Unless you have personally experienced the deep wound of sexual trauma, it may be difficult to imagine how complex, confusing and varied the long-term effects can be. This is especially true when the molestation was perpetrated by someone the child trusted or even loved. When a child’s innocence is stolen, it affects self-worth, personality development, socialization and achievement. Violation at a young age plays havoc with later intimacy in adolescent and adult relationships. In addition, these children are prone to somatic symptoms, rigidity, awkwardness or excessive weight gain/loss, born of a conscious or unconscious attempt to find safety by “locking out” others. Because it is painful to be fully present in their body, these children tend to live in a fantasy world and to have problems with attention, spacing out, daydreaming and (what psychologists call) dissociation. These are coping mechanisms that keep their awful experience compartmentalized. This is how violated kids survive; but, of course, they do not thrive unless their hidden wounds are discovered and healed.
This chapter focuses on awareness, prevention and how to approach children in a way that will earn their trust in your ability to protect them so they will tell you what you need to know. It is a guide to help you recognize what sexual trauma is, assist you in safeguarding your children without frightening them, illustrate ways to help them develop healthy boundaries and support you in creating an atmosphere of healthy sexuality within your current family. It is far less likely that children will be victimized if they have parents who listen for opportunities to discuss topics of touch and sex. In addition, they need parents who foster body awareness and can be counted on to believe and defend them.
Sexual Trauma Symptoms
The sexual molestation and assault of children has the added shroud of secrecy and shame. In addition, less than ten percent of predation is perpetrated by a stranger. Because children are usually violated by someone they know and trust, the symptoms are layered with the complexity of the repercussions of betrayal. Children are often asked to keep the activity secret—or worse, threatened with physical harm if they tell.
Fear-stricken children often do not tell us with words. If their assailant is an authority figure, such as a parent, coach, teacher or clergy, children blame themselves. They carry the shame that rightly belongs to the molester. Frequently they hide their pain because they fear punishment, revenge or the refusal of others to believe them. Sadly, this is all too often the case. Though their lips may be sealed, children show us many signs that they have been violated. Be suspicious if you see any of the symptoms from the following list:
1. Sexualized behavior that is not age-appropriate. Some examples are: masturbating in public, simulating intercourse, using seductive or sensual gestures with an adult, French kissing or touching an adult’s genitals.
2. Sudden refusal, reluctance or fear at being left alone with a certain person or in a particular place that the child once enjoyed.
3. Withdrawal from other children or difficulty making friends. (Violated children tend to be the loners on the playground, clinging to a safe adult such as a teacher, aide or counselor.)
4. Pain, burning, itching or bruising in the genital and/or anal areas.
5. An unusual discharge that may be indicative of a sexually transmitted disease.
6. An indirect revelation on the part of the child. Examples are: “I don’t want to be an altar boy anymore.” “Jill’s daddy wears underpants with teddy bears on it.” “What does it mean when a man puts his penis in somebody’s mouth?”
7. General symptoms such as bedwetting, returning to earlier behaviors like thumb-sucking, difficulty sleeping and eating. Inability to concentrate, dreaminess, living in a fantasy world and other variations of dissociation are especially common.
8. Personality changes such as chronic irritability, sudden mood shifts, excessive shyness and postures that reveal a sense of shame, guilt or secrecy.
Note: Physical or sexual abuse almost always requires the additional support of a professional trauma therapist. But whether a particular child needs a therapist or not, there is a lot that you as parents can do to prevent and heal trauma.
Children do not tell that they have been molested unless they are asked in a way that makes them feel safe to tell. Parents need to set the groundwork to earn their child’s trust. They need to make the following clearly understood:
1. That children have a right to their own body and who is allowed to see it or touch it.
2. That they will be believed rather than blamed, punished or shunned if they tell you that they have been approached.
3. That their feelings will be understood (not overlooked) and that they will be sheltered from further harm.
4. They also need to know that it is never ever their fault.
Reducing the Risk of Sexual Wounds
Sexual trauma varies widely from overt sexual assault to covert desires that frighten and confuse a child by invading his or her delicate boundaries with un-bounded adult sexual energies. When parents have had unresolved sexual violations themselves or were lacking models for healthy adult sexuality, it may be difficult to protect children without conveying a sense of fear and rigidity around issues of touch, affection, boundaries and sensuality. Parents might even avoid offering either discussion or protection due to their own lack of experience in sensing, within themselves, the difference between safe or potentially dangerous situations and people.
