Mighty Life List
Mar 4 2010

Here We Go

A couple points that didn’t make it into the video: We don’t require Hank to express affection. If we ask him to hug someone, or kiss them goodnight, and he says no? That’s the end of the discussion. We say, “Oh, Hank is feeling shy right now. Maybe later,” and we drop it. Because he’s so little and he can’t yet process conversations about sexual abuse, I feel like this is one of the best ways to show him he has the right to decide how and whether touching occurs. My intent is to focus on self-esteem in general, and particularly around issues of personal space to make him a difficult target for predator grooming.

Advice from those with experience welcome in comments.

Update: A few more things I’d like to add after reading comments.

Jan, who was a police officer, makes an excellent point in comments that we can mitigate the damage done to especially young children by reacting with care. Her comment is worth a read.

Amanda said: “I think that this is where things get really difficult — when it’s someone you know, a friend of the family or family itself. If you don’t want to put that person through the criminal justice system (for whatever reason) but you want to respond appropriately. This is where I’m guessing a lot of parents are at a loss.”

I’m not directing this at you Amanda, but I appreciate you raising such a good point. I have to say that I strongly disagree with the notion of helping an abuser avoid the criminal justice system, even if it’s a close loved one with mitigating circumstances. The impulse to shield attackers through silence or inaction is a deep betrayal of our children. Keeping quiet sends a strong message that you’re choosing the molester over your own child’s well being, and to me that’s an abusive mindset. Of course it’s painful to realize that someone you love is an abuser, but better that person suffer for his or her choices than your child suffer further emotional damage in realizing that you are unwilling to fulfill your role as protector.

Also folks are offering some good resources:

King County Sexual Assault Resource Center for how to talk to your kids in age appropriate ways
The Secret of the Silver Horse is a story for older kids.
Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker for those who want more information on protecting their kids’ instincts and their own

28 Responses to “Here We Go”

  • Jennifer Says:

    My son is a little older than Hank, and I’ve been wondering about this topic as well. I won’t be able to watch Momversation until I get home this evening, but what you just wrote about giving Hank the right to decide how and if was just fantastic. I look forward to hearing the rest!!!

  • Ariel Says:

    I think that is just the right beginning- knowing that it’s YOUR body, that it is your right to say who touches it is so important…
    My daughter and I have conversations about it quite a lot, because I don’t trust her dad (I don’t think he will hurt her, but I think he’d let a friend do it because he doesn’t care to really parent her when she’s with him- he lets strange people he meets in bars sleep on his couch) and when the courts ruled he could have unsupervised visitation a year ago I felt I had no choice but to arm her the best I could. I don’t know any other 5 year old that has their own cell phone but… What could I do?
    I read several books, and the one I found most helpful was “Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid They’d Ask: The Secrets to Surviving Your Child’s Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens”. It helped me talk to her age appropriately and accurately.
    I REALLY don’t want her to ever be hurt, because I was molested by a female babysitter when I was 8 or so… I have never been able to hire a babysitter for her-I do use a daycare, but only ones where there is more than one adult in charge.
    But I also want her to be able to TELL if someone DOES hurt her- something I was never able to do. (I’ve only been able to talk openly about it for about a year now)
    I’m pretty sure I didn’t have the knowledge I’ve given to my daughter and I can only hope it helps because no child should loose their innocence.

  • Megan Says:

    I work with sexually (and physically) abused kids for a living, and I have heard nearly 600 stories of child sexual abuse direct from the mouths of the child victims-survivors.

    The most important advice I can give to parents is this: Teach your children that if there is ever something they feel like they can’t talk to you about, that they have other adults they can talk to. Then make a list with them, and have them keep the list in a safe place in their rooms so they can find it.

    The reality is that when a child experiences sexual trauma, there are many, many reasons why they feel they can’t tell their parents: Shame and fear are just two of them. The brain of a child and the psychosocial coping skills s/he have are, plain and simple, very different from those of an adult. There is no such thing as, “I know my child would tell me. I just know s/he would.” Of the nearly 1,000 stories I’ve heard, I’ve seen almost that many parents rocked with disbelief that their child didn’t tell them.

