written by, Kate Oliver, LCSW-C
The news was atwitter this past week with the story of the judge, who has since apologized, sort of, for stating that the 14-year-old girl, Cherice Moralez, who killed herself after her teacher molested her was “older than her chronological age” and that “It’s not probably the kind of rape most people think about,”… “It was not a violent, forcible, beat-the-victim rape, like you see in the movies. But it was nonetheless a rape. It was a troubled young girl, and he was a teacher. And this should not have occurred.” (cnn.com) I do not know this case, or this girl. I am not going to comment on this family’s pain other than to try to use their situation to create better understanding of all children who have experienced sexual abuse.
I have worked with people who have been molested for quite a while now and while many people know the company line is to say that it is never the victim’s fault, I do find that as adults it can be difficult to understand why we say that. It is true that 2 out of 3 teen victims know their abusers. In cases where a child knows his or her abuser, it is much more often the case that a child or teen was tricked into performing sexual acts rather than, as this judge envisioned a “forcible attack.”
Child abuse is difficult to think about, so many of us, when given the option, simply choose not to. It is not until we have someone close to us that is affected that we begin to examine our own underlying belief about abuse. I am glad when adults share what they really believe about their child’s abuse with me so that we can address the questions about whether a child participated in his or her own molestation, rather than continuing to hold onto a belief that a child might have done so, a belief that can unknowingly be conveyed to the child through actions, body language and words. In this article, I would like to address some of the questions that survivors and parents of survivors have brought to me over the years which may be difficult to answer unless you have had some time to reflect upon it:
“Why didn’t the child tell anyone that he/she was being abused? Doesn’t that mean she/he might have wanted it?”
Children do not tell about abuse for a variety of reasons. Most often an abuser is someone known to the child. The abuser often tells the child that they (the child and the abuser) will be in BIG trouble if the child tells anyone. Abusers are often very good about convincing children they are participating in the wrongful behavior, even when a child says they do not want to. Sometimes an abuser suggests or threatens that if a child tells they will be removed from their home, the abuser will be fired and will not be able to take care of his family, no one will believe the child didn’t want it, that the child misinterpreted the abusers actions, and on and on. It is not difficult to convince children, even teenagers, that they are in control of whether the abuser is in trouble or not. It is a normal part of development to believe that the world in some senses revolves around us so, when an abuser presents the case that his or her world, as well as the child’s parents world and even other relatives, revolves around the teens choice to tell or keep quiet, it becomes easier to understand how a child, even a teen, especially a teen would keep quiet. Should a teen figure out he or she has been tricked, the shame of feeling tricked can keep them quiet as well.
“Yes, but my child was a teenager when this happened, he/she should have known better.”
This is probably the most common issue I hear from parents, family and friends of teens, and even the teen themselves who are abused by adult caregivers. It can be difficult to understand how teenagers who have learned about abuse, and whose parents have told them since childhood to tell if someone is abusing them would still keep from telling. I have even had adolescents who have tried to convince me that they were a party to their own abuse and that they are guilty of participating. I understand how teens and their parents can feel this way and when they do here is what I say. “Think about you two years ago. Were you different?” If you take a moment to think about the difference between a fourteen and sixteen year old, anyone who has had a child either of those ages knows there is a difference. A sixteen year old will absolutely tell you they are different from how they were two years ago, they have different friends, they know more, they have different interests or have increased their skill in an ongoing interest. Then I ask, “Do you think in two years you might be different from the way you are now? If so, what will the differences be?” Of course we all know we will be different in two years. We will have two more years worth of experience and information. We will have two more years of practicing independence, understanding relationships, etc. Last, I point out the difference in age between the abused and the abuser, say it’s fifteen years and say, “So this person had fifteen more years than you to figure out the stuff you are figuring out now. They had fifteen years more experience in relationships and getting what you want in relationships. They had fifteen more years to figure out how to talk someone into giving them what they wanted. Oh yeah, and how many serious relationships have you had?” What people often fail to realize is that for the child, this is their very first introduction to sexual relationships and they are simply outmatched by someone who has honed their skills of manipulation to lure the child into believing that they are on even cognitive ground and therefore in an equal relationship. This cannot possibly be the case when you think about it. While some teens are very good at acting mature and responsible, they do not yet have the ability to determine who is and isn’t trying to trick them and they cannot possibly have the understanding of adult relationships that only comes with experience.
“She/he always seemed older in a sexual way.”
Yes, I hear this one too and my response to this is simple…how does a child come to seem older in a sexual way in the first place? Often it does not take much looking to see why this might seem true. Is this a child that was previously sexualized by another abuser? Is this a child that has been taught that her (could be a he but I find this argument most often to be about girls) looks and looking sexual is something that is rewarded in her family? Has this child been exposed to a lot of media that encourages young girls to act in sexual ways? Does this child live in a family where you do not get noticed unless you are acting out making it easier for her to get tricked by someone who treats her special? Were these circumstances also the child’s fault, or do these circumstances explain the ways in which this child was made into a target for a predator? Just because a child has learned to act in a certain way, or dress in a certain way, it does not mean that the child has the same cognitive abilities of an adult. It does however, give manipulative abusers a heads up that they are an easier target.