No child, even with solid parental support, is immune to the risk of molestation. In fact, conservative reports from as far back as the 1950s estimate that one out of every four individuals worldwide has suffered sexual violations—many of these as children under the age of thirteen. With females, the risk is even higher.1 Imagine this statistic next time you are shopping in the supermarket. Clearly if you or your child has been abused, you are not alone! If your child suffers from sexual trauma, by all means seek the help of a therapist. It is best to find a professional who is experienced in working with sexually traumatized children.
Are Some Children More Vulnerable Than Others?
The majority of parents, communities and school programs warn children to avoid “dangerous strangers.” Sadly, strangers are seldom the problem. Other myths persist, such as the one that only girls are vulnerable, and that most assaults happen at or after puberty. Although statistics vary, the numbers of preschoolers and school-age children reporting sexual assault are astonishing.
Approximately 10% of sexual violations happen to children less than five years old2; more children between eight and twelve report molestation than teenagers; and 30 to 46% of all children are sexually violated in some way before they reach the age of eighteen.3 Sexual trauma is pervasive—it prevails no matter the culture, socio-economic status or religion. It is not uncommon within the “perfect” family. In other words, all children are vulnerable; and most sex offenders are “nice” people that you already know! If you have been putting off talking with your children about sexual molestation until they are older or because you are uncomfortable with the topic, we hope that what you learn here will bolster your confidence to begin these discussions sooner rather than later.
The Twin Dilemma of Secrecy and Shame
The sexual molestation of children has the added shroud of secrecy. Since 85 to 90% of sexual violations and inappropriate “boundary crossings” are by someone the victims know and trust, the symptoms are layered with the complexity of betrayal.4 Even if not admonished (or threatened) to keep the assault secret, children often do not tell due to embarrassment, shame and guilt. In their naiveté they mistakenly assume that they are “bad.” They carry the shame that belongs to the molester. In addition, children fear punishment and reprisal. They frequently anguish over “betraying” someone who is part of their family (or social circle) and worry about what might happen to their perpetrator. This fear is especially strong if it is a family member they are dependent on or love.
If not a family member, the violator is usually someone well known. Neighbors, older children, babysitters, a parent’s boyfriend, other members of the family or step-family, as well as “friends” of the family, are frequently the offenders. Or it may be someone who has prestige and social status or serves as a mentor, such as a religious leader, teacher or athletic coach. For example, the BBC News reported in February 2004 that 11,000 cases went on record of American youths sexually abused by more than 4,000 priests. Since that time many more cases have been discovered. How can children know—unless you teach them—that they are not to blame when the perpetrator is usually not only someone known, but someone who may be revered? Parents can pave the way to safety for their children by teaching them to trust and act on their own instincts versus submitting to an older child or adult who is using their power for their personal sexual gratification.
What Is Sexual Violation?
If sexual violation isn’t typically a “dirty old man” luring a child with candy into his car, what is it? Simply put, it is any time that anyone takes advantage of their position of trust, age or status to lead a child into a situation of real or perceived powerlessness around issues of sex and humiliation. In other words, when children must passively submit to the will of another rather than having the choice to defend themselves or tell someone, whether or not they are “forced,” it constitutes sexual violation or assault. This can range from being shown pornography by a teenaged babysitter, to an insensitive medical examination of a child’s private parts, to being forced to have sexual intercourse with a parent or other adult. While actual rape by a parent or step-parent is less common, exposure to pornographic material or being asked to strip, look at or handle exposed genitals, as well as rough handling during medical procedures, is far too common.
Steps Caregivers Can Take to Decrease Children’s Susceptibility
1. Model Healthy Boundaries: No one gets to touch, handle or look at me in a way that feels uncomfortable.
2. Help Children Develop Good Sensory Awareness: Teach children to trust the felt sense of “Uh-oh” they may experience as dread in the gut or rapid heartbeat, which lets them know something is wrong and they need to leave and get help.
