CSA #5 : Children and Families

This fifth post on this blog series about Childhood Sexual Abuse will cover content toconsider for children & families.

This information I’m giving is just one fraction of what is out there. I am in no way an authority on this topic. This writing is the tip of some possibilities. This content is so complex. These are just SOME of the things that could possibly come up. My intention with these writings is not to tell you what is or is not true, but to spark a dialogue and ask “what does this mean for you?” I am definitely not an expert in Childhood Sexual Abuse, I am saying “here is one piece, where will you go with this? Let’s get ourselves talking about it.”

Children and Touch
Children benefit from learning clear emotional, physical, & sexual boundaries. These clear boundaries will help them experience themselves as separate from adults, but still connected when they want to be. Children who have been abused can benefit from being shown that they have a right to their own opinions, beliefs, ideas, wants and needs. They have the right to take alone and solitary time. Knocking before entering their room, asking when they do and do not want touch, teaching them a signal for when they want touch to stop (I had a friend who taught his daughter that whenever she raised her finger that meant the touch would stop, and when she put it down that meant it could continue and she wanted it), are all good ways to begin teaching children about their own boundaries.

Testing
Children will often test limits all over the place, including sexual boundaries. They will experiment with intimacy, closeness, and physical affection. They may try to touch others in sexual places or try to get you to touch them. Setting limits firmly while staying affectionate can help create clarity here. I read a story that related when a child was 8 he wanted to french kiss his mother after seeing it in a movie, he would ask and beg and plead, and the mother would repeatedly tell him “I know you’re really curious, but we can’t do that. You will have to wait until you’re older and can experiment with kids your own age. I told him absolutely not multiple times, but told him he could ask for something else and then he asked for a story at bedtime and a play-doh.”  Children will have innocent sexual desires, the more we can help them work it out the better.

The “No” Part
Children also have a right to say no to touch, even if it is their parents or loved ones. Let children know that their bodies are their own and that no one should touch them without permission. The old stories of “give your grandma a hug” if the child does not want to, is small but can teach children that they have to give touch even if they don’t want to. Saying something like “tell grandma goodnight” instead of “give grandma a hug” can be a small shift in the right direction. Basic human contact is needed, and the more consent that is added to these contacts, especially with children who have been abused, will help them get a sense of themselves in relationship to touch.  When children initiate contact, if it’s something that can be given, that’s an easy way to watch when they want to be connected and listen to that.

Protection
Situations don’t have to be blatantly abusive for children to need protection. Children may play at a friend’s where there is not adequate supervision, or have an overly harsh teacher, a neglectful babysitter, or a problem with peers at school. While we don’t want to hover or “helicopter” children, we do want to protect them where they need it and can’t do it for themselves yet. Teaching children personal safety skills so that they can protect themselves is a helpful idea. Sometimes adults get hesitant to talk to children about sexual abuse out of fear of frightening them. Children are aware of danger and teaching children about safety skills so they can protect themselves can help them build self-confidence. Asking them how they feel talking about it can be a road in or a way to stop. If they ask a question and seem interested or if they say they don’t want to hear anymore is simple. Approaching this with warmth, kindness, and a helping attitude instead of fear-based can also make this easier. Teaching children that they have choices, they can say no, they can leave a situation if needed, and apologizing for any way they have already been hurt or abused can help them reframe their experience of boundaries.

If a child tells you they are being abused, believe them. This is #1. Here are some safety rights you can introduce to children, if these are being violated, you want to know:
– the right to trust one’s instincts and funny feelings their body tells them
– the right to privacy
– the right to say no to unwanted touch or affection
– the right to question adult authority and say no to demands and requests
– the right to lie and not answer questions
– the right to be rude or unhelpful
– the right to run, scream, make a scene
– the right to bite, hit, kick
– the right to ask for help

Families
If the child was abused within the family or the family is generally unsupportive, critical, or withholding, family relationships can be very difficult. As abuse survivors step out of the family system, they will be confronted with the fear that there will no longer be a place for them in the family.

Abuse survivors may want to assess their relationships with their family members, individually and as a group. They should be able to set ground rules about how and when and if they want to see family as they unpack their history. Survivors sometimes send letters to family members outlining what they are needing. This can be hard for family members because they will see an abuse survivor (often an adult who has recovered memories they did not remember until recently) who may be “acting like a child” in their mind, but family members have to realize that to integrate what happened to them as a child, they need to be able to revisit that phase of life inside of themselves. This can often look like “regression”, and needs to be understood. Healthy, clear, kind boundaries can be put in place with family members, and support is the absolute best thing to give to survivors who are beginning to unpack this material inside of themselves.

