Protection from Abuse

Abuse often hurts twice--the incident itself, and the pain of integrating it into one's identity. While we can never provide absolute protection for our children, there is much we can do both to prevent it and to ensure healing.

A young adult was talking about what it was like to have experienced sexual abuse as a child. It became very clear in the telling that, while the experience itself was painful, what followed when it was over was even worse. Still just a little boy, he had to face living with it for the rest of his life. With no one to tell, no way to get perspective on why it had happened, on who was to blame, he had to carry it with him, as part of his definition of himself. As I listened I was appalled. The incident itself, terrible as it was, paled in comparison with the lonely pain of making it part of his life.

What a difference it would have made if he could have told! The picture is so clear in my mind. A loving mother or father would have gathered him into their arms, and--maybe slowly as first--the whole experience would all have come pouring out. He would have gotten absolute reassurance that no part of it was his fault. He would have soaked up their confidence that he was absolutely good, that he had never deserved this, that they would do their absolute best to ensure that it would never happen again. He would be left with a memory of a painful, ugly experience--and nothing more.

I thought of this young man the other day at our parent and toddler group. One mom was worrying about how to protect her child, whose sunny outgoing disposition made her attractive to all the adults around. Was it safe for her daughter to be that friendly? Should she start teaching about danger, telling her child never to talk to strangers? What a pity that would be--training her to mistrust other human beings. But was there a responsible alternative?

The sad thing here is that we can never fully protect our children from bad things happening. Adults have the power to take advantage of even the most mistrustful child, and the never-talk-to-strangers rule can't shield children from the majority of abuse, which comes from people they know and have reason to trust.

But we're far from powerless here. We can talk with them about not going off with strangers. We can remind them that they get to choose about how they are touched. Most of all, we can protect our children from the deep and corrosive on-going hurt of living alone with an experience of abuse. We can make sure that they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they can tell us anything, no matter what.

Of course, it's not as easy as it sounds. When one of the issues is sex, how many of us are ready to have open, relaxed discussions about it with our children? And there are lots of times when inviting them to tell us what's really going on is the last thing we want. Who gets excited about the prospect of hearing one more complaint, one more disappointment, one more problem, one more upset, from one more little child? Who really wants to know all the details of teenage angst? Our overstretched lives would seem much easier if they would just button up and do what needs to be done. And when what we want most of all is for our children to be happy, it's hard to invite and coax out their feelings of fear and grief.

But this is their greatest protection. If they know that it's safe to tell anything, that we want to know, that our arms and hearts are open to all their stories and all their feelings, then they have a way to heal, a way to move forward. Then any abusive incident can become simply that, an incident, and they are free to go on living their lives, secure that they are good, and loved, and not alone.