While we don’t like to think about these things, it is important before we make a statement that impacts an average of 1/3 of the people in the room, that we take the time to arm ourselves with knowledge. Yes, approximately 28% of the population in the United States will be sexually victimized by the age of 17. Knowledge is power and if you want more knowledge, try some of these links:
If you want to learn more about protecting your child from abuse try my posts:
And, if you believe anyone you know is suicidal like Cherice Moralez, please look up my posts:
While 96% of all abusers are men,* and men tend to be the focus of this article, it is important that we refrain from trivializing the role of women as abusers as well. In this article, I speak mostly about men, but the same holds true for women. Here are some tips to spot potential perpetrators or unsafe situations:
1. Look for people who are more interested in your children than their own children. For example, if you go to a birthday party and see the father of the birthday kid paying more attention to your child than their child, take a moment to listen to the words they are saying to your child. Are they trying to draw your child away from the crowd? Are they excessively flattering? Are they trying to get your child to come for a playdate even when your child seems reluctant?
2. Pay attention to any men who are overly willing to be available to babysit, especially if they are willing to put off other, adult activities to be more available to your child for one on one time. This is true for teenage boys and boys or girls that you know have issues but just like to hang around with your children even though your children are significantly younger. Kids who are developmentally younger than their chronological age will still begin sexual development at the same age and if they feel more comfortable with children their own age, they are more likely to try out sexual behavior on younger children who will let them get away with it.
3. “Grabbers” are perpetrators that take the opportunity when it presents itself. These are, for example, the in-home, daycare provider’s brother who came to visit for a week and was in the home when you dropped your child off. You can protect your children from those by asking any adult who is in charge of your child to tell you if there will be any other adults around your child. If you notice a new face when you take your child to school or child care, don’t be afraid to ask. Just do what I do and say you are an over protective parent. Own it 🙂
4. “Groomers” are people who take time to get a child (and parent) comfortable with them. They may take a long time to even begin doing anything to the child. In the meantime, they begin to seamlessly insert themselves into the family and over time, develop a relationship with the children. Listen to your gut if you get a feeling about someone, take a minute to ask your child and get curious about how they feel when that person is around.
5. Be visible. Parents who are a known presence at school and day-care are less likely to have children who are victims. Show up unannounced at child care and for school lunches if your child’s school allows it. Volunteer a few times a year so you get to know teachers and other school personnel and they get to know you. Know your childcare provider and, if you do not trust his or her decision-making, get a new one.
6. Be aware of people in your own family who you know are perpetrators. This may sound obvious, however, I have met enough people by now who allowed their child to be around the grandparent who abused the parent, yet the parent felt if they were watchful enough, their child would not get hurt, or hoped that the perpetrator had changed enough that they would not do that to their grandchild. Similarly, if you are a divorced parent and abuse was an issue during your marriage, or you knew that your child’s other parent was harming or neglecting the children, if possible, protect your child from being alone with that parent. Wikipedia reports that, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that for each year between 2000 and 2005, “female parents acting alone” were most likely to be perpetrators of child abuse.” ** If someone is a known perpetrator to you, do not allow your child to be alone with them. Stepfathers and fathers respectively are the most likely to be reported as perpetrators of sexual abuse for girls 10 and older according to childabuse.org.
7. Listen to your child. Children, especially young children, often disclose information that we do not catch if we are not listening. If a child says something that causes you concern, be curious and ask them about it to clarify what they are talking about. Sometimes because our young children are so sexually innocent, they don’t even know that there was anything out-of-order with what happened and they just tell you about it.
I want to conclude by being perfectly clear, that there is no guarantee that our children will never deal with an abusive caretaker. However, the likelihood that a child will identify a problem to you sooner, so that you may take action immediately will be increased by talking to your child and being aware of the tricks of abusers.
- It’s Not Just Strangers- Part I (help4yourfamily.com)
- Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age (help4yourfamily.com)
- Teaching Young Children About “Stranger Danger” (help4yourfamily.com)
- When Your Inner Critic Hurts Your Relationship With Your Children (help4yourfamily.com)
I am writing this post in response to a post by GorillaParenting’s post, “Stranger Danger- Gorilla Parenting- Fail!” I will re-blog it so you can see the quick video of (I assume) the writer’s daughter answering the question, “What do you do if a stranger tries to give you a piece of candy?” Her answer is, “Say thank you.” While this is very cute, it also raises a question posed by the blogger- how do we teach our children who is safe and who is not?
