Tips from the Daughter of a Sexual Abuse Survivor

childMy mother is a brave woman who dared to speak out about being raped on multiple occasions by a brother-in-law during her childhood, although recounting such experiences caused her personal pain and in spite of pressure to stay silent for the sake of avoiding embarrassment and contention.  With the important disclaimer that I am not an expert on this topic, I would like to offer some advice, friend to friend, about what I have learned about protecting children from pedophiles as a result of growing up in a family that has seriously grappled with this issue.

  • Pedophilia thrives on secrecy.  Maintaining confidentiality is not a virtue when dealing with a pedophile; it facilitates their behavior. Teach your children that it is wrong for someone to ask them to keep secrets from their parents and they should tell you immediately if an adult asks them to keep a secret.  Regularly ask them if anyone has asked them to keep a secret.
  • Pedophilia is a long-term condition with no known cure. No matter how long after the fact this crime is discovered, it should be brought to light and if possible, prosecuted. The pedophile may have stopped harming the known victim by that time but is likely to have moved on to younger victims who are keeping silent. 
  • Teaching “stranger danger” is not helpful.  People are much more likely to be assaulted by someone they know.

  • Be careful to avoid the impression that children should obey grown-ups just because they are grown-ups. A better strategy is to teach them that they do not have to do something that feels wrong to them even if someone in authority makes the demand.
  • At my annual well-child appointments, my pediatrician always gives me the option of checking for signs of abuse  “if suspected.”  I reply that I do not suspect abuse, but that I want my children checked anyway because my own mother was abused for years and no one suspected. 
  • Forgiveness is godly; forgetting, in the case of sexual predators, is dangerous. Forgiveness does not mean treating the pedophile like everyone else. It certainly does not mean trusting pedophiles to be around children, even years or decades after the known incident.  The safety of an innocent child is more important than the feelings of even a very penitent abuser.

 

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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15 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Great advice, April. I have had the “stranger danger” discussion with my kids, but not the discussion about adults they know asking them to do something that doesn’t feel right and to keep secrets. I think that in the next few days, I’m going to have this conversation exactly as you suggest.

  2. Ziff says:

    Thanks for this important post, April.

  3. Jenny says:

    This is really great advice. I worry about my kids, not because I have a reason to, but just because I’m a mom. But I rarely know how to prevent abuse or at least empower my kids to come to me if it occurs. I like the idea of having open conversation with them and your post has given me some things that I can add to that conversation.

  4. Nancy Ross says:

    I am also the daughter of a sexual abuse survivor. I also want to add that once the abuse is known, family members may want to be silent on the subject because they want to appear neutral and maintain relationships with everyone. This silence is often interpreted (rightly so) by the victim as siding with the abuser.

    • Melody says:

      Very important point, Nancy. Silence is not only interpreted by the victim as siding with the perpetrator, but by the perpetrator as well. (especially if the perpetrator has not been legally prosecuted for any number of reasons and is still in contact with extended family who deny the abuse.) As April states: secrecy and silence create a perfect playground for sexual predators.

    • Missy says:

      I am an abuse survivor….I’ve always wondered if the family members that keep silent and can’t or don’t want to talk about actually have sided with my abuser?

  5. Liz says:

    We’ve grappled with similar issues in my family, and these are all great things to know that few people talk about. Thank you for this, April.

  6. Catherine says:

    I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and am very triggered by the suggestion to have a pediatrician check for signs of abuse, assuming that refers to a physical examination. As a child I was extremely triggered by physical examinations, and would often cry for days afterward. I am not saying my experience is typical (I’m sure it is particular non-typical of children who have NOT been abused) but that particular point concerns me.

    I really don’t know how to handle doctor visits with my own children. I get so triggered just being there with them and worry they will pick up on my anxiety.

  7. Cruelest Month says:

    Great advice April! As a professional working with child sexual abuse victims I’ve seen the terrible repercussions of maintaining silence and “respecting the authority” of a perpetrating patriarch. In one particularly egregious case the perpetrator went to jail at the age of 82 after a lifetime of perpetrating on every generation of girls in the family. A brave granddaughter finally spoke out and ended the cycle of abuse. I’m glad that your family is speaking. Only transparency and open discourse can keep everyone safe.
    Mormon boys and girls are especially susceptible to bring preyed upon by pedophiles and rapists with our culture of niceness, blind obedience, and tendency to ignore our own promptings in deference to authority.

  8. Isabelle says:

    This is a really good article… oh, how i wish I’d had it 2 decades ago. But now I know where to start in sharing the basics of self-protection and open the communication with my Grandkids…They’re super young and what I consider ‘low risk’, but I thought my daughter was ‘low risk’ too, but then I put her in a ‘high risk’ situation without realizing it..and by the way I’ve emotionally reacted to this, I do believe I may have a whole lot of guilt and self loathing issues.. I’ve become a tad anxiously over-vigilant.. I think helping them know the stuff you wrote will not only protect them more, but also allow me to be ok with them being out of my sight. I’ve had a fear that I was at the ‘paranoid, hovering’ stage, and that they would start to avoid me because of it..
    I truly appreciate it

  9. Melody says:

    Thank you for this beautiful and powerful post, April. I am grateful for your clear vision and for your efforts toward increased public awareness. Fantastic tips to address abuse issues! Childhood sexual abuse has long-lasting effects for individuals and for our entire culture. The ACE (Adverse Childhood Events) study is an excellent reference for how such violence impacts us all.

