Like many modern families, my son’s has included a lot of family friends, godparents, parents’ partners, and other more ephemeral members. Of course, many of us do not have any legal rights as far as protecting him goes. In theory that’s good; ideally, sane, healthy parents use their rights to filter out people who are not safe for their children to be around. Sadly, in his case it has instead meant that his abusive birth parents slowly cut anyone out of the family who challenged their abusive ways.

There are many, many stories connected with that, and I may tell more of them over time. For the moment, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve been able to do to help him survive a smorgasboard of abuses.

Like many people, I used to be afraid to talk to my child about abuse. I associated talking about trauma with the trauma itself: on some level, I feared that it would traumatize him to even hear about the possibility of abuse or to learn that his mother’s yelling, violence, and neglect would be called abusive. As if telling him it was abuse would magically turn it from “maybe okay” in his mind to “horribly painful.” Plus, I knew how important denial was to my survival as a child and I feared what would happen to him if I broke that denial.

But I couldn’t just ignore it and condone it with silence. I knew, too, how harmful it was to survivors to have their abuse go ignored and unchallenged and how hugely that contributes to the trauma. If I continued to stay silent, I would become an accomplice. Sure, there were things I could do, and had been doing, to mitigate the abuse - like arranging to have him more of the time, refusing to drive him to see the nearly-absent parent who had admitted to sexually abusing him and then tried to recant, and teaching him healthy coping skills. But it seemed to me that from a child’s perspective, there was a huge difference between someone subtly trying to intercede to prevent abuse in a way that might not be obvious for years, and someone flat-out saying “What is happening to you is not okay.”

I found that at first, especially when he was younger, he was afraid to talk about what had happened. He was afraid to admit that, for example, he was afraid of his mother’s anger and afraid that she would hurt him, even when he had brought it up before. Paying attention to his art helped; he would sometimes draw very telling pictures, such as one that he said was a monster: his mommy, angry, with long sharp claws. That also gave me a conversational opening, and some idea of what was going on inside his head and what he was experiencing away from me.

Sometimes we would ask him questions about how his teachers and other family members handled discipline, or if they ever hit him or yelled at him - each time asking about them one after the other by name. It helped a lot not just to give him a big vague group question like “does anyone ever yell at you,” which is too wide a net to throw a three-year-old. What helped me, too, was that he had been to a preschool where the teachers did yell at the children and slap their hands and arms, so when I felt afraid that he would think I was obsessed (and really, I didn’t bring this up that often) I at least knew that we both knew there were grounds for asking these questions. Of course, in reality, we both knew that anyway. It also helped to use the same one-by-one question format to ask about things like how different teachers and family members put him in time out - which was how we discovered that his preschool teacher had grabbed him by the ear to drag him back into time out one day, which was the last time he went to that school. So these are great things to ask kids about even if you don’t think they are being abused by another family member at all….

Sometimes he would talk about being afraid of his mommy, or we would ask if she ever hit him, and he would say yes and then take it back. Or take back having ever said he was afraid of her. It helped to remind him of things he’d said in the past; like when he tried to take back calling her a monster, and claim that the picture wasn’t of her but really was just of a monster, I could casually agree that I remembered him calling her a monster before, and move on. It helped to gently let him know that I believed what he said about the violence and fear he experienced, and that I had witnessed it myself more than once - without pushing him or trying to argue with him.

As he got older and I learned more about abuse and recovery, I started talking to him directly about abuse. The way I chose to explain it was that abuse was something that someone did to you that was Not Okay. I suggested that this might include things like hitting and yelling and asked if he could think of any examples. To my surprise, he immediately jumped in to bring up his mother spanking him.

Personally, I do think that spanking is always child abuse and always harmful - and whether or not it’s harmful, it’s also really pointless. It doesn’t teach children WHY they shouldn’t do something, even running into traffic (an example that is often given by those who sit on the fence about spanking) - it just teaches them that you do not want them to do it and they will get spanked if they do it. Which then means that once they are too old or too big to spank, they are left without any idea of why they should make the choices you were trying to teach them.

