If We Want to Protect Our Kids from Sexual Abuse, We Need to Change the Way We Parent

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In the wake of the Me Too movement, I hope every parent commits to making sexual abuse prevention an urgent priority. Our kids need to know they can say no! to anyone wanting sexual contact with them — whether that’s a teen from high school messaging your daughter for explicit photos, an older sibling intimidating a younger sibling into sexual acts, or a youth group leader grooming the middle schoolers in his care.

But in order for a child to say no! and tell an adult, and in order for that child to grow up into an adult who can say no! and contact the proper authorities, she needs more than the cognitive understanding that nobody can violate her body. She needs more than the knowledge of good touch/bad touch. She needs more than the know-how that she can come to tell Mommy and Daddy anything.

She needs self-confidence. She needs courage. She needs a strong sense of self-worth. And she needs the tools and the practice saying no! to anyone who violates her body or gives off an “ick” vibe. She needs an inner conviction that her bodily autonomy matters more than respecting adults or being nice.

None of those things come from a few conversations about inappropriate touching. Those things come from regular practice and experience in everyday life. My concern is, the parenting promoted in our culture regularly undermines the self-confidence, courage, self-worth, and bodily autonomy of our children. When it comes time to stand up for herself or run and get help, her mind will know what to do, but she will shrink in fear and confusion, scared to offend, uncertain of how to assert herself.

This is true for both the ten-year-old and the twenty-year-old: how we parent daily sends stronger messages about our children’s worth, bodily autonomy, and self-confidence than a couple talks about sexual abuse prevention.

Today’s parenting emphasizes compliance in children and ultimate authority in adults. We demand respect for adults at any cost — and by “respect,” I don’t mean treating all people kindly; I mean treating all adults as authority figures with more say over a child’s life than the child herself possesses. If a child crosses an adult by asserting her own thoughts, feelings, and needs, she is treated as less than a person. She loses rights to her personal property (taking away her things for an unrelated infraction), her body (corporal punishment, grounding, time out), and her right to be treated kindly (screams, insults, humiliation, anger).

As a viral Reddit post says,

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person,” and sometimes they use respect to mean “treating someone like an authority.” And sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say, “If you won’t respect me, I won’t respect you,” and they mean, “If you won’t treat me like an authority, I won’t treat you like a person.”

That’s American parenting in a nutshell.

This creates a dangerous power imbalance between all adults and all children. Adults feel entitled to treat children however they like in order to get the “respect” owed them. Children learn that their own ideas, values, thoughts, and feelings matter less than adults’. They internalize that adults always know better, even if the things they do hurt the child deeply. They learn they must always do what adults say, even if it hurts them, confuses them, or violates their sense of bodily autonomy or fairness. If they don’t do what adults tell them, they are “naughty” and will receive punishment. They fear questioning an adult, lest they be disrespectful. After all, what do they know? They’re just kids.

This is the sort of internal messaging driving a child or a grown adult into fearfully “consenting” to sexual abuse or feeling powerless to say no.

The people who are sexually abusing our children, both young and adult, are rarely strangers. They are older siblings, relatives, family friends, teachers, bosses, significant others, sometimes even parents themselves. They are the people we insist our children respect as authority figures, even if the child brings legitimate complaints about them to our attention. They are the ones about whom we say, “Yes, that’s not fair, but he’s your teacher, so you have to do what he says.” “Yeah, I know you don’t like Auntie’s kisses, but she’s your aunt. You’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t let her kiss you.” “No, it’s not right that Grandma spanked you, but you need to listen to her when she gives you a direction.”

Instead of standing up for our children’s bodies, feelings, and basic right to be treated as a person, we cave to social pressure, fearful of disrespecting or angering other adults.

Successful sexual abuse prevention hinges on dismantling the adult-as-authority/child-as-compliant power imbalance. We dismantle it by honoring our child’s limits; defending our child’s rights to control their bodies and property; respecting the real emotions hidden beneath inappropriate behavior; and giving children practice in conflict mediation.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Honor Your Child’s Limits

“Stop!”

“Don’t!”

“I don’t want to!”

“NO!”

Few things make authority figures angrier than hearing a kid assert her preferences in a way that shows she values her own thoughts and feelings over our own. In a culture where child compliance is the ultimate virtue, it’s embarrassing when our children refuse to participate in what other children are doing, and it’s humiliating when they do the opposite of what we ask them to do. We worry that other adults will be insulted if the child refuses to hug them, listen to the story they picked, or eat the meal prepared for them. We worry that our kids will grow up anti-social and rude.