3. Teach Children How to Avoid Being Lured: Teach children how to use their “sense detectors” as an early warning sign.
4. Offer Opportunities for Children to Practice Saying “No.”
5. Teach Children What to Say and Do: Also, let them know that they should always tell you so that you can keep them safe and help them with their feelings.
Let’s take a more detailed look at these steps:
1. Model Healthy Boundaries
There is a delightful children’s picture book by James Marshall about two hippopotami that are good friends. One’s name is George, the other Martha. They visit and play together and have dinner at each other’s houses. One day Martha is soaking in her bathtub and is shocked to see George peeking through the window, looking right at her! George was surprised at her outrage, and his feelings got hurt. He thought that this meant Martha didn’t like him anymore. Martha reassured George that she was very fond of him. She explained in a kind manner, “Just because we are good friends, George, doesn’t mean that I don’t need privacy when I’m in the bathroom!” George understood.
This little George and Martha story models making boundaries, communicating them clearly and honoring the boundaries of others. Parents need to show good boundaries themselves and to respect children’s need for privacy (especially beginning between the ages of five and seven). They need to support their children when they are in situations that are unappealing and are defenseless to keep themselves safe. This begins in infancy. The following illustration will help you understand how to offer this protection:
Little baby Arthur fussed and arched his back each time Auntie Jane tried to hold him. His mother, not wanting to offend her sister, said, “Now, now, Arthur, it’s OK, this is your Auntie Jane. She’s not going to hurt you!”
Ask yourself what message this gives to Arthur? He is already learning that his feelings aren’t important and that adult needs take precedence over a dependent’s needs. Babies show us their feelings by vocal protests and body language. They are exquisitely attuned to the vocalizations and facial expressions of their parents. The brain circuits are being formed by these very interactions that are specifically about respect for feelings and boundaries around touch. For whatever reasons, Arthur did not feel safe or comfortable in Aunt Jane’s arms. Had his “right of refusal” been respected, he would have learned that his feelings do make a difference, that he does have choices and that there are adults (in this case his mother) who will protect him from other adults whose touch he does not want.
A few tactful words to Jane, such as “Maybe later, Jane—Arthur’s not ready for you to hold him yet,” would leave a positive imprint on the baby’s newly developing sense of self. And if his mother’s appropriate protection continues, Arthur’s brain is more likely to forge pathways that promote self-protective responses. These may safeguard him from an intrusion and assault later in his life. Although not in his conscious awareness, the unconscious body boundaries formed in these tender years will serve him well into adolescence and beyond.
Trauma is a breach of our boundaries. Sexual trauma, however, is a sacred wound—an intrusion into our deepest, most delicate and private parts. Children, therefore, need to be protected by honoring their right to personal space, privacy and to be in charge of their own body. As different situations develop at various ages and stages, children need to know that they do not have to subject themselves to “sloppy kisses,” lap-sitting and other forms of unwanted attention to please the adults in their lives.
Other Areas Where Children Need Respect and Protection of Boundaries
Children instinctively imitate their parents. Adults can capitalize on this favorable attribute when it comes to toileting behavior. A lot of power struggles and unpleasantness for toddlers and parents alike can be avoided altogether. By respecting your child’s timetable, she will joyfully model mom’s behavior and toilet-“train” herself. Take the “train” out of toileting and your little boy will proudly do it “like daddy does” at his own pace. Prevent unnecessary trauma in this major developmental stage by following your child’s lead rather than listening to the “experts” who believe in timetables.
The Learning Channel showed a documentary of a family dealing with the trials of having had multiple-births. The mother was struggling with toilet-training several of the younger children (as well as with the needs of her three older children). She turned this often grueling task that can be filled with shame and embarrassment into an exciting “rite of passage.” First, she gave each of these young children their own training toilet, reinforcing a sense of personal space. She then created a “Poop Book” for the children, which the entire family helped decorate, that would chronicle when and who had made a potty. This created a sense of excitement and support in the family. The older children learned to look for signs when the younger ones needed to go and not only alerted their mother, but cheered, helped and sometimes even carried their young siblings to the bathroom! Once one had done it, all the rest were eager to follow suit.
