Today a couple came from the USA to counsel with me about their 6-year-old daughter.
The mother had attended with me last year, the parents session on how to protect our kids against sexual abuse. She bought the girl’s book, and read it several times with her daughter.
This past month, her 6-year-old daughter was visiting some friends together with her parents. Suddenly, the mum noticed that her daughter is nowhere to be seen.
She started looking for her and noticed that a bedroom door was locked. She banged the door, only to find her daughter with the 12-year-old boy of the people they were visiting. The girl was screaming NO. The boy had lured her up, told her that “ they are going to do something secretive. You will not tell your mother and I will not tell my mother”. He undressed her and touched her, but when he asked her to touch him she refused and told him that this is not right. At that very moment, her mum banged the door. The mother faced the boy, the mother of the boy and told them that they will never be back to visit them. On the way home, the girl told her “mum I said NO as you taught me, mum, but he was too strong”. The mother thanked her for telling her and encouraged her that she said NO. She told her that it was not her fault and that she was NOT GUILTY. When the father came back from work, the mother told him all that she had been taught at the Not Guilty parents’ session. The father thanked her, encouraged her, believed her and told her that he will protect her.
They came to the Not Guilty office to thank me, to ask if this incident will leave any long-term scars, and to ask me to do a session for 10 children which I will do next week.
One of our biggest fears as parents are seeing harm come to our children—knowing they are unhappy and in pain, and there’s nothing we can do about it. As president of Not Guilty, I have counseled numerous traumatized parents and abused children and adults, walking with them on a road to recovery. Recovery can take months or years, depending on the severity of the trauma, the identity of the perpetrator, the length of abuse, and the reaction of the parents when it was reported. When a child reports abuse, what is a parent to do?
There are a few steps we can take to lessen the adverse effects of abuse:
Step 1: Listen. Telling a parent about abuse is not easy for a child. In fact, it can be terrifying, especially if the offender has conditioned him or her to think that no one will believe the child’s report.
Step 2: Control your reaction. I realize that hearing such news about your child can be devastating, but his or her welfare at that moment is more important than any emotion you feel. Your reaction at the time of disclosure is crucial. It determines whether your child will feel supported and loved, and often whether he or she will suffer later from a post-traumatic stress disorder.
The best reaction, in terms of your tone of voice and body language, is one of compassion, never of anger, aggression, or blame. If you take on the role of a prosecutor, bombarding your child with questions about when and where it happened, why he/she didn’t scream, why didn’t he/she remember that no one is supposed to touch their private parts, etc., you only make the situation more difficult for your child. Telling you was already hard enough. Let your child tell you at his or her own pace. More details will come out in time. Your child needs to know he or she can trust you to listen compassionately.
Do not feel that you have failed as a parent. That is one of the lies associated with abuse. Perpetrators can be master manipulators, and many parents miss the warning signs. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You can make it through this one day at a time.
Step 3: Don’t try to correct the vocabulary. Let your child report the incident to you using his or her own words. This is not the right time to teach the right terms. Just let the child blurt out all that he or she wants to tell you.
Step 4: Believe your child. It’s hard for a child to lie about such a matter. If they know about issues of this nature, they have probably experienced them. Parents need to believe what their children are reporting.
Step 5: Show compassion. As mentioned above, compassion is the only appropriate response in this moment. Let your child see it when he or she is telling you what happened. Show empathy.
Step 6: Thank your child for telling you. Let your child know how courageous it was to tell you something so difficult, and that telling you was the right thing to do.
Step 7: Tell the child that it’s not his/her fault. Assure your child that he or she is not guilty and that the offender is the guilty one. Becky McDonald, president of Women at Risk International, discussed the phenomenon of freezing with me and explained why it happens so often and produces feelings of shame:
I deal with so, so, so many victims who froze in the face of fear. As you know, one of the results of cortisol when the amygdala senses danger is the fight, flight, or freeze response. The body shuts down to protect. Freeze is a very common response to a sense of danger, and I especially think it is more so with a trusted person. So when the perp is an authority figure, you freeze to process and may not come out of the freeze mode. Those who freeze and do not say “no” struggle for a long, long time with shame. They have been taught to say no but nothing comes out of their mouths. Then they feel that something is wrong with them. Why didn’t they fight?
I spoke at a state university, and in the bathroom was a sign that said, “No answer means NO.” It was an anti-rape poster, but it recognized that many do not say no and then are attacked by the court, community, family, etc., for not putting up a fight. In fact, the chemical cortisol (from the flight, fight, freeze place) blocks the prefrontal cortex (the seat of problem-solving) so that many cannot move and go into shock and shut down. It is just so, so real. People ask all the time, “Why didn’t they run, fight back, yell, or scream?” They assume that normal people do that. Normal people also freeze in the face of danger, and the shame message becomes a resounding gong and deafening drum beat if they finally do tell. So parents need to know that saying “no” may be difficult, and it is actually normal not to. Give children the permission to come to us when they have been hurt, even when they forgot or couldn’t say no or didn’t know how to fight back. I deal with so many women who get crucified on the stand because they did not say no. They froze in the face of danger and it is viewed as their consent or fault. Not true. . . . I have dealt with thousands of survivors who were silenced very effectively and were never able to get “no” out and feel shame for that.
Do whatever you can do to release your child from guilt or shame in the aftermath of abuse, regardless of their response at the time.
After following these steps, try to protect the child from experiencing more abuse. Let the child know that he or she will be protected, and then actually follow through with protection.
Refer your child for counseling. Be sure that the person treating your child can indeed be helpful because sometimes counselors who are unqualified to address child sexual abuse can actually make the situation worse.
None of us alone can prevent another #metoo. We need each other, and we need to work together to make the world a safer place.
And remember that forewarned is forearmed.
If you would like to connect with me you can write me here.
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To know more, you can read my book, What Happens After #MeToo- Tackling the Iceberg found on Amazon.
 Personal conversation, 2018.