    By helping your child identify other safe adults to talk to, and by continually doing it throughout his/her life, you are helping him/her create a community of people to turn to when the thing they need to talk about is just, in their little minds, too much to put on Mommy or Daddy.

    Please also remember that the notion of good touch/bad touch is extremely subjective and easily derailed by an abuser who counts on being able to manipulate children into silence by retraining them in the moment about what is “good” and what is “bad”. It is more effective to teach kids to identify touches they like/don’t like and why.

    Please remember that kids are amazingly resilient, much moreso than we adults are. With compassionate, effective interventions from family and professionals, kids bounce back and move on with their lives. Really. I promise. Things are much, much better in the field of child safety intervention and response than they were when we were kids. We know more. We put kids first.

    The worst thing that can happen to your child is not sexual abuse: The worst thing that can happen is that you aren’t prepared to react appropriately and calmly, and that you inadvertently shame your child by your emotional reaction. As much time as you spend on educating your children, please spend twice as much time educating yourself and running through in your mind about how you will respond to your child.

    Identify your own support system and know how to use it. Do not question your child to satiate your own fears and curiosity: There are well-trained professionals around the country who specialize in these issues, and your child will be in good hands.

    Here are some resources:

    NAPSAC: http://sapn.nonprofitoffice.com/

    The National Children’s Advocacy Training Center:
    http://www.nationalcac.org/

    RAINN (resources for adult survivors of sexual abuse): http://www.rainn.org

    It’s painful to think about. It’s difficult to read about. And if it happens to your child, it’s going to be awful. But it isn’t the end of the world: Hope abounds. Prepare yourself and your children, and if the unthinkable happens, take some comfort in knowing that you have done everything you can to protect your family and make the road to healing far less rocky.

  • Leigh Says:

    I think your focus on self esteem is exactly right.

    Not to be a sob story, but I was sexually abused by a cousin for well over a year when I was young (8-10). I’m almost 23 and I have only now begun to anyone about it. It is as if I had put it out of my mind. I know now that’s because I couldn’t deal with it at the time. I was a baby.

    The reason I was susceptible was because in addition to the sexual abuse I was physically, emotionally, and mentally abused by my mother pretty much since birth. I didn’t feel safe telling her anything (she’s the one who invited the aunt and cousins to live with us) and she had me convinced that I was a horrible, awful child who no one would ever believe.

    I was an only child. I was alone. I didn’t have many friends, probably due to trust issues because of my home life. Through therapy, I now have finally admitted to myself that it was not my fault. I was the victim. Was. I don’t have to be anymore. I have made the conscious decision to move beyond the past. It hasn’t been easy, far from it, but it is the best decision I have ever made.

    So, my advice to you, Maggie, is just to create an environment where Hank feels as if he can tell you anything. I love your site, and although I don’t know you personally, I think you’re well on your way.

    Best of luck.

  • Bachelor Girl Says:

    Excellent advice. I emailed this to all my friends who have small fries.

  • S Says:

    That is darned sensible, Maggie. He’s not a trick monkey – he’s his own lil’ guy with his own thoughts on things. Excellent advice.

  • Jan Says:

    I was a police officer for 20 years, including a one-year of full-time investigating child abuse and neglect cases. One in particular comes to mind because of how extremely well the parents handled it. I bring it up here because the rotten truth is that it could happen, and how parents respond, at least in the child’s presence, is crucial to how the child processes it.

    In this case, the child was 3 years old and his teenage male babysitter, the son of some friends of the parents, was the molester (which he admitted in the course of the investigation). The child had mentioned to his parents that X (babysitter) had made him touch him “there” and made funny faces and noises, and you get the drift, and so did the parents. He knew things about the adult male anatomy’s response that no 2-year-old should know. He thought it was funny.

    With what must have been amazing strength, the parents kept their freakouts away from their son. I was introduced as a friend and we all sat around talking about various things for a while till they worked the conversation around to what had happened and we handled it as though it were something of passing interest and then moved on to other unrelated stuff the little guy wanted to talk about. Because of the way they handled it, he didn’t seem particularly distressed (fortunately, it hadn’t gone beyond touching), and it wouldn’t surprise me, given his young age at the time, if he doesn’t even remember the actual incident as an adult.