We are not saying that you can’t expedite toilet-training, but forcing a child who is not ready to use the toilet disrespects his right to control his own bodily functions and sets a life-long pattern that being dominated by someone else is to be expected. By encouraging rather than pushing, you will be assisting your children to develop healthy self-regulatory habits and a natural curiosity about their own body. In some cases, you may even be preventing eating disorders, digestive problems, constipation and related difficulties—and as a side effect, produce happy, joyful and spontaneous children.
2. Help Children Develop Good Sensory Awareness
You already have a good start on step number two if your family has been practicing awareness of sensations. Earlier in this book you learned how to locate and name bodily sensations, then focus attention on them long enough to experience a change. Protecting children from sexual abuse begins by talking about different kinds of touch, checking in with various sensations that touch can provoke and teaching kids to trust their instincts when the touch feels uncomfortable, unsafe, frightening, painful, or makes them feel “dirty,” secretive or ill-at-ease. All of these, of course, are physical sensations.
A pilot project used in schools called “Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Project, Minneapolis, Minnesota” explains touch in a simple manner on a continuum from “good touch” to “confusing touch” to “bad touch.” It describes good touch as feeling like something has been given. Children, when asked what types of touch feel good, will usually mention a hug, petting an animal, playing games, a soft blanket wrapped around them, cuddling, back rubs with mommy and daddy, etc. Examples of bad touch include hitting, pushing, hair-pulling, spanking, aggressive tickling and touching genitals or breasts—in short, any touch that is not wanted.
In addition to touch that clearly feels “good” or “bad,” there is a touch that may confuse a child. Something about it just doesn’t feel right. It may frighten or overwhelm them, but they tolerate it because it comes from an older person they love or respect. Or it may be confusing because it feels pleasurable to receive the special attention and “private time,” but fear surrounds the secrecy. Sometimes the touch itself may feel both pleasurable and sickening at the same time, compounding the confusion.
Teaching children to be savvy by trusting their felt sense, intuition and confused feelings as a red-alert to danger can go a long way in preventing sexual abuse. Before they fall into a dangerous situation, they may feel a sensation of dread in the pit of their stomach or a rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms that let them know something is very wrong with what they are seeing, hearing or being asked to do. It is a signal to get help from someone they trust. Sometimes children’s guts register a vague “Uh-oh” type of early warning signal. Or children may feel a sense of shame, embarrassment or guilt without understanding why. They may experience outright disgust that literally makes them feel sick to their stomach. At other times, they will know something isn’t right because they feel numb, helpless, paralyzed or frightened. It is especially important to practice what to do or say beforehand—because once a child feels a sort of paralysis, a plan of action would be very difficult to formulate and execute.
In any case, you can train your children to: 1) recognize and trust their inner sensations; 2) ask for help immediately (from you or someone nearby they feel safe with) if they experience any bad, uncomfortable or confusing feelings; 3) be assured that you will believe and protect them no matter who the person is or what that person told them or threatened would happen if the “secret” is revealed.
3. Teach Children How to Avoid Being Lured
In addition to being trained how to trust their “sense detectors” as an early warning sign, children also need to be taught what traps to avoid. Again, if they know in advance that there are a few older children and adults in every neighborhood who have problems and may try to take advantage of them, they are less likely to blame themselves if approached. They are also less likely to “take the bait.”
In No More Secrets by Caren Adams and Jennifer Fay, the authors suggest that if a request …
seems like it would separate her/him from other children
goes against family rules
involves a secret
seems like an unearned “special” favor
… children should refuse the request, report it and expect your support in backing them up no matter who the authority figure is or how convincing he might appear.5
Depending on the age of your child, it is important to give direct information. You might define sexual molestation by describing it as: someone touching you, looking at you or asking you to touch them or look at them in a way that gives you a funny, confusing or uncomfortable feeling. But it is also useful to name specific body parts and possible situations rather than to be vague. For example, you might say to a teenage girl, “Someone may brush up against your breasts and pretend it was accidental.” To a school-aged child you might say, “An older child, teacher or other grownup may want to touch your penis (vagina, anus) in the washroom.” Give a variety of different examples relevant to your child’s age, understanding and situation. To a preschool child, you might explain, “Someone may want to hold you too close, rub against you or put his hands in your pants.” Again, the more that you respect your child’s boundaries, the better she will be at registering and reporting inappropriate touch. Later in this chapter, we have some boundary-strengthening exercises for your family that will reinforce the principles that you are learning here.
