Littlewarriors.ca, “a national organization committed to the awareness, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse,” shares a variety of Canadian statistics on childhood sexual abuse: 1/3 of girls and 1/6 of boys will experience at some point, unwanted sexual touch. It is an unfortunate reality for many people and children all over the world, and Canada is no exception.
The news of the abuse is upsetting enough, but given that the majority of perpetrators are known to the child, the additional shock that a trusted individual could do such a thing can cause a shock so strong it becomes difficult to navigate next steps. So difficult, sometimes we forget the most important and pivotal step of all: validating the child’s experience.
Of course we want to cut-off all contact with the perpetrator. Of course we want to make sure we contact the necessary legal and investigative services. But in my experience speaking with individuals who have lived childhood sexual abuse, I was struck by how much talk-time was spent on the pain and confusion of the initial invalidating lack of support people received. I began to notice a pattern: people who’s experiences were validated (in other words, people who’s care-givers did not question their stories) didn’t seem to suffer the same prolonged agony of re-victimization. But those whose stories were invalidated did seem to suffer. The idea that they finally came forward to reach out for help and were met with disbelief was a ghost that followed them from day to day. Those nagging feelings that no one will believe me, or I don’t matter, went on to influence decision after decision all the way into adulthood.
We don’t want to believe that something so horrible could happen to our children and we certainly don’t want to believe it could be at the hands of someone we also love and trust. I get the sense that parents feel responsible for the abuse themselves when it was a trusted adult in their lives. I can’t imagine the guilt a care-giver would feel (assuming this parent isn’t also mentally ill themselves and unable to adequately care for their child and feel remorse). Initial reactions of shock and disbelief come across as messages to the child such as, that couldn’t have happened, or it’s your fault you didn’t say anything. When really what a child needs to hear first and foremost is, I’m so sorry, they never should have treated you like that. I love you and I will protect you.
It’s normal to feel like you failed as a parent. It’s normal to feel guilty. It’s normal to want to blame yourself. It’s also okay to forgive yourself and to recognize that most of the experiences in our children’s lives will be out of our control no matter what we do. It’s also imperative that while you tackle your own struggles, you stay open and available to hearing your child’s stories, feelings, and needs while reiterating that their experience was not their fault and that you will always be there for them when they need you. If necessary, and it likely is, find a professional therapist, counselor, or even community group that you can turn to when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
It’s also not too late to apologize and send these messages now if the first time around you were too caught-off guard. Being transparent about your own feelings of shock and owning openly that you didn’t give your child the love and comfort they deserved when they disclosed is better than leaving your child wondering what they did wrong.
The good news is many of the people I’ve known who’ve experienced childhood sexual abuse have gone on to live incredible lives. Their strength and understanding of the world never ceases to inspire me. Their sensitivity and kindness to those around them reminds me that love often triumphs. This idea that survivors of childhood sexual abuse are forever damaged or go onto become abusers themselves is one of the grossest most inaccurate and unhelpful stereotypes quickly dispelled after a few conversations.
The road to health was paved with good validation: I love you. I hear you. I will protect you.
For more resources on next steps, visit The Gate House, a Toronto-based child sexual abuse survivor service provider. For the Child Investigation Program visit: http://www.thegatehouse.org/content/gatehouse-investigator-registration.
Tynan Rhea graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Joint Honours Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Sexuality, Marriage, & Family. Tynan now works in Toronto as a Doula and Sexual & Reproductive Health Consultant with the Sisterhood Wellness Collective specializing in sexuality throughout pregnancy.
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