    Just something to think about, something no parent should HAVE to be prepared for, but just in case your child, especially a very young child, tells you about something like this, you don’t get stuck with the panic of how you’re going to respond.

    Of course, cases where more is done than touching are even tougher, but I still remember how well those parents handled the situation, how well they kept their horror completely away from the boy. If they’d shown it, not only would it have frightened him but may well have made him wonder if he were somehow at fault.

  • Caitlin Says:

    Maggie, Do you know why the video is no longer available? I went to the Momversation site and it brings up a different video.

  • kristin a Says:

    Me too, when i click on it, it says the right title and the comments are right but its a video about girls dressing too sexy.

  • Lauren Says:

    I get the same video as Kristin and Caitlin. Just about girls dressing to sexy – also a good topic.

  • amanda Says:

    In this case, the child was 3 years old and his teenage male babysitter, the son of some friends of the parents, was the molester (which he admitted in the course of the investigation).

    I’d be curious what happened the babysitter. I think that this is where things get really difficult — when it’s someone you know, a friend of the family or family itself. If you don’t want to put that person through the criminal justice system (for whatever reason) but you want to respond appropriately. This is where I’m guessing a lot of parents are at a loss.

    I really wish parents wouldn’t tell their kids to hug or kiss me goodbye. It’s typical of some parents and not others. It’s very typical for the kid to say “no” which makes everyone feel foolish. I don’t particularly want to kiss or hug your child goodbye which is where I’m coming from but obviously I’m nobody’s grandma and grandma usually deserves a hug but… I think even in that case, better not to push expectations.

  • Amy Says:

    I got the same video, about the girls dressing too racy.

    I don’t have children, but I have been a nanny for 14 years. As a caregiver, it’s interesting when parents always make a big deal about hugging or kissing people when they leave. I always feel so bad when they force them, and I always wonder what that child is learning in those situations. Every child should always be in control of their own bodies. There’s a way to teach that at every age I believe.

  • Sarah Says:

    I think it’s very important to reinforce the message to my 3-year-old daughter that her body is hers and no means no, even to well meaning friends who want a hug.

    I ask her to hug our close friends and family and if she doesn’t want to, that’s the end of discussion. I don’t even ask her to hug anyone else.

    Also, if I’m tickling her or playing with her or kissing her or whatever else and she asks me to stop, I stop. I do not tickle harder even if I know it will make her laugh. Again, this reinforces that no means no and her body is her own.

  • Kat Says:

    I am somehow unable to see the video (along with everyone else now, apparently), and I don’t have children, but as a sex educator, I still wanted to comment.

    This is one of the reasons why I feel like education with regards to touching, not necessarily sex, but self esteem stuff, who is OK to touch you, who is not supposed to touch you, how those people are allowed to touch you, etc, should be taught to very young children in school. Not all kids are lucky enough to have parents like you and Brian.

    The most common predators are people a child knows. Random stranger offenses, while more highly publicized, are not remotely as common. Often, especially with little kids, the victims of abuse are told not to tell. Having a teacher, a daycare worker, a babysitter, someone who is outside your home, teach you that you can tell them if someone is touching you inappropriately (and what touching is appropriate when) can make all the difference.

    People have such an aversion to the idea of “sex ed” at a younger age, but don’t realize that it’s not all about “sex.” A lot of it is about self esteem and what touching is appropriate.

  • Heather Says:

    When I was young (about 6 of 7, I think) my mom read “The Secret of the Silver Horse” with me. http://www.crcvc.ca/docs/The_secret_of_the_silver_horse.pdf Re-reading it now, as a teacher, I still think it’s a great book, and a great way to broach the subject with *slightly* older children. It doesn’t go into much detail, and the protagonist is named Terry, a gender neutral name, and is drawn in a very gender neutral way as well. I think that everyone should give this book a look, and see if it might help you talk about the subject with your kids.