Children Need to Know Who the “Someone” Might Be
Children, of course, need to be warned about taking rides, candy, gifts, etc., from strangers. They also need to be told that this potentially dangerous “someone” may be a next-door neighbor, a relative, a babysitter, their teacher, coach, scout leader, recreation director, older sibling or religious leader. They need to know that people can be nice and still have problems that cause them to do mean things sometimes. They also need to know that other children (almost always abused themselves) may be sexual abusers.
In reviewing the research for this chapter, one of the most startling statistics uncovered was the large percentage of children molested by older brothers and teenage babysitters. “The estimates are that incest between siblings may be five times more common than paternal incest.”6 Two other statistics from this source are: the average age a sibling is violated is 8.2 years, and the most frequently reported age when abuse begins is five years old! This is a special age when kids are curious, spontaneous and naturally loving. Dispelling the “dirty old man” myth, both the Child Adolescent Psychiatry Journal (1996) and the Criminal Justice Source Statistics (2000) report that the average age of most offenders is fourteen, and these fourteen-year-olds also comprise the largest number of sex offenders in any age group.7 “Fifty-nine percent of child molesters developed deviant sexual interest during adolescence.”8 Adolescent hormones are raging, and teens are often troubled by their newly emerging sexual impulses and drives. Additionally, young teens do not comprehend the long-term damage that is done to vulnerable children and need the guidance of parents to teach them these things.
Children also need to be taught that someone trying to abuse them may use force, but more often they will use trickery. Again, give concrete examples, such as: a babysitter or older child who knows how much you love cats may say, “I’ll let you have one of my kittens (or pet my cat), if you will sit on my lap and watch this video.” Or the priest from your parish might offer, “You can be an altar boy, but first let’s take off your clothes and try these vestments on to see if you’re big enough yet.” Children also need to know that they may be warned not to tell. If there are threats to keep secrets, your children need to be told that the person who intimidated them has done something wrong. They must tell you so you can protect them from harm.
4. Offer Opportunities for Children to Practice Saying “No”
In order for children to develop the capacity to stop someone from improper, hurtful, uncomfortable or confusing touch, they must have practice and experience with the right of refusal in other areas of their life. In this way it becomes a natural part of their self-confidence and is imprinted in their developing brain.
This process happens when parents respect children’s likes and dislikes and allow them to make age-appropriate choices whenever possible. Examples of this are choices in food, clothing and play activities. Parents show disrespect by forcing a child to wear something she dislikes or eat something distasteful just because “I’m your mother (or dad) and I say so!”—instead of saying, for example, “It is (or isn’t) healthy for you.” If parents chronically disregard a child’s feelings, tastes, opinions and sensibilities by overriding them with their own, it leaves an indelible mark in a child’s consciousness, communicating that “father knows best” and that authority should never be questioned. It also teaches kids not to trust their own instincts. Adults foster these impressions by saying things such as “How can you be cold when it’s so warm outside?” or “Don’t color those flowers blue—they’re supposed to be orange!” or “You get to choose when you’re a grown-up.”
When children grow up in this type of authoritarian climate, they cannot be expected to have their wits about them to suddenly say “no” to an adult (especially one who taught them to put their own feelings aside for the sake of the grown-up) when they are under stress and are confused or frightened. These children, then, are the most vulnerable to blaming themselves and feeling chronically ashamed, guilty and isolated if they are lured into a sexual assault. Children who grow up knowing that their choices are valued and their grown-ups will protect them from intrusive, rough or otherwise unpleasant handling by another are more likely to assert their right to say “No!” when they sense that they are about to be trapped in a dangerous situation.