Separation
Sometimes family members won’t be able to respect the needs of the survivor, and then one must choose between the family and their own integrity. This runs the risk of losing a relationship. Sometimes a middle ground can be found, sometimes relationships are lost or given up intentionally, and sometimes a family member is able to give the support or space that is needed. All survivors deserve support, respect, and acknowledgement. A family system that undermines the survivors truth and well-being is hurtful and doesn’t help repair the damage done.

Holiday

This time can be particularly painful, as holidays usually highlight family time and in turn can highlight discomfort or loss. Helpful reminders for people who are in relationship with survivors can be:

– let the survivor control the relationship to the abuser if they still have one
– honor the survivors’ need for distance and anger
– acknowledge the responsibility of the actions of the abuser and that the survivor is not at fault. Don’t make excuses for the abuser, and offer an apology to the survivor for what happened to them
– to have a healthy relationship, usually the abuser will need some sort of professional assistance in therapy or treatment. This will help them be able to apologize, own up to their actions, have support outside of the relationship with the survivor for their own struggles. Without this kind of support, a healthy relationship between a survivor and abuser may be difficult
– ask the survivor if and how you can be of help and do what they ask
– don’t expect that anyone can make up for what they have suffered
– do not expect the survivor to forgive the abuser

Hurtful Messages
Survivors will often hear hurtful messages from their family members. The family is also experiencing suffering, which is understandable, and they may try to make that go away by saying things that do not help the survivor, such as:

– it happened so long ago, why don’t you leave it behind and stop living in the past?
– what “exactly” happened?
– your father / brother / uncle / teacher would never do such a thing
– you’re just jumping on the incest band wagon
– what do you expect me to do about it now?
– we call experiences to us that make us grow
– it must be karma from your past life
– you must have been too sexy
– how did you bring this on yourself?
– are you going to hold onto this forever?
– it wasn’t that bad, there are worse things in life
– it only happened once, whats the big deal?
– why didn’t you tell me ? why didn’t you stop it from happening?
– give them a chance, they really miss you

Give Time
When someone first hears of abuse, it can be a shock. A lukewarm reception can turn to real support if they have time to work through their own feelings. Family members can become allies with some time. Sometimes they don’t. If it’s not shock or denial, sometimes ignorance will keep a family member from being supportive. It’s not the job of the survivor to educate family members, but providing places where they can educate themselves can be helpful (such as giving them a book or suggesting they start therapy, at the minimum internet reading can provide a reference point, though sometimes the internet has an overwhelming amount of mixed opinions).

Relationship Changes
Separating can be part of developing healthy relationships. Part of relationships might be nurturing and part of them may be complex or abusive. As survivors move along in healing, they may take distance and then reconnect with the positive aspects of the relationship. A period of separation can help to sort these pieces out and determine if anything is salvageable. It can also help replace the longing of the child with a realistic vision of the adult. Separating from a family member should help healing within containment of the relationship. If the survivor is hopeful or expecting a specific outcome, they sometimes are set up for disappointment. It is painful to cut off contact or change the nature of a relationship without expecting anything to come back, and it can be even more painful to give up the fantasy of what the child thought the family was. A child often hopes and believes the family may come through for them. Getting in touch with reality can sometimes be incredibly painful, but it is a step in the right direction of creating a vision of truth inside of themselves.

Resolution
Resolving things with family may never completely be “over”. Things can get easier with time, but one may always feel slightly insecure with family. If the family of origin is not a source of enrichment in life, the survivor can look to other avenues for fulfillment and health. They may create a “chosen family” and look to friends, members of a therapy group, community members, their partner or children, to call their chosen family. They cannot replace what they lost from their family of origin, but other supports can offer an abundance of support, nurturing, closeness, and comfort. Allowing them to find these sources of support will help the family of origin’s relationships be supported as well.

If you want to know what’s coming or what I started with, these are the topics I have / will cover in entirety with this series:

  • The effects in current time. Click here to read this post on the effects
  • Gender and sexual orientation stereotypes. Click here to read the post on gender and sexual stereotypes
  • Click here For partners Part A
  • Click here For Partners Part B
  • Click here to read the post on Sex
  • How CSA can affect pregnancy, birthing, postpartum, and everything in between
  • The institutional piece (often missing from the CSA conversation)

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for the last few posts and then I’ll be starting a different blog series topic next ! With love, Alicia

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About Alicia Patterson

Alicia Patterson is a Psychotherapist / Dance Movement Therapist, Birth Doula, Energy Worker, Dance and Yoga Facilitator in the Boulder / Denver area.
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