But it’s imperative that we honor our child’s internal monitor of danger and dislike, no matter how irrational it seems to us. This is the same internal monitor she will have if someone tries to abuse her. All children feel an “ick” or “danger” factor when encountering sexual abuse. Not all children feel confident in the accuracy of that monitor. If we repeatedly insist that children disregard a strong dislike or fear in favor of social convention, she will learn to doubt the inner voice that helps her determine what’s safe and what’s not safe.

Honoring our child’s fears, dislikes, and assertions includes showing respect and support with our words, tone, and immediacy. It’s not enough to bargain with or bribe the child — “Oh, come on. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s okay!” — and then shrug in defeat. They need immediate validation and support without a hint of teasing, disapproval, or dismissiveness: “I see that you don’t want to join the library story time. Is there something worrying you? You said you don’t know, you just don’t want to. That’s okay. You can stand in the back and watch. I’m going to sit in the circle and listen to the story. If you change your mind, you can come sit with me.”

Any time we insist children ignore their fears and dislikes in favor of pleasing someone else or following social convention, we train them that other people’s desires matter more than their own safety, needs, or preferences. Conversely, every time we honor our child’s refusal to say hello, join the parachute play, or eat the meal Mom worked so hard to prepare, we teach the opposite: My wants, needs, and safety matter more than making other people happy. Mom and Dad won’t get mad at me for standing up for what I want or need. I can listen to what my gut tells me, and if I’m wrong about an initial judgment and decide that it’s safe and okay, I can change my mind. It doesn’t make me a bad or stupid person to listen to my intuition, even if it’s sometimes wrong.

This is exactly the kind of inner conviction and self-confidence we want to create in our children in matters of sexuality and consent: If I can’t give an enthusiastic yes, I will say no. I can always change my mind. I know how to assert myself respectfully and cope with other people’s disappointment. I know I am not a bad, disrespectful, or defiant person for valuing my needs, safety, and preferences.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Defend Your Child’s Right to Her Body and Property

“Be nice. Give her the shovel.”

“Oh, come on. It’s just a hug!”

“If I see you hitting your brother one more time, I’m giving you a spanking.”

“That’s it! Go to time out and sit there until I tell you you can come out.”

American parenting insists on generosity and respecting other people’s bodies and property, but we do so often at the expense of our own children’s bodies and property. We need a consistent ethic of bodily autonomy and respect that includes everyone, including our children and their property.

Children without a clear understanding of their own rights and property will not be able to give generously. They will clutch their toys and scream, “Mine!” They will hog ten cars and refuse to share one with their sobbing best friend. This vehement refusal to share stems from insecurity and confusion over what really is “mine.” Ironically, the same child who savagely protects his excessive number of toys can become a teenager who caves into unwanted sexual acts because he too isn’t clear on what’s “his” or if “his” is worth defending.

The difference lies in how parents treat this critical developmental stage where children need to differentiate themselves from others, and whether parents continue to support a child’s right to his body and property in the face of others’ disapproval.

Children need clear boundaries on what constitutes “theirs” and what constitutes “others’.” It’s sometimes a difficult line to walk, since parents, teachers, and babysitters are charged with tasks that involve children’s things and bodies. They must wipe and clothe private areas, physically block children from hurting others or themselves, and remove playthings that children use to hurt others or property. Children are more dependent on us for their belongings, safety, and impulse control than adults.

It’s all the more important that we give children as much control as is developmentally appropriate and that we defend our children’s right to control their bodies and property. In areas where it’s inevitable that a parent must intervene for a child’s health, safety, and well-being, this often looks like giving age-appropriate and parent-approved choices: “Do you want to lie down while I change your diaper, or stand up?” “What do you think are good rules for your iPhone?” “You may whack the stick on the ground or the tree, but not on the window. It’s not safe to whack windows; they can break. If you choose to whack the stick on the window again, I will take away the stick.”

Age-appropriate and parent-approved choices still respect children’s autonomy, and they make sense to children. A child will not like Dad taking away his stick and may throw a huge tantrum in protest, but it is fair: Dad gave him clear choices and consequences, and the child made a choice with an unpleasant but natural consequence. If he can’t use the stick safely, he can’t use the stick at all.

