A little girl, aged 11, asked me why her mother didn’t help her and stop the abuse. I explained that her mother had no idea that father and uncle were sexually abusing her. The abuse had gone on for years. The child was angry, her behaviour was telling everyone that something was wrong and she was sent to counseling to get sorted out.
During the therapeutic process, the child disclosed the abuse. She claimed that she had told her mother by saying things like, she hated her father and never wanted to see her uncle again. She was using a child’s simple language to explain something that her vocabulary and life understanding was unable to punctuate with words. The child's mother didn't understand what the child's behaviour was saying. It wasn't until I told the mother in plain adult English and gave her the choice to tell the authorities herself before I did, that mother understood what had been happening.
Devastated and wanting retribution, the mother turned her anger toward her husband and brother. She committed acts of violence and was charged with three counts of grievous bodily harm. The mother turned to alcohol to consol herself and sought as much support as she could from other angry friends. While the anger danced around the household and the plotting thickened, the child and her enormous emotional and healing needs were forgotten. The child and her emotional needs simmered and the child developed a belief that her mother had (and was continuing to) failed to protect her.
The child saw family and friends that cared only about themselves and family that didn’t really believe the abuse because they acted like it was her fault that the family was now separated. Because of her young age, the little girl failed to recognise that her family were handling grief in their own way, that they did love and believe her but that were incapable in that moment of providing the support she so required.
The secrecy that surrounded the sexual abuse tore this family apart. It was not only the dysfunctional secrecy of the abusive acts, but the secrecy that then surrounded everyone’s coping mechanisms. Nobody talked through their primary emotions. Anger, a secondary emotion, quickly escalated to violent behaviour: behaviour that knew no words but that acted to further destroy the fragility of the family.
The 11 year old ran away from home at age 14. She lived with family of friends who would take her in and she drifted from bad situation to worse. Now 16, she has begun to visit her father again and never sees her mother. Where is the justice in this story? There is none. The perpetrator wins and the innocent remain wounded and cut off from each other. Why? Because they couldn’t talk about what had happened.
Talking to our children is important. If we can establish preventative cultures of talk then it makes it easier for our children to tell us if something happens to them. It is also easier on protective parents when and if they discover child sexual abuse. Talking about our pain, our betrayal, our shock is far healthier than acting it out and taking the law into our own hands.
Just as we invest in our children’s academic education, so too must we invest in our children’s development of emotional intelligence. Discussions about child safety, what to do if someone tries to touch you, and who to tell, are just as important as learning to read and spell.
The clock is ticking: it’s time for talking. I’d love to hear how and when you talk in your family. Every family's situation is different but talk is something that we can all do – any time, any place, anywhere.