There is something I want to share with you. Actually, I don’t want to share it with you, but rather it is a cautionary tale of sorts that I hope might save a whole lot of trauma for a new generations of boys and girls. If I can help even one child with my story, then opening up to you here will have been worth it.
Here it goes:
By the time I was 13 years old I had been sexually abused by three different males.
All of them were known to me.
According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, three out of four adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.
So go ahead and teach “Stranger Danger,” but don’t stop there. You need to focus on what you need to teach your girls and boys right now that just might save them from trauma and years of therapy.
Growing up I learned quickly that people liked it if you were polite, quiet and did what you were told. While I wasn’t always able to be quiet (My report cards all say that “Tina needs to focus on her own work instead of disturbing others”), I excelled at being polite and always doing as I was told. While I might have let down the obedience façade a little at home, I always invoked it when I was at school, out in the community and at friends’ houses. I didn’t say “no” when Claudia’s grandmother would give me bear hugs that took all my air out of my lungs. I didn’t say “stop” if any grown up pinched my cheeks because my dimples were “oh so adorable.” If a teacher told me to do something, I did it, no questions asked.
My parents taught me a little about Stranger Danger but the era of child abductions was just starting and parents were unsure of what to teach their kids. At school we were taught never to go with a stranger, to scream “fire” if someone tried to take us. That was about it. We are more likely now to teach children about what on their body is private and that it is ok to tell someone “no” and that they should always tell us if someone tries to touch them.
There are those instances where the abuse is immediate and forceful by a known or unknown person. I can’t really speak to those instances. What I can talk to you about is being groomed.
Perpetrators of child sexual abuse (CSA) may gain the trust of potential child victims and their caregivers by methodically “grooming” them. This process begins with identifying potential victims, gaining their trust, and breaking down their defenses. These grooming tactics are often directed at potential youth victims as well as the adult caregivers—parents, other youth-serving professionals, and the community-at-large. After gaining access to children and youth by achieving this trust, the perpetrator initiates some kind of contact that s/he finds sexually gratifying. This sexual contact may range from voyeurism to rape and other forms of child sexual abuse. Grooming helps the offender gain access to the victim, and sets up a relationship grounded in secrecy so the crime is less likely to be discovered
It’s hard for me to talk about this because both my parents are still alive and are wonderful people that just had not even conceived that someone they knew would hurt their little girl. I don’t blame them and I wouldn’t want anyone else to. But I am sharing because so many people don’t understand what happens in most instances when children are sexually abused. As I was growing up I was sad a lot and anxious. I felt like the only way to get attention was to do good – stay and help the teacher, offer to wash dishes at my friends’ houses, babysit my cousins. I wanted to please people.
My first abuser struck when I was pretty young. I trusted him immensely. He groomed me over several months – starting with games where we would touch each other in innocuous places. Things just grew from there. He never physically hurt me, just violated me and my trust. He told me not to tell because people would be mad at us because only grown ups were supposed to do what we did.
My second abuser also groomed me over several months but he had more access to me and things advanced quickly. Of course he didn’t know about the first abuser, but I think things progressed so quickly, in part, because I kind of thought this type of behaviour was normal. I don’t even remember if he threatened me or just told me not to tell. But I didn’t. It is important for people to know that when this abuser moved away, and thus the abuse stopped, I missed him. He had given me the copious amounts of attention that I craved. That meant more to me than stopping the abuse. I know it will be hard for people to understand, but it is important– the person abusing your child might not be a scary person to them. It might be someone that is loved dearly by the child and now the abuse is all mixed up with their love and it is so confusing. They might be afraid of what will happen to the person if they tell. Or they might have been told that if the child confided in someone they would hurt that person.
The third was a one time event that was sudden and abrupt when I was a young teenager. I think this incident bothered me more in some ways than the abuse as a child. In that abuse I was approached softly and friendly. This incident happened while I was sleeping at a friend’s house. I woke up to someone touching me roughly and I said nothing. I turned in the bed and pretended to be stirring so he removed his hand and had no more access to me. I didn’t even think of calling my parents. We were far away and I wouldn’t want to worry them and it was no big deal is what I told myself. I stayed 2 more nights and lied awake wondering what I would do if he returned. Thankfully, he didn’t.
I never even considered telling my parents about any of these events. I told no one about 2 of the abusers until I was 17 and in therapy. I find it very sad that I held onto all that abuse for so long. One of the abuse incidents I just revealed in therapy this year. I am 43 years old. I held onto that abuse for almost 40 years. I held onto it as though it says something about me in a negative way. I know now that it doesn’t. Even writing this has been hard, remembering but also because I worry about people’s responses.
But I feel it’s important to share my story to help others. So now I want to share with you Life Lessons we should want our children to know.
- SAY NO. We need to tell our children that it is ok to say no and their parents will always help if needed. When we teach our children that we will back them up in low pressure situations like not giving a hug to someone, we build a foundation where they know we would wholeheartedly back them up if they say no to someone touching them inappropriately.
- NOBODY is allowed to touch you without your say so – including hugs, kisses and someone suggesting you sit on their knee. Aunt Gertie wants a kiss, but your kid doesn’t want to– encourage her to say “no thank you” and then be prepared to tell a disappointed Aunt that she would be happy to shake her hand instead. If you need to physically get between the person and your child, do it. Aunt Gertie can go gripe in the corner, you have just taught your child an important lesson – they are important and what they want and do not want are just as important!
- Fake Illness – Tell your child if they are ever in a situation where they want to go home but feel a person wouldn’t let them, they should claim they feel like throwing up and they need to call their mom. Make sure your kids know it is ok to lie to get out of bad situations. And don’t tell them just to lie, practice a few times. This technique can work as they get older in a variety of situations.
- Have a code word. You know how people have a code word to know if you should go with an adult? Just use the same code word so your child doesn’t have to remember another word in the midst of something happening. So practice a few times with your kids – they are at a sleep over and they are feeling uncomfortable and they call and say “banana” you know that they want to come home.
- Listen! If your kid doesn’t want to go somewhere or with someone, don’t make them. Sometimes kids pick up on bad vibes from an adult and cannot put into words to what they are worried over. Listen to your kids. If they don’t want to go, there is a reason and they should be listened to even if their fears or vibes seem unfounded. The worst that can happen is someone feels offended at the slight. Well you know what – I’m ok with that if it teaches my kid to trust their gut instincts and that I will back them up.
- Secrets. Teach your kids that grown-ups don’t need a child to keep secrets with them. Except in cases of good things like a birthday surprise – which is a fun, happy reason to keep a secret. Other secrets don’t need to be kept. It might make you uncomfortable but actually talk to your child about good touch/bad touch and pointedly say that you will always want to know if someone does that to them, that you will never be angry, they will not get in trouble and no one will get hurt.
- Tell. If someone touches your child or shows them inappropriate things it is ok to tell. Let’s face it, our children are small and vulnerable and we can try to stop abuse but there are still times when it’s going to happen and knowing that you would never be mad at them for that is important for kids to know. It will encourage more kids to tell.
Please remember that most abusers are known to the victim. This doesn’t mean you never let anyone watch your children, but it does mean that you need to equip your child very early on and hopefully make them less of a target for an abuser.