It makes less sense when parents take away property or infringe on bodily autonomy as an unrelated punishment. When a parent spanks a child for being disrespectful, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It’s an external punishment that leverages fear of pain to get the child to do what the parent wants. When a parent takes away a child’s Legos for hitting his sister, it isn’t a fair or natural consequence. It leverages fear of deprivation to get the child to do what the parent wants.

External punishment that violates bodily and property autonomy can work as a deterrent to bad behavior, but it also teaches the child that they should submit to unfair or illogical things if an adult says so. It teaches them that adults do not have to respect their children’s bodies or property and that it’s futile to protest punishment on those grounds. It also sends conflicting messages: Children can’t take things from others or hit others, but parents can take things from kids and hit children because they’re adults.

Forced sharing is another staple of American parenting that values the disappointment of others over a child’s rights. When a parent insists that their child shares, she sends the clear message that the other child’s feelings matter more than the first child’s right to her property and play. It also sends a dangerous message to the child requesting a toy that his wants matter more than another child’s rights.

Children need to see their parents defending their rights to their body and property. Immediately stop tickling or roughhousing the second the child yells “stop!” or appears in any distress, even if she’s giggling or wants to do it again a few minutes later. Give a child parent-approved choices if she balks at necessary caregiving tasks. Never give away or take away a child’s belongings without her permission, unless it’s for temporary safety reasons. Defend your child’s right to play how she likes, even if it makes another child sad or disappointed.

We want our children to give freely and wholeheartedly without compromising their safety or needs. By respecting their bodily autonomy and property now, we instill an inner conviction and self-worth that will serve them well in both consensual and non-consensual sexual encounters: My body is mine. I can do what I want with it unless it’s unsafe to me or others. I can stand up for myself even if that makes other people feel sad or disappointed. I will only let others touch me if I like it and feel safe. My parents will always defend my right to say no. I can go to them for help if other people will not respect my bodily autonomy.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Respect Your Child’s Feelings Even if Her Behavior Is Inappropriate

Why don’t children tell their parents if someone sexually abuses them? They’re terrified that they will get in trouble for “allowing” it or participating in it.

Many children feel that their parents’ love is conditional on their good behavior and that they are “bad” for making mistakes or acting inappropriately on legitimate feelings. “It doesn’t matter if he started it!” parents will snap at their kids. “You are the older one.”

“I don’t care if she yelled at you. You can’t hit her. Go to your room!”

“You know better!”

American parenting often sends the message that if kids do something wrong, their feelings, grievances, and reasons for the inappropriate behavior don’t matter. It also holds kids to an impossibly high standard: If they cognitively know something is wrong, they should be able to stop themselves from doing it.

Children are capable of a lot through practice and support. The key is practice and support. Impulse control originates in the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop in children. This is why we can explain things until we’re blue in the face and our kids will still do stupid, inappropriate, or unkind things.

They’re not “being bad.” They’re impulsive and short-sighted because that’s their current developmental stage.

As adults who “know better,” we’re responsible for interpreting children’s behavior, meeting the need they’re trying to convey, and giving them tools to communicate more clearly and respectfully next time.

When we focus on the inappropriate behavior (for example, hitting or yelling “I hate you!”) to the exclusion of the feeling underneath it (“I’m scared,” “I’m mad”) and the cause of that emotion (“He tried to take my truck,” “She’s not listening to my point of view”), we push our kids away from us. This is especially true when we side with adults or our children’s friends, minimizing the harm they caused in order to focus on making sure our children show respect. Our child learns that Mom and Dad will usually side with other people. They won’t believe me, understand me, or support me. I have to be perfect in order for them to care about my feelings and grievances.

When we validate our child’s feelings and point of view and set a limit on inappropriate behavior, we build up an inner conviction in our child of self-worth: My feelings and thoughts matter. If I make mistakes, I can respond differently next time. My parents will support me and understand me even if I make a mistake. I don’t deserve bad treatment from others even if I’m not perfect or treat others badly too.

Abusers capitalize on children’s guilt: No one will believe you. You deserve to be treated this way. Don’t you dare tell anyone. Your parents will hate you for what you’ve done. You’re already a slut, so I can do whatever I want to you.

If a child knows her parents are on her side always, no matter what, those guilt messages won’t deter her. She feels an intrinsic self-worth and conviction in her parents’ support.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Tip: Let Children Practice Conflict Mediation

It’s terrifying telling people no. It doesn’t feel good. Many adults avoid it at all costs, going along with the unpleasant situation as long as possible. We operate on the conviction that we need to be as nice as possible and say yes as much as possible and just be a bit more flexible.