This boundary-setting behavior begins by parents attending to a baby who is fussing because he has been picked up by someone he doesn’t feel safe with. It is important for parents to stop older siblings or classmates from bullying, tickling beyond toleration, punching, biting and kicking. If children do not want to be hugged or cuddled for whatever reason, they should not be forced or belittled. If we ignore or ridicule children’s right to control touch and make boundaries, how will they be able to protect themselves later in life? Instead we must honor each child’s non-verbal “no” and give him lots of practice in saying “No,” “Stop” or “Don’t.” Children have an instinctive sense about who is safe and who is not. You, the parents, need to trust this sense and foster its development rather than try to change a child’s mind.
Since the molester is most often a family friend or relative, it is common for the assault to happen in small stages over time. Often it starts with lewd thoughts long before an actual assault takes place. The following story illustrates just how important it is to listen to your children.
JENNY AND UNCLE SHERMAN
When Jenny was eight years old, she began to get a “funny feeling” around her Uncle Sherman but could not understand why. She loved to play with her cousins but was more relaxed when they visited her house. Now, at twelve, she figured out why she was so guarded. Jenny came back from an overnight stay quite upset. The next day, she told her mother that when her uncle played the “wrestle game” with the kids, Sherman pinned her down and intentionally rubbed his body on hers, gently brushing up against her newly developing breasts.
Jenny’s mother dismissed this “red flag” and protected her brother’s reputation rather than protecting Jenny! She told her daughter that Uncle Sherman “would never do anything like that, was a nice man and probably touched her by accident in play.” Her mother missed a clear opportunity to reinforce Jenny’s gut feelings and protect her from future attacks by having a frank talk with Uncle Sherman about what happened and how it affected his niece so that he would never treat Jenny or any other child that way again. In addition, she could make sure that he would not be allowed to be alone with Jenny. Sadly, she also missed an opportunity to help her daughter sort out her feelings and to teach her what to do or say if anything similar happened again.
Instead, Jenny had to deal with her feelings alone. She felt uncomfortable with her budding sexuality because of what happened with Uncle Sherman and became ashamed of her body. She also thought, like most children who aren’t informed, that something was wrong with her or this would never have happened.
When Jenny was sixteen her mother asked Uncle Sherman to pick his niece up from school and bring her home while her car was being repaired. Jenny was shocked when Uncle Sherman began to drive toward the mountains rather than toward her house. He said he was going to take his favorite niece for a hamburger.
After eating, they continued toward the mountains. When they arrived in an isolated wooded area, he told her how much he had always “loved” her, yearned for her and asked if she would remove her bra so that he could make her feel “really good.” Not having a clue what to do, Jenny sat in her uncle’s truck motionless while he continued his assault by undoing the clasps himself.
Remember how Jenny distrusted Uncle Sherman as early as age eight! Perhaps she felt those “icky” sensations because of the lewd way he looked at her, or maybe she sensed a strong sexual energy directed at her that made her feel uncomfortable. If Jenny’s mother had taught her that even family members sometimes do hurtful things, taken her daughter’s instinctual feelings seriously, validated her discomfort and taken action to protect Jenny, the later sexual assault could have been avoided. Jenny most likely wouldn’t be struggling with painful feelings now, as an adult, whenever her loving husband desires to admire or touch her breasts.
5. Teach Children What to Say and Do
Just as naturally as you teach children about other safety issues, such as crossing the street, calling 911, wearing seat belts and water safety, you can teach them the difference between “good” touch and “secret” (confusing or bad) touch. Often, however, parents assume that children understand what this is and how to respond when actually they do not! One way to test their comprehension after a “talk” is to ask them to use their own words to tell you what they think you mean. Another way is to role-play possible scenarios, tailoring them to your child’s vulnerabilities and age. Children learn best through games and guided practice.
In No More Secrets, the authors offer four different games that provide enjoyable rehearsals.9 These are paraphrased from that book and described below:
Games for Kids to Practice Making Boundaries
What If …
This is a good game to play to check understanding and to practice plans for a variety of situations. The whole family asks questions and creates different answers. Sample questions to stimulate children’s thinking are:
What if your bicycle got a flat tire and someone offered to give you a lift home?
What if a bully took your ball and told you to follow him to his garage to get it?
