I was 21 the first time someone asked if anyone had ever hurt me or crossed a physical boundary without my permission. I had been in therapy for everything from depression and anxiety to OCD and anorexia for over eight years by that point. I was so surprised by the question that I was honest and said, “Yes, which time do you want to hear about?”
The details are not important, but needless to say, I know what I’m talking about. And throughout my life and while undergoing treatment I’ve met many, many others who have experience with this.
No matter how old they are, you have to ask your children if they’ve ever been abused. You have to ask them directly, and you have to be ready for whatever they say.
Why? Because, otherwise, they won’t tell you. Otherwise, they will hide it.
I hid my assaults for nearly a decade, even while seeing therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists. My parents thought they knew what my issues were and thought they were getting me the help I needed. But no one asked the right questions. No one dug past the surface issues of self-hatred and severe social anxiety. And the shame and guilt were so heavy that I just never said anything.
There are many children and teens out there who do go to parents, teachers, counselors, or friends to report abuse or assaults. But most do not. Even worse, they occasionally go to a friend or adult who does not believe them or helps to hide the abuse.
I called a friend on the night of the very first time I was assaulted. They didn’t believe me and accused me of wanting attention. So I never mentioned it again. For over eight years, I let myself be put in more and more compromising situations, believing I deserved it, believing I was just the kind of person who people were allowed to hurt. Predators seem to be good at spotting people who are already hurting. It wasn’t just one.
But parents, teachers, and friends just see sadness. They just see “overreactions,” “acting out,” or “teen angst.” Even young children who begin to wet the bed again, throw random temper tantrums, or have sudden separation anxiety are often just said to be difficult, having trouble adjusting, or going through a “phase.” Kids are moody. They are always changing and are difficult to predict in the best of times. So how would you know?
Now I have a 2-year-old daughter. I don’t want her to know that this kind of thing even exists in the world, let alone that it could happen to her. I don’t want her to be afraid of sleepovers, private tutoring, babysitters, or family members. I don’t want her to be afraid of going to the movies alone with a boy or inviting her date up to watch Netflix.
But I’m more afraid of not knowing whether she’s been hurt. I’m more afraid that she’ll feel too much shame or guilt to tell me something happened.
So I’m going to ask if anyone makes her scared, if anyone hurts her, if anyone makes her uncomfortable, or if anyone has ever done anything to her that she didn’t want.
I’m going to tell her that no matter what it’s never okay to have secrets with an adult. I’m going to tell her all about “okay touches” and “not-okay touches.” I’m going to tell her she never has to hug someone or kiss someone if she doesn’t want to, even Mommy, Daddy or grandparents. I’m going to tell her that she’s allowed to have any rules she wants to about her own body, and that Mommy should always know when someone breaks the rules.
And I’ll ask again when she’s older. I’ll ask if she was pressured to go too far. I’ll ask if anything got out of hand. I’ll ask if she isn’t sure if something was okay. I’ll ask if she ever changed her mind. I’ll ask if she wants to talk to someone else who isn’t Mom. I’ll ask too much. I’ll make it so normal to talk about she won’t even think about it.
Don’t let awkwardness get in the way. Don’t let fear. Ask your kids.