’s volleyball team with 12 players, you can still use the fundraising piece.
SHERYL: Well, thank you. So grateful for you to be on the show.
DR. SALTZMAN: It was awesome. And I’m so grateful to your son. You can tell him the next time you see him. He should be grateful to himself because he saved himself a lot of grief.
SHERYL: Yeah. Well, I will tell him that. That’s what we want. Our kids know when something doesn’t feel right.
DR. SALTZMAN: That’s all – if people walk away with that one thing. If kids can say this doesn’t feel right, and parents can say, I hear you, and I’m going to listen to you and protect you. If people come away from this podcast with just that – that’s enough.