What if the new neighbor down the street asks if you can keep a secret?
This is a way to provide positive, concrete examples of children acting on their own behalf and being successful. A story might go like this:
There was a little boy who had an older brother who always bought him whatever he wanted. But the brother would scare him by hiding and jumping out at him in the dark. The little boy didn’t like to be scared, but he didn’t know what to do. One day he asked his father if he was ever scared. His dad said, “Sometimes.” The little boy asked him how he got unafraid. Dad asked him if something was frightening him, so the little boy told about his big brother. His dad helped him figure out that he could tell his brother not to do that anymore and could come to Dad if the brother still didn’t stop.
Face-Off or “Space Invaders”
This game helps children understand their own body space and boundary needs. Two children stand face to face, back up from each other about fifteen feet, and then slowly walk toward each other until one of them becomes uncomfortable with the closeness. They can then point to or name the place in their body that feels uncomfortable and describe what the sensation feels like. They can then be encouraged to make a movement and sound or word that lets the other child know they do not have permission to come closer. Have them practice until their body language shows that they really mean it.
Children may goof off at first and bump into each other, but they can tell the point where they are too close as a sign to protect their “space.” Have them try the same game side by side and back to back or approach each other from different angles. After children explore body space boundaries with each other, they can practice with an appropriate adult if they wish. The adult might play different roles, first pretending to be a stranger, then an acquaintance and then someone well-known, like a parent or neighbor. The game can help children identify quickly when someone is invading their space. This reinforces refinement of (and trust in) their own body clues and instinctive signals that we talked about earlier.
This game increases the likelihood that children will say “No” when they need to.
1. Brainstorm rules that seem to encourage children to do things they might not want to do.
Be nice to people.
Don’t hurt people’s feelings.
Don’t be rude. If someone speaks to you, answer.
You are responsible for taking care of other people.
Think of others’ needs before your own.
Don’t question adult authority.
Always obey the babysitter.
“Rules” like these—named, discussed and acknowledged—lose power and everybody can make choices about when it might be good to follow those rules and when it’s better to say “No!”
2. Practice saying “No!”
Start by having two children or one child and one adult take turns asking pretend favors. Start with a simple “No!” answer that the partner must accept. Adapt the difficulty level as children become more skilled by saying things like: “What’s the matter, don’t you like me anymore?” and then see where it leads. Be sure to give the children chances to say “No!” to adults.
You may be surprised at how easily children “cave in” to adult requests. They think they are being mean, disobedient or disrespectful to do otherwise. This game can help you assess how your children might behave in a potential assault situation and give you a chance to help them practice being confident and strong in saying “No!”
Help your child to counter learned physical helplessness around people who are bigger, stronger or have authority over him. In addition to the games above, organized sports, martial arts, fitness exercises, running games, arm wrestling and other activities like a special kids’ “model mugging” class can promote a sense of physical competence as an antidote to a sense of helplessness.
Why Most Children Don’t Tell: Making It Safe for Them to Tell You
In Miss America By Day, Marilyn Van Derbur poses the question: “Is it safe for children to tell?” She answers that rhetorical question: “Only if you and I make it safe.”10 What does she mean by this? She goes on to cite research that the average age of first-time violation is five to six years old. Those who told a parent before age eighteen encountered the following negative parental reactions (some experienced multiple responses):
Anger with them (the child) (42%)
Blamed them (49%)
Ignored the disclosure (50%)
Became hysterical (30%)
Although it may seem unbelievable, the average child never tells! As a school psychologist, I can attest to this by the fact that countless children told me that I was the first one they ever confided their secret to! Children typically fear blame and punishment. Common responses I have heard are “She would kill me if she knew!” “My mother/father would just call me a liar.” “She wouldn’t do anything anyway because she wouldn’t want to upset him.” “He’ll say it was entirely my fault.”
The good news is that you can cultivate a climate of safety in your household. And it will pay big dividends for your youngsters. Another study attests to the benefits: “Those who told immediately or very shortly after the abuse and were believed and supported showed relatively few long-term traumatic symptoms. Those who either did not tell (typically due to fear or shame) or who told and then encountered a negative, blaming, disbelieving or ridiculing response were classified as extremely traumatized.”11 Ms. Van Derbur wrote that when she first started advocating on behalf of children, she had bumper stickers made and placed on hundreds of cars that read “BELIEVE THE CHILDREN.”
