Recently I received a letter from Mandi telling me how she responded when she learned that her young daughter, Bristin, had been abused. As I read, it struck me that Mandi did the most important things she needed to do as a parent to protect and support her child.
"When Bristin was 6 years old," Mandi said, "a man who lived next door to her best friend was convicted of sexually molesting a minor and put in jail. After this happened, I talked with Bristin about inappropriate touching. At the time, she didn't say much. However, the next week, out of the blue, she came to me and said, 'Mommy, Jeremy touches me like that.'"
"I couldn't believe my ears; Jeremy was her 20-year-old cousin, whom she loved deeply. He may have been goofy, playful, and immature, but surely he wasn't a sexual predator! I didn't want her to overreact to kind and playful gestures from loving family members. So as I talked with Bristin, I told her that not every touch is a bad touch. I dismissed it as a misunderstanding.
"However, a few days later Bristin approached me again and said the same thing. Only this time she asked me to lie on the couch on my stomach so she could show me what happened. She then proceeded to climb onto my back and rub roughly back and forth. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was telling me the truth."
Mandi let her daughter know at an early age that it was not okay for anyone to touch her in an inappropriate way and that she could talk to her about it if anyone ever did. She made sure that Bristin could talk to her about anything that made her feel uncomfortable, and when she did talk about it, Mandi believed her. In this way, Mandi established an open relationship with her daughter that validated her worth and gave her an incredible sense of security, a basic need of all children.
Children need to know they have a voice. Assure them of their right to say no to uncomfortable situations. Forcing a child to sit on Grandpa's lap denies her the right to say no to something that might feel unsafe. Allowing her to make decisions in circumstances like this gives her a feeling of ownership of her body and can help protect her in a potentially harmful situation. Talk with her later about her decision to not sit in Grandpa's lap. Maybe she simply didn't feel like reading a story with Grandpa, and that's okay, but maybe there is something deeper. If there is, you've given her a voice that can alert you that something may be wrong and thus possibly prevent abuse from occurring.
Watch for clues
You also need to pay attention to signs that something is amiss: stomachaches, headaches, urinary tract infections, knowledge of sexual things at an age that doesn't make sense, outbursts of anger, nightmares, fear of certain people, anxiety, and bed-wetting, to name a few.
"In hindsight," Mandi said, "I realized that I had missed important signs that Bristin was being abused. She had suffered from stomachaches for no apparent reason. She had also had some anxiety attacks that were out of character for her. She would have fits of rage at the rest of the family. All of these things occurred over a period of time before we knew what was going on. In counseling, we learned that these are classic signs of a loss of control, which she was experiencing because of the abuse."
Kids often hint that something is wrong and making them feel uncomfortable. If you notice anything out of character for your child, ask questions, even if it's difficult for you. Kids don't make up this stuff, and if they feel safe with you, they will talk. If they do tell you that something has happened, try to stay calm for their sake. "I was very calm around Bristin," Mandi said, "even though I was shaking on the inside. I told her that I was so proud of her for telling me and that she had done nothing wrong."
Be loving, accepting, kindhearted, reassuring, and protective. Tell your child that what happened to him was wrong and that he didn't deserve it. Let him know over and over that is wasn't his fault. Thank him for telling you about it and tell him that it took a great deal of courage for him to do that. Let him know you will do all you can to protect him and help him heal as he is ready.
"We reported the abuse to the authorities and immediately got Bristin into counseling," Mandi said. "Both a detective and a children's service worker met with Bristin, my husband, and me. Bristin's story never changed, and her counseling sessions went very well." Mandi says that Bristin rarely mentions her abuse now. But when she does, Mandi stops and listens to her daughter and tries to help her work it out a little bit more. She follows her daughter's lead.
Helping a child heal
Healing is a lifelong journey, and there will be hills and valleys along the way. It's difficult sometimes, but it will get better. Let your child know that he can talk about it whenever and to whomever he wishes. He needs to know that what happened to him is not something to be ashamed of, because he has done nothing wrong. He needs to know that you don't look at him any differently and that your greatest concern is his safety and well-being.
Erin says that if she had to choose one person who has helped her the most, it would be her mom. "I will always remember the look on her face the day I told her that I had been abused. But she never pushed for the story. She just made sure I knew that I could talk to her when I wanted to. That was six years ago, and after becoming an alcoholic trying to deal with the abuse on my own, I finally found myself talking to my mom again. It's great to know I can always talk to her and that if I ask her not to say anything, she won't. If I don't want to talk, I can just sit and cry, and she doesn't think any less of me. It's hard to find that anywhere else."
Make time to relate one-on-one to your child. I realize that as a parent, your schedule is probably crazy and that you may not always have time to spend just hanging out with her. But I also know that she needs you to give her your time and your undivided attention. A day or an hour, whatever she needs. A survivor of sexual abuse definitely needs this. Her love tank has been sucked dry, and a parent should be the first to come running to fill it. Nothing is more precious to her than your time. It breathes the words "I am important" into her gasping lungs.
Talking is important
Survivors need your time and they need to talk. I can still remember some conversations I had with my mom while I was in high school. They occurred at a time when I needed to process how I felt about something that had happened to me. Mom was struggling to heal from this trauma too, but she was never so self-consumed that she wasn't available to me.
Kids also need to know that it's okay if there are some things they don't want to share with their parents. Sometimes I didn't want to burden my mom with too much information when she was already dealing with a lot. Other times, I just didn't want her to be the only person I talked to. Mom never made me feel bad for wanting to talk to someone besides her. She would make sure everything was okay between us, but once she knew that is was, she gave me the freedom to go to others in my circle. That was incredibly freeing.
My father sent me the same message. One day when he was driving me to his house for the weekend he said, "Nicole, I want you to know that I'm here; if you don't ever want to talk with me about it, that's okay too." My father's words meant so much to me then, and they still do.
Many sexual molestation cases occur in family situations, even in Christian households like Mandi's. This is a sin that reaches everywhere and destroys all the relationships in its path. Jeremy's abuse of Bristin has taken a serious toll on the relationships in their extended family.
"The family get-togethers are strained and very different now," Mandi says. "We haven't seen Jeremy since we found out, and that's sad because we still love him, but a tie has been severed. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can forgive, but sin has consequences, and we feel that for Bristin's sake there has to be separation. Until she is old enough to handle the stress, she needs to feel safe, which means not putting her in that situation. We take one day at a time and trust that God will work it out in His time. Meanwhile, our job is to be the best parents we can be for our daughter."
I'm convinced that with the help of God and a circle of inspiration, Mandi, Bristin, and her family will reach the light at the end of the tunnel on their healing journey.
Adapted by permission from Breathe by Nicole Braddock Bromley. Copyright © 2009, Moody Publishers. All rights reserved.
Listen as sexual abuse survivor Nicole Braddock Bromley and her mother, Cindy Stiverson, talk to FamilyLife Today® listeners about the abuse Nicole endured at the hands of her stepfather. In her book, Breathe, Nicole offers women the power and hope necessary to share their stories, build intimacy, and develop healthy communication in all their relationships. Order Breathe today.