As a follow up to my post on Sexual Abuse, I wanted to elaborate on the behavior of my parents when I shared the news. The idea is to provide some insight from a victim’s perspective on constructive and nonconstructive ways that a parent might handle the realization that sexual abuse occurred in their family.
There are a few facts that I want to clarify before I talk about it in greater detail.
First, unlike what occurred with the 5 Browns, my parents had nothing to do with the initial abuse. When I say I’m speaking to parents, I am assuming that I am talking about loving parents who are not the abusers themselves. In cases where one of the parents is indeed the perpetrator, hopefully these comments will help the other parent.
Second, I am a parent now. I understand the complexities of what that entails. I understand that it often involves competing values and confusing events that were nothing like what you thought you signed up for. I also know that any parent gets it wrong much of the time. The desire to protect your own children is paramount in all but a few exceptional monsters. That you sometimes fail at protecting your own children is forgivable. Not assuming the responsibility inherent in parenthood to love and protect your children once the facts are known isn’t.
Third, I’m speaking entirely from personal experience. If a professional or your own child tells you something different…listen to them.
Sexual abuse is so unthinkable that even when there are signs and indicators, parents often ignore them or mismanage the information under the naive assumption that it couldn’t possibly happen in their family, or under the hope that the least likely or least horrible explanation is true. Even decent parents stick their heads in the sand.
I tried, using an 11 year old’s vocabulary, to tell my parents what happened the very first and second time the abuse occurred. I was terrified and confused, but I tried. And my parents addressed the issue using the meager information I provided them as one might address a child for using bad language. They got mildly upset and talked to my brother. But it didn’t stop. My father even tried to get more information from me later when were alone. I was embarrassed, however, and clammed up. When the abuse didn’t stop, I gave up trying to get help.
Lessons to be learned:
- Children can not be expected to spell out the details of sexual abuse given their lack of experience and appropriate vocabulary. Even the hint of it should be taken very seriously.
- If you are unsure whether what has occurred is sexual abuse or merely normal sexual experimentation, involve a professional.
- If there is indeed sexual abuse occurring the victim has most likely been threatened to keep the secret. Therefore, they could be trying to tell you something without actually saying it.
- You’ll probably get only one chance. If you don’t intervene and stop the behavior the very first time, the child will assume that it’s not that big of a deal, or that it is normal behavior or that you are OK with it.
- If a child finds it necessary to even give you a hint of sexual behavior going on, then something is wrong.
- Protecting the potential victim should be your first priority even when the perpetrator could also be equally as loved by you. Protecting the perpetrator is a fool’s errand. You would be helping them more if you are able to nip the behavior in the bud before it becomes habitual. they’ll need counseling and guidance that you are unqualified to provide.
- If the behavior involves an unequal relationship older/younger, stronger/weaker, shy/outgoing, it’s almost certainly abusive in nature.
- “Consent” is the key operative for a healthy, normal sexual experience at any age. A child cannot under any circumstances, legally, morally, emotionally or intellectually speaking, consent to sexual behavior until well after the age of puberty. In other words, if you haven’t already had a frank conversation with your child on what a healthy sexual relationship looks like, then any sexual behavior beyond private masturbation is likely too soon or abusive in nature and you need to intervene to stop it.
- There’s a difference between taking action and taking corrective action. Corrective action almost certainly includes involving a trained professional. In the case of the LDS faith, a Bishop is NOT a trained professional.
- Don’t let justifiable or even well placed anger be the overruling emotion they witness in you. It will frighten them and they will feel like they caused it. It will also underscore their shame that they have done something terrible.
- Remain calm in their presence and assure them that they did the right thing in telling you.
In many cases, the awareness of the abuse comes years later, long after it has stopped. Let’s say that my meager attempts as a youth at reaching out to my parents gave them no hint at the covert problems occurring under their roof. When I reached out to them years later as an adult and spelled it out for them clearly and concisely, they likewise froze and failed to acknowledge the truth. I don’t actually know what the proper reaction would be. I just know that silence isn’t it.
The knowledge of what happened in the family certainly lit the flames of shame and embarrassment. My mother immediately made the whole scenario about her. If sexual abuse had indeed happened in her family then that must now mean that she had been a horrible mother all along. Instead of immediate concerns for my well-being, her immediate concern was that this meant she wasn’t the loving, protective or righteous mother she thought she was. My father dealt with it via avoidance. While they accepted my word that it had happened, they believed that that was enough and that we could go on and ignore it again.
That wasn’t good enough for me, however, and I forced their hand. I talked about it and I reminded them of the reasons why I would not bring my children near my older brother when there wasn’t adequate supervision by my wife and I. Their behavior also meant that I couldn’t leave my children in their care when there was even a remote possibility that my brother might appear. I couldn’t trust that they had the courage to protect them. When they wouldn’t take action I did.
Lessons to be learned:
- An adult who reports childhood sexual abuse still needs the support and understanding of loved ones.
- I can’t imagine one thing to be gained by making such an accusation if it weren’t true.
- Children and adults who are victims of sexual abuse should always be reassured that they are not responsible for what has happened to them.
- Report it if it is not too late.
- While it’s difficult to know what to say in many uncomfortable situations, almost anything is better than silence. How about:
- I’m sorry.
- I love you. I’m here if you need to talk.
- How can I protect you now?
- Are you seeking help from a professional who can walk you through the healing process?
- Let’s get through this together.
- What an amazing person you’ve turned out to be in spite of this.
- Do what you need to do to heal. I’ve got your back.
Lessons for ALL Parents (preventative advice)
- Teach your children the difference between proper and improper touching. No one else should touch them in places covered by a bathing suit.
- Teach them how to bath and wash themselves so there’s never a need to have someone touch them under those conditions either… even a parent.
- Tell them that being curious about the private parts of someone else is normal. Whenever they have questions about private parts they can always come and speak to mom/dad and mom/dad will TALK about it (and make sure you are willing to talk about it when the time comes using the proper names for body parts).
- Explain that there is nothing wrong with nudity under certain conditions (changing in a public locker room, for example) but that touching and privacy are usually not part of it.
- Tell your children that if someone tries to touch their body and do things that make them feel funny to say NO to that person and tell you right away (teach them the exceptions – a doctor conducting an exam, or accidental touching when wrestling for example).
- Assure them that you would never be upset or mad at them if it happened and so it is ALWAYS best to tell you (and make sure you keep this promise if it happens).
- Teach your children that respect does not mean blind obedience to adults and to authority. For example, don’t tell children to always do everything the teacher or baby-sitter tells them to do. Teach them that there are some situations that they can say no to, but that they should always tell you when that happens.
- Encourage professional prevention programs in the local school system and in churches.
- Give your boys and girls a healthy sense of ownership over their own bodies. At a very young age they should be able to select their own clothes, bath themselves, and otherwise take care of their bodies through diet and exercise. They shouldn’t be forced to kiss or hug relatives if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.
- Girls (and boys too) should never be made to feel like their bodies are objects to be displayed or even hidden from others. Obsessing over modesty on one end and allowing young kids to dress older than is appropriate for their age on the other end are opposite sides of the same coin. They both send the message to children that their bodies are not their own and that they are merely tools or signals for others.
- Sexual Abuse pt 1