To increase the odds that your child will tell you: 1) Teach them about inappropriate touching as early as preschool; 2) Let them know it is never their fault; 3) Teach and role-play when and how to tell you or another safe adult; 4) Let them know in advance that you will believe and protect them; 5) Let them know that you will never reject or punish them. In other words, make it easy for your child to tell!
Date Rape and Other Teen Issues
Teens who have had early unresolved sexual wounds or who have grown up without healthy role models in the areas of personal privacy, boundaries and sexuality may find it difficult to even be aware of personal safety, let alone practice it, on-the-spot when they begin dating.
If their feelings, opinions and rights were disregarded or minimized by parents, grandparents or older siblings, these teens—who may never have practiced saying “no” at home (and have it respected)—are headed for trouble when they find themselves on a date, alone with a boy, in a car on a dark night or even on a high school campus in broad daylight!
Unfortunately, date rape in high school and college happens far too often. One landmark study in the U.S. reported that one in four college women was the victim of rape or attempted rape.12 Parents need to establish ongoing conversations with pre-teens and teens. Find out what your son’s and daughter’s concepts are regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior under various circumstances. Don’t assume that adolescents can make clear judgments when their hormones are raging, or that they don’t need your guidance because they suddenly are in adult bodies. Teens often need more guidance at this important juncture of their lives than at any other time.
Echoes into the Next Generation: Transforming the Legacy
It doesn’t help matters that we live in a culture where there is so much confusion around sexual values and behaviors. Often overlooked is the fact that sexual energy and life force energy are virtually one and the same. People who have passion for life have a flow of creative energy that feels inspiring and uplifting to be around. It is life-positive. They are considered to be “juicy”; those around them soak up their spark and creative exuberance. Instead of being the norm they stand out.
What is creative life force anyway? Where does it originate? In Indian culture, it is referred to as “second-chakra energy” and it arises from our sexual organs. It is the arousal energy that made troubadours sing and the great masters compose, build, paint, create theater and write literature that delights us and endures through time. It is the energy of both creation and procreation. So much fear exists about this potent force that social and religious institutions have traditionally tried to dampen it down.
Unfortunately, when a lid is put on feelings and sensations that are normal—making ordinary folks confused and guilt-ridden—it is difficult for flesh-and-blood human beings to know what to do when these strong feelings arise unbeckoned. Attempts to dictate what thoughts, feelings and sensations are proper or improper is a breeding ground for shame. Thoughts are thoughts and sensations are sensations. Period! They do not need to be acted out inappropriately.
When the moral judgment is removed, individuals are able to acknowledge and experience their authentic life energy freely. Without having to deny or repress them, healthy decisions and expressions of sexuality are more likely. The unspeakable becomes spoken and families can become a model for shaping healthy behavior.
On one more note, we wish to acknowledge the reality that many successful families may be “non-traditional”—having two parents of the same sex, being a single-parent, step-family or blended family—yet we trust that some of the ideas presented here will have relevance to your particular situation.
All families need nurturing touch such as hugging, holding, cuddling and massage. It is never acceptable, however, for an adult or older child to satisfy their own needs for comfort, nurturance, power or sexual gratification by exploiting a child (or anyone) who is incapable of understanding and protecting themselves against a choice they were not free, or did not perceive they were free, to make.
This chapter is by no means exhaustive. There are many wonderful books to help parents talk to their children about healthy sex, normal sexual development and sexual assault. No More Secrets by Caren Adams and Jennifer Fay, which is quoted here, may be an “oldie” but it is a gem of a “goodie.” Also, Miss America By Day by Marilyn Van Derbur gives a meticulous, personal and far-reaching account of the long-term effects of sexual abuse. It is an invaluable guide to the prevention of sexual violation of children. The CD Sexual Healing, Transforming the Sacred Wound, by Peter A. Levine (Sounds True, 2003) is an audio learning series that includes various guided exercises; it is a useful companion to this chapter for teens and adults.