This messaging doesn’t disappear the second an intimidating guy starts giving you unwanted attention. If we set our foot down now, before anything really bad happens, we risk misinterpreting his friendliness as flirtatiousness and embarrassing him; we risk making a scene and looking inflexible and rude; we risk hurting his feelings or angering him.

If we’re not used to setting limits with peers, saying no or stop when it really, really matters will be a Herculean task.

It starts with spats over toys and the shrieks of “he looked at me!!!!” and the unwanted rough play. Parents often swoop in to rescue their child or their child’s victim, handing over the toy the other kid wants, yelling at the kid to stop looking at his sister, banning roughhousing completely. In other words, we set the limits and resolve the conflict.

While it’s great for kids to know that parents will be there to help, parents won’t always be there. Our job is to train kids how to handle conflict independently from us as much as possible.

I once supported two kids trying to cross stepping stones in the opposite direction. “She won’t move!” screamed one kid. “He won’t move!” screamed the other. “I want to go this way!” yelled the first kid. “I want to go the other way!” yelled the second. I could have easily required one or both to get off and let the other pass, but instead I coached them to ask the other to move or suggested that one of them get off and let the other pass. They stood there, asking and yelling at each other to move with no resolution, until they both got bored and ran off together to play.

Whenever a child gets hurt, either physically or emotionally, I ask them what they want to do. Do they want to keep playing but with a new rule against, say, throwing wood chips? Walk away? Confront their friend? If they decide on setting a limit or sharing their feelings, I go with them for support but require that they do the talking themselves.

I try to police kids’ interactions as little as possible unless there’s a real safety issue or a student is violating another kid’s clear or implied limits. When given the chance, they often work things out quite well, even if it’s louder, more disrespectful, and messier than I like. Instead of barging in and solving problems for them, even if kids are upset, I probe their self-awareness about their safety and feelings: “Are you okay with your friend grabbing your arm in this game? Yeah? Okay. You can always change your mind and tell your friend not to if you don’t feel safe. No, you’re not? Okay, tell your friend that you want to play but do not want to be grabbed. Are you okay with her tagging you but not grabbing you?”

This teaches skills clear confrontation skills and the importance of expressing their needs. It’s a courageous act to tell a friend no and mean it, even at the risk of the game ending or their friend’s anger. This also creates a culture where children learn that clearly set limits don’t mean that their friend no longer wants to play or thinks that they are bad people. Limits are good things that enable happiness for everyone.

Isn’t this the exact thing we want for our children when it comes to consent in sex — to values themselves enough to say no clearly, to value others enough to respect the other’s no, to be self-aware about what they like and don’t like and confident and articulate enough to communicate that?

If we want this confidence, clarity, courage, self-awareness, and respect for themselves and others, we need to start now, daily, by supporting peer conflict mediation and respectfully parenting our children.

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4 thoughts on “If We Want to Protect Our Kids from Sexual Abuse, We Need to Change the Way We Parent

  1. Abigail

    Thanks for tackling this topic. Over the past several years, I have read a lot of opinion pieces about how to create structural barriers to sexual abuse (e.g., having windowed doors at church; not allowing your child to be completely alone with male relatives), but none of these protections are foolproof or apply to every situation. I love how you approached the topic with a view to how parents can raise a child with the intellectual and emotional power to resist abusive adults’ influence and feel safe telling good adults about the problem.

    One thing I would add to your recommendations is for parents to read aloud a variety of books to their children. When I was growing up, my mom read aloud classic books, like the Elsie Dinsmore series, that provided me and my sister with influential literary experiences and the opportunity to encounter and talk through social issues in a safe way. With stories, the parent doesn’t have to worry about giving a real person the benefit of the doubt. They can say, “How does it make you feel that Elsie’s father treated her like that? Do you think that punishment was fair?” And we say, “HECK NO.” Reading provides a safe way for kids to develop mental references for authoritative parenting, abuse, and manipulation.

    Like

  2. dancinginthemaze

    This is an excellent and detailed post. Something the world needs to understand. If I may emphasize that all the she/her pronouns could also be he/him. Boys are just as subject to the same kinds of conditioning and almost as likely as girls to be abused.

    Like

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