But in his case, spanking was a particularly obvious problem. It was a fairly clear-cut case of covert sexual abuse, because his mother had already made it clear in front of him, on many occasions, that she thought of spanking as a sexual act. She often talked loudly to friends and acquaintances about the latest sex party she had gone to, in front of her small child, in that common grownup fallacy that if a child isn’t looking directly at them they’re not listening. Or possibly that he wouldn’t understand anything he was hearing. I call it the “little pitchers don’t have ears” theory. So not long after, when she tried spanking him as a form of punishment, he was considerably more upset than even your average kid would have been - and, of course, too young to articulate why it was not okay with him.

I am very proud of him for being able to articulate, later on, that that had not been okay with him and that it was a kind of abuse. And I think that it is evidence that this way of talking to children works. I had asked him in the past about her spanking; talked to him about it at length on another occasion when he said she had taught him how to spank her friends (which she, a longterm BDSM safety advocate, confirmed was her response when he went around her party spanking them too high up on their spines….), and told him more than once, especially when he was terrified of getting in trouble for one thing or another, that I did not think that her spanking him had been okay and that I would never spank him. At one point, he was even brave enough to ask me and another one of his parental figures to talk to his mom for him and tell her that he did not want her to spank him or yell at him anymore. (I think that the spanking thing took, or perhaps that she had already abandoned it; the yelling part did not.)

And over several years of this tentative conversation, he became able to bring it up himself and vehemently, firmly say that it had not been okay with him. The miracle of this, to me, is that not only was he able to bring it up - this child who was terrified to talk about even thinking his mommy was scary, and who had never been willing to tell anyone that I know of about the overt sexual abuse he experienced - but that he became able to talk about it without any shame whatsoever. I think most if not all survivors reading this will know the kind of guilt and shame we take on: the fear of ever talking about what happened to us, of admitting that it was not okay with us, the secret deep-seated belief that we did something to deserve it or could and should have done something to stop it even if consciously we know that’s not true. It gives me a lot of hope to know that in at least one area, consistent support from at least one adult in his life let him let go of that shame within just a few years. And I think that is the area in which I was able to give him the most consistent support.

Here are my suggestions, based on these and other experiences, for talking to children about any kind of abuse:

  • Don’t ask once and then drop it. This is a very common mistake, particularly if a child says they have never been abused. Why? Well, a “no” answer (or just no answer) can be a great relief even to an adult who has lots of reasons to suspect abuse. And a “no” answer can be inaccurate, especially when coming from a child, because they might not understand the question, especially at a young age; might have repressed the experience; might not feel safe talking about it to anyone, especially if they have been threatened or told no one will believe them; might not know how to talk about what happened; might want to tell but not be ready to deal with those feelings or what they imagine would happen next; might not feel safe talking about it in this particular place or with this particular person…. It often takes time for children to process what has happened, to consider how to talk to you about it, and to decide that it is safe. You can support them in that process by letting them know the conversation is still open.

  • Do remember that it is okay to keep asking, or to keep talking about abuse in general. We already know, from decades of research, that it’s impossible to convince someone they were abused if they weren’t. We just have to respect their boundaries while still letting them know the conversation isn’t over. It’s easy to tell ourselves that it is harassment, or that we will end up wrongly “convincing” them that they were abused.

  • Do talk to them about abuse in general, about what it includes, why it happens, and what effects it has. Always in an age-appropriate way. You can talk about it meaning something that something does that is Not Okay, and help them brainstorm about what that might be. Abuse isn’t always a huge grotesque, life-changing event; there are many everyday forms. You can talk about bullying as a form of abuse, or things you see on TV, or talk about your or their experiences. Abusive behavior doesn’t make someone An Abuser, and being an abuser doesn’t mean that someone is intentionally cruel or unloving; you can help them grow up to be able to call a spade a spade without collapsing under the fear of what others will think of the term.

  • Don’t threaten or pressure the child to talk about it. No “you need to tell me,” no well-meaning “you have to talk to someone about it,” no “we’ll sit here until you are willing to talk”…. The fact is, they don’t have to talk about it. Many children never do. Some adults never do. You can let them know that you are ready to listen whenever they want to talk, or that you can help them find someone they can trust to talk to. You can let them know that talking about this stuff helps people feel better, and that the more you (or whoever they want to talk to) knows about it, the better you (or whoever) will be able to help.

