How to Empower a Child to Tell if they are being Sexually Abused

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My sister and I co-parent our children. I’m Aunt Mama to her kids and she’s Aunt Mom to mine. We also both experienced sexual abuse as children, so it was important to us to figure out a way to let our kids know that they could and should tell us if they were being abused. We wanted to do this in a way that would make the kids feel safe to share the information with us.

Six months ago, my thirteen-year-old niece came to my sister and I with the horrifying revelation that her father sexually abused her. Since then, her mother and I have blamed ourselves in so many ways. We both know, logically, that we aren’t at fault- but if you’ve ever played it, you know logic doesn’t have a lot to do with the blame game.

Recently, we’ve acknowledged that while we made mistakes along the way, we did a lot right as well.

Here is some advice, gleaned from our experiences, about giving your kids the tools and words to tell someone they trust if they are being sexually abused.

1. Bodily integrity isn’t “Adults Only”

Something I wish we did more of was telling our children, “Your body belongs to you. If someone is touching you in a way you don’t like, you have the right to tell them to stop.”

My niece experienced some touches from her father that made her uncomfortable, but he disguised them as “snuggling”.

She didn’t realize she had the right to say no to snuggles.

Let your child know they don’t have to hug or kiss anyone if they don’t want to. Let them know that they have the right to tell anyone, “No.” when it comes to touches, including you.

One way to practice with younger children is to play a game. Tell them you are going to tickle them in a place they don’t like, such as under their arms or on the bottoms of their feet, and have them practice saying, “No. Don’t touch.” Let them be loud if they want to.

Reinforce these ideas as you go about your day. If they say, “No. Don’t touch.” Respect their wishes.

Let them know there may be some people out there who won’t respect their choice when they say, “No.” Encourage them to say it louder and find someone they can trust if someone keeps touching them after they say no.

If you are worried about offending relatives who want kisses and hugs, come up with an alternative to touching such as blowing a kiss or giving a special wave.

One resource you can check out is Your Body Belongs to You by Cornelia Maude Spelman

2. Sexual Education

We want our kids to enjoy innocence as long as they can. It’s important to understand that having a working knowledge of sex doesn’t impair a child’s innocent nature. You don’t have to give your child every little detail. Each kid is different, and you are the best judge of what they need to know.

However, kids do need to know general information about sex and that it is an activity for adults. If a child doesn’t know that sex exists, how would they recognize it if it happened to them?

My earliest sexual experience was at four-years-old. It was many years later before I realized the experience was sexual. I didn’t know that sex existed or anything at all about the human body if it could be covered in a bathing suit.

This lack of knowledge can be used by a potential abuser to confuse a child about their own experience.

3. Yes touches and No touches

I would suggest avoiding the terms “good” and “bad” touches because that can cause some confusion over time. “Yes” and “No” touches are very straight forward terms. Using a doll or drawing, you can easily demonstrate touches that are appropriate or inappropriate.

Explain that sometimes, for hygienic reasons or on doctor’s visits, places on the body that are usually off limits to others may have to be breached. Tell them that you will always explain it to them and let them know when this will happen. Then follow through with that promise.

4. They won’t be punished

Let your children know that they won’t be punished if they tell you about abuse. Abusers tend to use intimidation to quiet children. They warn them that they will be punished if they tell.

My Dad would have little talks about my mom when I was a young teenager. He apologized for hitting me and said Mom put him up to it. He always ended with, “Don’t tell your mom I had this talk with you or we’ll both be in trouble.”

Let your kids know that no matter what, they have a safe place with you, and you will not punish them or be angry at them for anything to do with the abuse if it occurs.

5. Believe them

This is the most important idea here. If you do nothing else, let your child know that if they come to you, you will believe them. An abuser’s favorite tool is silence. They will tell a child not to tell for many reasons. One of the most repeated reasons is they won’t be believed.

Nip that idea in the bud before it has a chance to grow. Tell your child over and over that you will believe them.

When my niece came forward to tell us about the abuse, she’d been told that no one would believe it. However, she had no doubt that we would believe her because we’d told her we would over and over.

6. Secrets are not all they are cracked up to be

It’s okay to have secrets, but some secrets are like poison. Explain that secrets about sexual abuse aren’t the kind of secrets that should be kept. Make it clear that this is true about your child’s secrets as well as secrets that are shared with them by another child.

My niece repressed the memory of her rape for 6 years. When she had a nightmare and remembered the details, she shared it with my son.

He wanted to tell, but he didn’t know that it was the right thing to do.

My son knew about the rape for a month before my niece came forward. He still beats himself up over not telling us as soon as he heard, and I tell him, “How were you supposed to know to tell, when you’d never been told to?”

Make sure your kids know that any secret about harm to another child isn’t a secret they should keep. Tell them that they can tell you, and you will take care of it.

7. Talk to them at least once a month about all of the above, and don’t stop talking to them

As your children grow older, don’t expect that they’ve learned enough and won’t need to hear it anymore. Adjust it to fit their age and maturity level, but keep talking to them.

Yes, they will become uncomfortable with it and roll their eyes and tell you they know it all. Keep repeating it anyway.

Kids may know the basics, but they need to hear them. They especially need to hear that they will be believed.

They still may not come forward and that’s not your fault

There is nothing we can do to insure our children are safe at all times or that they will be able to come forward if they experience abuse. Child sexual abuse is very complicated. Abusers know a lot of tricks to keep kids quiet.

However, if your child does need help, following the 7 steps above will give them the words and tools to ask for it and shield them against some of the weapons abusers depend on to remain in the shadows.

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