  • Janeen Says:

    Fantastic approach, Maggie. I’d like to share another approach that takes yours one step further. When my nephew was young I would do anything I could to get kisses and snuggles from him. For instance, if he asked for a cookie, I’d say, “I will give you one if you give me a smooch.” It was a fun game and he loved it. However, with my niece, it dawned on me very early NOT to offer anything in exchange for affection. [The whole family abides by this rule, so it's a consistent-if not always direct-message] I can’t tell you how much that kills me, but decided that was a way to help her learn that affection should always be on HER terms, when she wants to partake, and never in trade for something. No need to get any deeper than that for now; hopefully it’s just another block in the foundation that will make her a strong and confident woman.

    *Luckily, at the moment she’s very affectionate and I get all the smooches and hugs I can ever want.

  • Jeff Says:

    This is so important: “We don’t require Hank to express affection. If we ask him to hug someone, or kiss them goodnight, and he says no? That’s the end of the discussion. We say, “Oh, Hank is feeling shy right now. Maybe later,” and we drop it.”

    I’m the father of two boys, and we have the same policy. We enforce it the other way ’round, too, when one of our sons wants to give someone a hug. Our mantra is, “Hugs are only fun when both people want to hug.”

    We feel it’s our duty as parents to raise boys who would both never let someone touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable *and* would never try to keep touching someone who told them to stop.

    Thanks for taking on this important topic.

  • maureen Says:

    Heather – Thanks for “the secret of the Silver Horse.” I’ve printed a copy for myself. Wonderful resource.

  • kates Says:

    “Protecting The Gift” by Gavin DeBecker.

    I tell everyone I know to read this book. It helped me to be able to think clearly & rationally about a topic that most of us just want to run screaming from. It’s also very encouraging, because you can sum it up in three words: trust your instincts. Your “wild brain” as he calls it, your subconscious, is extremely good at figuring out when you’re in danger. Trusting that part of myself that just has a bad feeling about something has been crucial to my development as a parent and as a person in general. The book has a lot of good ideas about how to develop that trust in kids, from infancy on up. I think that’s similar to what Maggie’s talking about — letting your child set the boundaries for his or her own levels of affection is telling them to trust their own instincts with other people. DeBecker also takes down some of the safety myths out there — for instance, telling a kid to find a policeman if they’re in trouble might not be the greatest idea, because there isn’t a policeman at every corner, and to a kid, anyone in uniform (like a security guard) looks like the police. He suggests telling your kid to find a woman and politely ask for help, since statistically, women are much less likely to be dangerous to children and much more likely to help a child.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  • FeastAfterFamine Says:

    My daughter’s elementary school requires anyone who volunteers inside the school or chaperones children on field trips to take a three and a half hour course on child sexual abuse. The goal of the course is to empower parents to recognize the signs of abuse and ultimately avert it before it starts. Instead of empowered, I felt even more fearful because what I learned is that predators intent on hurting our children are not easily thwarted.

    The program included interviews with three child predators (as well as three victims) who described how they picked their targets… how they “groomed” them for abuse. I can tell you they are smart, they are patient, they are ruthless. All of those interviewed, including a father of two boys, knew the children they abused either as students, athletes or friends of their children.

    So, while some people might think it’s over-protective not to allow sleepovers… I’d just ask you to be a little more thoughtful the next time your child asks to spend the night at a friend’s house. The one abuser used to prod his sons to pick certain children to invite for sleepovers… and then he would abuse them while he bathed them before bed.

    As for concrete tips, the course instructors told us to encourage open communication from Day 1 and, most importantly, teach our children the proper names of their body parts — to demystify our sexual parts and empower children in their bodies.

    I hope you don’t mind, Maggie, I posted similar comments at Momversation. I just wanted to share some of this with your readers who may not wade through the numerous comments over there.

    The course was totally frightening… but well worth it. My oldest is 5 and so far hasn’t been invited to sleepovers. Honestly, I’m not sure how I’ll respond when she gets the inevitable invite.

  • Christian Says:

    I wanted to thank Leigh for the comment above; it was very brave of you to write. I think it is important to let you know that by sharing your thoughts you are helping parents protect their kids, and helping kids not to be hurt the way that you were.