  • Do pay attention to and respect the child’s reactions. Treat them with the respect you would an adult having a sensitive conversation. An adult doesn’t have to tell you what happened to them, or how they feel about it; well, neither does a child. At the same time, if the child seems hesitant but is still showing up for the conversation - as opposed to doing whatever it takes to change the subject or play with something far away from you - you can continue to approach with the same cautious respect that you would show an adult. Pretend you’re asking a work friend about a miscarriage, or a parent about their time at war.

  • Don’t recoil from their experiences. Sometimes, it can be terrifying or “gross” to hear about what has happened to abuse survivors. People can find themselves enraged, or incredibly nervous and unwilling to go any further. Or simply unsure of how to go any further with the conversation. It’s okay to sit with the silence. Listen to your heart or your gut for the next right move. You can always be honest and tell them that that sounds terrible, or that you aren’t sure what to say.

  • Do share your own experiences in an appropriate way. Or experiences you have heard from others. You don’t have to have felt or experienced the same exact thing; it’s enough just to be able to share whatever situation comes up for you, to let them know that they are not alone and that what they are feeling is totally reasonable and understandable. And that there is life beyond it. Even if the abuse is ongoing, there will be an end to it and there are others who know what they are going through. Plus, sharing your own stories shifts the focus of the conversation off of the child for a while. It gives them space to just listen, and hopefully a cathartic space where they can see their own feelings echoed outside of them.

  • Don’t share intimate details of sexual abuse, of course, but it is fine to share the fears that came up for you, what helped you (at the time, or in adulthood), and whether or not you could talk to anyone about it and what that felt like. You can talk about your experiences, or those of people you know, in a child-appropriate way: for example, “You know, my father used to hit me sometimes too,” or “I know this is hard to talk about, because the same thing happened to me when I was a kid - except for me, it was with my grandmother.”

  • Do let them know that whatever you suspect is happening to them happens to a lot of kids, and that you know it can be very confusing and scary - that even trying to talk about it can be confusing and scary. You can read or give them books about it; some children will find this validating, others will hate it, and a lot of the time it depends on the book. You can check out books about how to talk to children about abuse, too.

  • Don’t buy into their fear or denial. It’s common for children (and adults; anyone really) to freak out and want to take it all back after telling someone about their abuse. Many of us have to battle an intense backlash of fear, shame, and self-doubt when we first confront our abuse. We think that we should not have told, that it was not that bad, that our abusers will be sad, that they really didn’t mean to hurt us, that we are going to be in trouble, that we are horrible people who are just blowing things all out of proportion, how could we have said that, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And, on some level, we want to control the abuse, to make it all disappear from history by denying it ever happened after all. Then we won’t have to deal with these emotions and memories anymore, right? (No, they’ll devour us from within instead. Much better!) Don’t make it worse by buying into their fear and letting them pretend they can erase it.

You can let them know why you believe them, what events or effects you have witnessed, or simply that you believe them. Or that this reaction is totally natural. Another good response is to respond as if they were demanding the impossible, as indeed they are: to simply agree that you wish it hadn’t happened too, and that you are sorry it is so scary but that it will get better with time.

This is a very useful response with little kids in general - the “that would be nice” reply, where we validate their fantasies instead of reacting as though they are impossibly demanding. Often, when kids whine about how they wish school would never start, or insist with seemingly insane stubbornness that we are wrong and it never starts up again and they’re not going, or ask for wild things like horses and castles and candy for breakfast, parents react with anger. Anger because they feel bad that they can’t provide that stuff for their child, or because they are projecting onto the kid that their child is going to “act up” and whine and resist them and frustrate them, or because they aren’t sure how to set a boundary in this situation and feel afraid that the kid will be totally out of control.

The easiest fix I have found is to move with what the child is saying instead of fighting against it. I know that school will start, they will go, and a horse is too expensive or candy too unhealthy right now. And really, I know that they know that (assuming that I’ve actually explained why what they want can’t happen). So there’s no need for me to get upset: I can just move on to acknowledging how nice it would be (if only from their perspective) if they didn’t have to go to school, or could have a stack of cookies for breakfast. We can even go into a long exploration together of what that would be like - so what would have been a struggle turns into quality time. And then they feel heard, and they move on to do whatever it is they wanted less or didn’t want at all.

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