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:
Here is another tip for your parenting tool kit. It consists of asking a simple question to your children…Do you like how you are feeling?
I ask my children this when they are grumbling at me about a perceived injustice or when they are frustrated or angry about something. This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, it is pretty clear how they are feeling, and really, who would chose to feel that way? Also, I believe that many parents have been taught that we are responsible for the feelings of our children. We are responsible to be kind to our children. We are responsible for educating our children. We are responsible for keeping them safe. But to say that we are responsible for their feelings when we are being kind and keeping them safe is to pretend that we have control over something we do not. In the moment that our children get angry over harsh words from a friend, or frustrated over homework, then begin to lash out at us, many parents begin to feel as though it is our job to make it all better for them. We tell them the friend was wrong to say that and go about getting angry at the friend (even if, upon reflection, the friend had a point), or we show them how to do the math problem even though they are too frustrated to learn it. Many times this way of doing things can leave us angry because we have taken on the feelings of our child and they do not even appear to be grateful for our help! How irritating.
I have another idea I would like to suggest. Ask your child, “Do you like how you are feeling?” Often times this gives a child a moment to pause and think. They will, in most cases, pause to take in what you are asking, because this is different from your normal response to their behavior. When they respond that they do not, you can gently suggest that they try to change that. It goes like this:
Child: I hate Math, the stupid teacher gave us work we’ve never done in class! (child continues to grumble).
Parent: Do you like how you are feeling right now?
Child: Huh? (Don’t worry- they are thinking about it)… No!
Parent: Why don’t you change that?
Child: I can’t change it! This stupid teacher gave us the worst homework ever! I hate her!
Parent: Yes, and you are choosing to feel very angry about it. I can see that. Would you like to make a different choice?
This conversation often ends in a child huffing at you and grumbling some more. You really do not need to say anything else, unless your child asks you for suggestions to change their mood (then give them some). Stay curious in your tone, avoid sounding critical. The goal of this conversation is not to end all bad feelings. That is not a realistic dream anyway. Sometimes math is just hard! However, what you do accomplish with this conversation is a lesson about each of us being responsible for our own feelings. I have used this conversation with my own daughters since they were three and it has worked quite well. While they do have some times when they are grouchy, often times, after I ask this question, they end up wandering off to their rooms to reflect for a few minutes and come back to the family with a better attitude. For younger children, you may want to talk them through it a bit, but I would strongly suggest that you wait until they ask you for help instead of jumping in to give it right away since when they come to you with a question, they are much more likely to listen to the answer.
The unintended consequence of this conversation is good as well. Now that I use this intervention consistently as part of my parenting tool kit, I also find myself asking the same question internally when I am in a bad mood. I hear myself grumbling at the children, then I hear my own voice in my head asking if I like how I am feeling right now, then suggesting that I change it. This is why you want to make extra sure that you say these words to your children with as much love as possible, because soon, they will be echoing in your own ears.
Please feel free to share other ways you teach children to be responsible for their own feelings. Have you tried this way? How did it work for you?
- Trash Your Behavior Charts! (help4yourfamily.com)
- When Your Inner Critic Hurts Your Relationship With Your Child (help4yourfamily.com)
- Ten Free Ways to Break Free From a Bad Mood (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