    Here is the link for the study: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

    I feel compassion for your mom and camaraderie with her as a survivor. I’ve been calling myself a witness of and for childhood sexual abuse more often than a survivor these days (although I am both). Like others who have commented here, I believe the power of words liberates victims and condemns perpetrators with a single blow. I love seeing darkness brought into the light so we can deal with it appropriately.

    Thank you most of all for noting that, especially in a strongly religious community, “forgiveness” is often a word used to describe ongoing denial. In my own experience, I believe it is not possible for me to offer forgiveness to my father and others who harmed me. Theirs were crimes against heaven because their crimes impacted my ability to access my own agency. It is out of my power to forgive such sin. I gave them to God – through a long process of recovery and healing. God will offer justice and whatever mercy may come if or when such individuals admit their crimes (I have yet to see one admit to anything). They are out of my hands and out of my life. Thanks again for this wonderful post.

  10. jks says:

    When you talk to your kids, remember that if they are being abused, it is by probably by someone that other people respect and love or admire. In fact, it may be by someone they love and admire. So be very careful not to go on about how evil and bad these people are. Also, sometimes their friend is an abuse victim and then begins acting inappropriately and abusing other children (not illegal but still harmful).
    If you discuss these things often from an early age, it because matter of fact and less scary to you. For instance, in a recent conversation I had with my 6 year old (fourth child).
    “Sometimes someone doesn’t follow the rules about privacy. So they might try to see you naked or play inappropriately about penises. Has anyone tried doing that with you?”
    “No. Why would they do that!!!”
    “I know, right? It’s just that it something like that happened you can tell me and then we can talk to them and explain about the rules.”

    Another way to approach these discussions is talking about problems that you can handle yourself and problems that are too big to handle yourself and you need to tell an adult or parent. Bring in all sorts of problems and list them and see if your child knows what to do. Kid has a knife on the bus. Being bullied. Lost shoe.

    Another discussion to have is talking about something difficult happening but children aren’t always sure what to do right away. Then later, a kid realized that they should have said something right away but it is too hard to talk about. It is always ok to talk about something difficult even if it happened a long time ago or a short time ago. If you ever have something that is really scary to say, you should come and start off by saying “Mom, I need to tell you something but it is really hard to say.” Have them practice saying that. Of course, they will come to you with all sorts of things that are hard to say that have nothing to do with sexual abuse, but it opens the door for them to have a script for the hard stuff.

    Have monthly discussions. Remember, kids are young and forget. You are old and time flies. You may thing you’ve that that discussion with them recently, but actually your kid was 4 and he is 6 now and he doesn’t remember. Just try to have little bits of discussion every month or two months. For instance, the explaining about “Mom, I need to tell you something that is hard to say” doesn’t have to be given at the same time as anything else that references abuse. It is an easy conversation to have at any point. Just go for it. The tell adult problem vs. handle yourself discussion can be had several times with all sorts of different scenarios. No need for them to feel like you are always bringing up private body parts and inappropriate touching. But added together all of these discussions can bring them the skills they need to talk to you.
    I don’t try to prevent abuse from happening (other than the obvious). Instead, I try to equip my children to deal with it if it does.

  11. jks says:

    One more hint. I occasionally had my kids go through a phase where they didn’t want to hear about something about sex. Either a puberty talk or an abuse talk or where babies come from talk. My oldest is 17 now. We discuss all sorts of things.
    But while they are ever in the phase of not wanting to hear, I just smile and say “It is my job as your mom to teach you these things. So, yes, we do have to talk about this even if it makes you uncomfortable.” I first started using this line when my older ones were about 9 and 11. It gave me so much confidence to say it and not second guess myself just because were uncomfortable. They are ignorant of what they do or do not need to know. It is my responsibility to teach.

  12. EmilyCC says:

    This post and the comments are so helpful for me. I feel like I have stewardship over a lot of children in my life (my own, those through my calling, and those I work with), and I want to do better in this area. Thank you.

  13. spunky says:

    This is great advice, April!

    I was also told to NOT teach stranger-danger; it has created a greater closet for abuse, and in cases when a child needs help, they sometimes are afraid to tell a teacher or otherwise, as they -through lenses of trust confusion- may not deem the person “close enough” to help.

    We had nannies for a time, and one of the best reads on teaching prevention is here: http://nannyassociation.org/myth-stranger-danger. It teaches that “tricky people” might be friends of strangers– but they are recognized by negative characteristics.

    Thank you so much for sharing this and bringing a still-closeted problem further out into the light by arming us with such good advice.

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