April is the National Child Abuse Prevention Month and also Sexual Assault Awareness Prevention Month. It is important during this time to raise public awareness and encourage others to speak up when they suspect a loved one, a neighbor, a child, or anyone else is in danger. The bigger question is can we prevent abuse from happening in the first place?
Children who are abused often do not tell anyone about the abuse. They keep the secret close to them out of shame, fear, or confusion. Often this is because the abuser is someone they know and feelings of loyalty, embarrassment, and immaturity cloud their reasoning. The abuser often brain-washes the child into believing the relationship is not wrong but rather an important secret.
Sexual assault, regardless of the age of the victim, carries with it many of the same stigmas. The one assaulted is traumatized and coming forward is frightening. Would not help if you are doubted or blamed for what happened when you come forward.
I first told my own story of abuse in 1989 and then, filled with shame and mistaking the destruction of my family as my fault, I took it all back. The abuse began when I was seven and it wasn’t until I was 43 that I was able to put into words the trauma I experienced and write Love Is The Answer, God Is The Cure.
How can we prevent abuse from happening?
Protect your children by creating an open dialogue around hard conversations and create a home free of secrets. From a very early age let them feel free to discuss anything that is uncomfortable. Give real names to body parts. Giving them childish silly names sends the message that it is not ok to talk about our bodies. In the same way discuss early on that their bodies belong to them and no one has a right to touch or look at them without permission.
Create the same type of open dialogue with your friends so that if they ever feel as though they are in danger of sexual assault or have experienced it they know you are a safe person to call for help. Be diligent in your own life and always be aware of your surroundings. When out travel in groups rather than alone and have a plan in place if you feel threatened. If you see someone in danger alert the authorities and stay with them until help arrives.
How can we identify abuse when it does happen?
To identify abuse, you must be proactive and do the work before you see the need. Learn the warning signs. Changes of behavior happen for a number of reasons but when in doubt or if a combination of the warning signs occur, seek professional help for the child. Don’t wait for the child to come to you. Often, they do not have the necessary language to tell you what is wrong.
In Florida, and many other states, if you suspect a child is being abused or neglected the law requires you to report it. The Florida Abuse Hotline is 1-800-96-ABUSE, a simple google search will provide you with your state’s abuse hotline.
If you are a victim of sexual assault call the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotlineat 1-800-656-HOPE. Seek out help. Whether or not you pursue legal justice later, for now know this is a burden you do not and should not have to carry on your own.
How to stop the cycle
When children are abused early on a connection between abuse and love can be formed in their mind. This can make the one who is abused more prone as an adult to form unhealthy relationships that continue the cycle.
The good news is that this cycle can be broken. It begins with seeking out help. Learn how to set boundaries and hold yourself and those around you accountable. Don’t depend on your child to meet your emotional needs but instead develop strong and loving adult relationships. Create an atmosphere of trust and transparency by teaching your child about their body in a healthy way that allows them to communicate clearly if abuse does happen. This helps to protect your child from others who might abuse them, such as your partner or a family member who previously abused you. Reach out for help and use parenting resources such as books, groups, classes, and counseling.
Even the smallest actions towards creating a safer environment for your child will make a big impact. It starts by sharing your story with someone who has the means to help you heal.