November 28, 2017

'No secret' families help protect children from sexual abuse

The day I told my mom about our babysitter, Dani

Parenting Children's Health
children iStock/for PhillyVoice

Parents need to prepare children for the mental games of secrecy and grooming that characterize most childhood sexual abuse.

I remember the day I told my mom about Dani. We stood in our family kitchen in American Fork, Utah.

“Dani is coming over tonight to babysit,” my mom told me. It was an innocuous statement, a simple announcement. Yet fear flooded me. My heart raced.

I don’t remember exactly what I said. Nonetheless, my descriptions of what our babysitter Dani would do when my parents were gone gushed forth in a rush of shaking and crying.

“She lays on top of me in bed and kisses me. She says that I’m the mommy and she’s the daddy.”

“She locks me in a dark closet when I tell her no.”

“She says that I can never tell you.”

I was six years old.

My mom had told me it was wrong for anyone, especially someone older than me, to tell me to keep a secret from her. She always told me I could tell her anything and that it was really important to tell her some things. For example, if someone tried to touch my body in inappropriate ways, I was to tell. Dani was a 13-year-old babysitter highly recommended in our Latter-Day Saints (LDS) ward. She was breaking both of these important rules. I couldn't keep it in any longer.

I don’t remember how long it took me to tell my mom. How many visits with Dani went by before that moment in the kitchen when some wise, deep, and honest part of my 6-year-old self welled up with courage and broke the silence? I don’t know. I do know that I decided to risk Dani’s anger, and the potentiality of being locked in the feared, dark, small closet -- and tell.

My mother believed me.

My mother fully, without question, believed me. She immediately told my father, and together, they initiated a meeting with our LDS ward’s bishop and Dani’s parents to discuss the matter. From that moment forward, Dani never again stepped foot into our home. I was safe.

According to Marilyn Van Derbur, author of Miss America by Day, “Those who told immediately or very shortly after the abuse and were believed and supported showed relatively few long-term traumatic symptoms. Those who either did not tell (typically due to fear or shame) or who told and encountered a negative, blaming, disbelieving or ridiculing response were classified as extremely traumatized.”

In Trauma Proofing your Kids: A Parent’s Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, authors Peter A. Levine and Maggie Klein describe how 85 to 90 percent of sexual abuse is perpetuated by someone the child knows and trusts – a parent, step-parent, coach, teacher, older cousin or sibling, religious leader, or babysitter. And while many parents may warn children about strange adult men, the fact of the matter is that the average age of most sex offenders is 14 -- according to a 2000 report by the Criminal Justice Source Statistics.

I remember the day I first told “The Dani Story” to my soon-to-be 6-year-old son and children that I help homeschool. We were discussing “stay safe rules” and how vital it is to “say no and tell” when older children or adults, even those we may trust and love, ask us to do things that are wrong. In “Trauma Proofing your Kids,” Levine and Klein argue that parents should begin teaching children “about inappropriate touch as early as preschool” and that “it is especially important to practice what to do or say beforehand.”

Levine and Klein strongly recommend parents role-play various scenarios. They encourage parents to help their children imagine “What if?” games around safety and practice acting out responses to difficult and confusing situations. By acting out parts of the story, children have the opportunity to practice saying “No” in a supportive space. This helps prevent them from freezing up if such an event were to occur. 

Children need to be warned that they will be asked to keep secrets and they need to know that any older child or adult who asks them to keep secrets has done something wrong."

For example, imagine a babysitter who knows a child loves cars or trucks. He or she may say: “I’ll bring a special car/truck toy for you the next time I come if you will sit on my lap and watch this video with me. But it’s a video that only you and I can see and it’s a very special secret just for us to share.” How would your child respond? Can you act out this scenario beforehand? Can you give your child opportunities to recognize warning signs, sense their intuition that something may be wrong, and say: “No. We don’t keep secrets in our family.” Can you help your child identify a list of safe adults to whom they could turn and tell?

Clearly, parents need to prepare children for the mental games of secrecy and grooming that characterize most childhood sexual abuse. Levine and Klein observe that while abusers may use force, “more often they will use trickery.” And the greatest trickery of all?

“Don’t tell your mom.”

“Don’t tell your dad.”

“This is our special secret.”

Children need to be warned that they will be asked to keep secrets and they need to know that any older child or adult who asks them to keep secrets has done something wrong. Levine and Klein encourage parents to support their children in noticing and trusting their gut instincts and asking for help immediately (“say no and tell”). Finally, parents must assure their children that they will be believed and protected -- no matter who the person is or what consequence was threatened should the child reveal the secret.

As a young girl, I experienced frightening and confusing situations with a babysitter entrusted to care for me. Gratefully, before Dani was ever invited over, I had also been taught that we don’t keep secrets in our family and to always, always tell if anyone were to try to touch me in ways that felt wrong. Knowledge of these foundational guidelines helped me access the courage needed to speak out in the kitchen one very important day.

But what if I had not been believed? What if my mom and defended Dani? “Oh, she’s a good girl. She would never do that.” Etc.

According to Levine and Klein, children have a natural ability to sense who is safe and who is not safe. “You, the parents, need to trust this sense and foster its development rather than try to change a child’s mind.”

So, believe your children and cultivate a “No Secret” family.

How?

Recently, I interviewed Susan Caruso, director and founder of Sunflower Creative Arts in Delray Beach, Fla. with regard to her 25-year-long history of leading parenting classes on “Talking with children about sex.” Beginning in the preschool ages, Caruso argues that it is vitally important to use the correct terms for a child’s private parts and talk about body safety. Caruso encourages parents to use the terms “surprise” or “safe secrets” when it comes to temporarily withholding information for birthdays or holidays. Outside of this, parents need to be clear that “we don’t keep secrets in our family.”

While I carry difficult memories of what happened when Dani babysat, the memories that stand out most have to do with my mom.

I told.

I was believed.

Dani never came back.

No secrets.

To access Amy Wright Glenn’s interview with Susan Caruso, click here.


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