Most of us grew up hearing about stranger danger and about never talking to strangers, etc. but I think it is time for a new conversation about this topic that first acknowledges that this is a much more complex issue than we give it credit for. We know that it is important in our lives to talk to strangers for many things. After all, on the first day of school, your child’s new teacher is often a stranger to them but of course you want them to talk to the teacher. At the same time, we want them to be able to identify and get away from anyone who has an intent to harm them. So, how does one teach a young child who is and is not safe? Here are a few tips.
1. “Stranger Danger lessons” grow and change over a lifetime and are not a one time event. Start this conversation with your young child by asking them if they know what strangers are, followed up by a question about what strangers look like. You might be surprised by the response you get. Many children know that strangers are people you do not know, but then if you ask what they look like, children sometimes feel they can give a pretty good description. This is your opportunity to begin teaching your child about strangers and how to tell if someone is a “safe” stranger or not. Every child will stay away from a scary guy in a dark cape hanging out in an alley- we know that, it’s the person who would try to lure your child away with kindness that we worry about. And, of course, there is a healthy balance to be made here because we do not want children to be frightened. I coach my own children to speak to strangers that are “helping strangers” like someone who works at the store, a police officer or firefighter. I also tell them if they are ever lost or need help to look for a parent who has children with them that are the same age as my child. After all, a parent with same age children is most likely to empathize with the needs of my child and to help them to get the help they need.
2. Come up with some rules for your child about who is and is not a stranger. When does someone become an acquaintance and does that mean you can go into their home or with them in a car? In one of your ongoing conversations with your child, fit this in. What do you need to know about a person for them not to be a stranger anymore? I often would say you need to know their first and last names, where they live or work, and your mom or dad has to say they are no longer a stranger. Even if someone is not a stranger, you can talk about whether they are okay to go with and make sure your child always knows to tell you before they go with someone. Many families also have a code word that they use with kids so that if something ever happened where, say, the normal person was not there to get them off the bus after school, the parent would send someone to pick the child up and that person would share the code word so the child knows they are safe.
3. Make a playful guessing game with your child when you go to the park and ask them who is a “safe” stranger and who is an “unsafe” stranger. This will give you an opportunity to teach your child to listen to their own instincts about who is safe to talk to and what it is okay to talk to them about, and to teach them that people who look good, are not always what they appear to be. Any stranger that tries to give a child something or tries to have a child go with them without checking with their parents or having the kids check with their parents is not okay. You can also talk with kids about listening to the “uh oh” feeling we get around people sometimes in their tummy, heart or throat. Tell them to check with you first before talking to a stranger (you can come up with a signal like a head nod to say it is okay also). After a child talks to the stranger, ask them how it felt. You can ask them if that person would have been okay to go with to check on their lost puppy (hint- the answer is always “no,” or, “only if I check with you (the parent) first.” If kids get an “uh oh” feeling about a stranger, talk about why they think that is- was the person not listening about your child’s personal space body language (were they in your space bubble?). Was the person asking intrusive, personal questions? Acknowledge how these things can be disturbing and help kids figure out how to address them with adults in a respectful way.
When talking to your young child about strangers, I would be sure to try to keep the conversation on the lighter, playful side since we do not want to scare them, but to also playfully fit in little tests of their knowledge. Children love it when they know the answers to questions. Remember too, that children love it when they know the rules about things, and, even more, they love rituals. Create a ritual where each time you go to the park, you remind them of the rules on the way, stay on the mulched area, ask me before you run to the bathroom by yourself, ask the owner before you pet their dog, and never go anywhere with anyone or accept anything from anyone without asking first. When they are tired of you saying the rules every time, you can make it a guessing game and they can tell you the rules. When they consistently tell you the rules every time, they have got it and you have done the best you can do on this one.
What’s funny is that I don’t think that original video that prompted this post is a “fail” at all. My guess, by looking at the body language of the child is that what actually happened is mom and dad thought they were asking the child about stranger danger but what the child imagined in her safe, secure little world was that a stranger presented her with candy with mom or dad watching and giving a nod, then she takes it. So, what do you do then? Say thank you, of course!
The real problem is that the people who most often harm children are not strangers. Look for future posts about how to help children feel confident enough to protect themselves if someone they know ever tries to cross a boundary.
- Beyond “Stranger Danger” (mommeetsblog.wordpress.com)
- How To Answer Tough Questions From Your Kids (help4yourfamily.com)
- Making Peace With Your Inner Critic
- Happy Parent Tip #1
- Why Sexual Abuse is Never a Child’s Fault…Not Even a Teenager
- Naming Patterns Changes Patterns
- This is your brain on attachment
- Last Chance for Two Great Opportunities
- Mother’s Retreat Weekend- It’s Really Happening!
- Stopping the Parent Shame and Blame Game
- Making Peace With Your Inner Critic
- Putting together something fun for you!
- Quick Jobs for Kids
- Staying Strong as a Couple