By Jessica Williams
This is very hard, very personal, and very important, and I have wanted to say something on the topic for a long time. I want to thank Evolutionary Parenting for giving me the opportunity to address it. Recently she reviewed a book about a child sexual abuse survivor and the title, It’s Okay to Tell, says it all.
Sexual abuse is a scary topic, it’s one no parent wants to contemplate, much less talk about. The very notion that someone could do that to their child is beyond enraging. It makes the blood boil; it turns doves into lions, and makes even the meekest parent start thinking about torture methodology. And as well it should. But we need to consider something else too: how our children comprehend our rage.
I’m an abuse survivor, and like the vast majority of survivors my abusers were not creepy old men hiding under rocks. Parents think of ‘child molester’ and we see the monster. We see the boogeyman of our nightmares luring our babies into dark vans. In our minds we turn the perpetrator into the evil he does. And we lash out, trying to comfort us or our children with promises:
“I’d kill anyone who ever touched you”
“I’d beat anyone who hurts you until the cops dragged me off.”
“Anyone ever does that to you, I’ll kill ’em.”
I’ve heard the like from so many adults I couldn’t possibly count them, even from non-parents. We’re trying to be reassuring, and in our minds we’re telling our children that no one would get away with hurting them. That we would protect them. But let me tell you something, as an abuse survivor I cringe every time I hear such statements because we are reassuring only ourselves, at the expense of the victims—our children.
Do those dirty old men hiding under rocks luring kids to the back of blacked out vans exist? Well, unfortunately. But your child has a better chance of being hit by lightening than running into one. Molesters and rapists of children are playmates, neighborhood teens, friends of the family, trusted adults, and family members almost exclusively.
Now this isn’t my way of telling you to lock your kids up in a safe and never let anyone be alone with them. Abuse happens, it’s horrible, but if you truly want to reduce that chance to nothing, something else won’t happen either, childhood, and to lose childhood is quite a bit worse. I’ve never known an abuse survivor who wished their parents had locked them away from all possible avenues of danger, so please do not take this reminder as fear-mongering.
What it is, is a much needed wake up call.
That monster you just threatened to kill or beat or castrate is the same person you laugh with at the bar-b-que, is the same playmate that your child happily engages in tag, and the same coach, teacher, referee, or moderator that your child is told to trust and obey.
Abuse is horrible. It robs a child of more than just physical innocence, but the abuse is also very much beyond them cognitively. Most children don’t know what’s happening. They are scared. They are in pain. They know it’s wrong, but this is nearly always someone they like. And they very likely have been convinced they are equal partners in the transgression. Children are terrified, so very often, to tell because they think they will get in trouble, after all they ‘let’ it happen.
Trust me, no matter how coerced or forced the silence, the second a child doesn’t fight and scream and bring the neighborhood running they are convinced they ‘let’ it happen, and everyone will be just as angry at them as at the abuser. They don’t want to be responsible for their friend being killed or even just getting in trouble. They don’t want to see your friend turned into your mortal enemy because of their weakness.
While age-peers and those somewhat older may stumble onto this built-in protection by accident, you can be assured adult abusers do everything they can to foster it. They tell their victims that if anyone knew it would ruin their life, that they would be thrown in jail, that their children would lose their father. Imagine for a moment what that looks like through a child’s eyes. Here is your friend’s father (for example) whose house you play at, whose dinners your whole family attends, who lets you play with the cool toys, and then occasionally he does something that makes you sick to your stomach and scares and hurts and you know is wrong but he said everyone does it and it’s part of growing up (a pretty common lie among abusers). He says if you tell anyone they will be angry at you. And meanwhile your dad, after reading an article in the paper or seeing something on TV has proclaimed that he would kill anyone who did something like that to you.
Could you speak up? You believe your parent after all, which means that if you tell your friend’s dad will die, a family that you like will be broken up, and it will all be your fault. The longer it goes on the stronger the compulsion against telling becomes; after all you haven’t told anyone yet, they won’t believe you that it wasn’t your fault, because you would have told. And maybe the abuse stops, you move, they move, you grow too old. And now you can’t ever tell. Because you didn’t then. Because now it’s even worse to contemplate your parents doing violence upon your abuser, after all, it’s over and you just want it to go away. It doesn’t make sense, which itself lends itself to continued silence, because as you mature and begin to comprehend things you didn’t as a child, you can’t understand why you didn’t tell, so it just makes you feel more complicit.
We should all want this horror to stop, for not another child to ever go through it. We should seek that even though, rationally, we know it will never happen. But what can happen is better reporting of the crime and better acceptance of the victim.
As adults, however, we need to bite back our horror and rage. We need our children to feel comfortable approaching us. When the abuser is most likely a friend that means we need to stop verbally denigrating the perpetrators (at least where children can hear). I don’t mean say it’s good or okay, I mean focus on the act, not the person. We see a monster, but the child doesn’t. The child sees a monstrous act. If we want them to tell us about it, we need to understand that’s two separate things to kids.
It’s horribly important to talk to your kids in an age appropriate manner, about bad touches and bad secrets, but that’s not enough. My parents did that, and did it very well. In fact I’ve yet to run into an abuse victim (whose abuser wasn’t their parents) who didn’t feel like their parents did that. Most victims don’t tell because they are afraid, afraid of the consequences of telling. We need to let our children know they can have a ‘free pass’ time (or whatever you want to call it) when they can tell us anything and they won’t get in trouble for it. And, perhaps even more important, we need to ensure our kids never hear us threaten or denigrate abusers or put into their minds that only monsters abuse kids. Because they will believe us, and then they won’t tell us when the kindly neighbor or best friend does something horrible because to a confused and frightened kid, their abuser is almost never a monster.
Please, from someone who was silent for more than ten years, stop telling kids you’ll do harm to their abusers. The feeling is fine, and we should express it in adult company. It can do a lot of emotional good to adults to contemplate what an abuser deserves. But it doesn’t help a frightened child to come forward one bit, and as far as our children are concerned we should be more interested in stopping it than punishing it.
Thank you for considering my words.