  • Meegan Says:

    This is a really interesting thread. Like Kat, we try to teach our 3-year old daughter WHO can touch her and what kind of touching is appropriate. Our daughter has discovered that parts of her body provide different sensations all on her own. It’s helpful to discuss those sensations (in a 3-year old appropriate way). She enjoys tickling herself and while I don’t encourage that, I don’t discourage it either. We talk about privacy and hygiene. The conversations aren’t long or awkward. I feel like if we can include bits and pieces in everyday conversation she’ll learn without fear or discomfort.

    The comments made by Jan and the book suggestion “Protecting the Gift”, I found particularly helpful. Thanks, Maggie, for getting this started.

  • Sheri Bheri Says:

    In reply to kates, I tell my daughter to find a MOM if she’s lost and needs help. Moms are more likely to drop everything to help a lost kid and it’s easy to identify a Mom. A Mom is a lady with kids.

    As for the rest, we don’t force hugs and kisses either (and OH did we hear about that from the in-laws!). Zoe’s daycare really pushes the “keep your hands to yourself” and telling your friends “I DON’T LIKE THAT” when they’re doing something you don’t like.

    I think it’s all part of thinking of your child, and thus treating them, like an ACTUAL person.

  • Leslie Says:

    One of my very favorite Seattle area nonprofits, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC), has a wonderful set of resources and suggestions for parents on its website. These materials address how to talk to your kids at different ages about sexual assault, internet safety, and bullying.
    http://www.kcsarc.org/nForParentsAndCaregivers/index.php

  • Maggeh Says:

    Hi guys,

    Not sure why the link isn’t working for lots of you. I tried fixing it, but the video is still available on the main page of Momversation.com if you can’t get through.

    Leigh, I’m glad you posted, and I’m so sorry about your cousin and mother. What a tough climb to get the point where you can emotionally realize that you had nothing to do with how they treated you.

    Jan, you too. I’m glad to hear that story, because I think hiding your fury and horror would be the toughest (and most important) thing you could do as a parent.

  • erinn Says:

    I thought this was a great abet difficult topic for momversation.

    I am not a mom yet (hopefully within 5-ish years) but I had the extreme misfortune of being sexually abused by my father when I was a toddler. I was old enough to express in very general terms what had happened to my mother, who had separated from my father several months before the incident, and she took the appropriate steps of calling the child protection services and I participated in play therapy, etc.

    However, I never wanted to talk about it and neither did she, and that was probably the worst thing that we could have done psychologically. It happened, I did a month of play therapy, she filled my little book-shelf with children’s books about sexual abuse, and that was it.

    When I was 17 years old I started having extreme flashbacks and nightmares. I’ve done a lot of therapy since then, but I feel that my mom should have been more vigilant when I was younger to make extra sure that I was processing it. Because it really does affect you for the rest of your life.

    Thankfully, despite the trauma I definitely live a full life. I am able to serve many abused women and children through my legal practice, and I find it extremely fulfilling.

    I guess my point is that prevention is obviously key here, but sexual abuse can happen to anybody in any demographic, and as a parent even if your child seems to be thriving after an abusive experience it’s prooooobably a good idea not to assume that your child has completely ‘healed’.

    When I have children eventually I will definitely not pressure them into hugging and kissing when they do not want to–I thought that was a great point!

  • Maggeh Says:

    Erinn, I’m so sorry, and I totally agree. I think I might err on the side of being irritatingly communicative about it, but I can’t imagine how tough it would be as a parent to learn that you were responsible for bringing the abuser into your child’s life. I understand the impulse to hope that it was all in the past, but I agree that sexual abuse has profound aftershocks for years.

  • sarah b. Says:

    Thank you for this: I have to say that I strongly disagree with the notion of helping an abuser avoid the criminal justice system…

    There is never, ever, ever a reason to help the abuser out of criminal trouble, no matter their relation. It ABSOLUTELY sends the wrong message to the victim, no matter how many ways you try to convince them otherwise. I have a close family member that experienced this exact thing (before I was born)… Her abuser was never “allowed” to be alone with her again, but he went on to live a normal life, perhaps abuse other children — who knows, and she had to see him at family reunions & just know he was out there facing no consequences. She may have eventually gotten past the actual abuse, but she has NEVER forgiven her the adult family members who let him get away with it.