Last month I had the privilege to present a workshop with Joel of Perpetually Healing on the topic of “Keeping our boys safe; How to prevent childhood sexual abuse”. Joel is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and was brave enough to talk publicly about his personal story and lessons that he has learned from his experience. Based on those experiences Joel shared some ideas of how parents/caregivers can prevent sexual abuse from happening again.
During the workshop, Joel shared that during the abuse he felt “there were signs of what was going on; just no one was there to listen, no one would believe me”. During his recovery process at a WINGS group Joel expressed that, “If he himself can’t even believe what happened to him, how should anyone else”. During my presentation I shared the importance of communication. The steps parents can take in developing an open, trusting and safe environment for our children. Sharing what is going on in their life is a major first step to preventing childhood sexual abuse. Joel suggested that parents always need to believe their children. I would encourage parents to tell children “I will always listen to you” vs. “I will always believe you”. As parents or child therapists we must remember that research shows that children rarely lie about being sexually abused. If a child reports any story no matter how crazy it seems to us, reassure him or her that you will do your best to look into the matter, without making promises or brushing off their words.
A theme that arises when working with families during therapy sessions (especially between mothers and preteen boys) is lack of communication. As a child ages and reaches the (pre) teen years parents yearn for that communication they shared with their child before his voice started changing and his peach fuzz starts coming in. I hear parents tell their children, “No matter what you tell me, I will always believe you”. They are trying to reassure their child that no matter what happens in life, communication with us is a sure bet because we will always believe you. I stop them and ask them to reword that promise to, “I will always listen to you” as opposed to “I will always believe you”.
I explain to parents that the worst thing for a parent to do is to promise something to a child and then not keep their word. Even if it is something small, not keeping our word can place the first crack into a relationship. If we as parents seek to develop feelings of trust and safety in our children, we must tell them “we will always listen to you”, as opposed to always believing them. Children have a tendency to create their own reality; hopefully in another article we can discuss the psychological reasons for this. Studies show that kids lie, on average, four times an hour. Therefore when promising our children we will listen to them, use words that are truthful.
This lesson was highlighted for me when a client gave me his word that he would keep a promise he made in a session. I jokingly asked him, “How do I know I can trust you?” He looked at me and said, “I have been burned so many times from people promising me things and then not following through, that when I make a promise I mean it, I do not take my words lightly”. His words sent shivers down my spine. The impact of our laxity with words and language can hurt our children, partners and people we interact with every day. If we want to foster an environment of safety, trust and communication; we must open ourselves to their language, and treat our children with respect. Encourage them by telling them “I will always listen to you”.