Afraid to Tell

I was so thirsty. We had been traveling for hours. I was twelve years old, too old to complain. It had been a while since our last pit stop, and I was bone dry. My throat was dry, my lips were dry. I was relieved when Dad pulled into a gas station. I jumped out of the car and ran for water.

We were traveling across the country, and I was a small town girl. I had rarely been out of Idaho. On this trip, I saw new and different things every day. At the gas station, I saw a large blue barrel with a spigot in the top. Hurray, I thought. Water. I ran to the car for a cup and filled it. I couldn’t wait to quench my thirst.

What a disaster. One taste and I spewed for all I was worth. Yuck! Whatever it was, it wasn’t water. After I spit, I dumped the rest on the pavement. I found water inside the little station and drank my fill. I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth. To make matters worse, I burped it all day.

I never knew what that nasty liquid was, and I didn’t tell anyone. At first I was embarrassed. Then I was worried. What if it was poison? What if I was going to die?

I lived with those scary thoughts for hours and then days. Instead of being relieved when I didn’t die right away, I wondered if it was a slow acting poison. Would it be a painful death? Was there an antidote? If I told, could my family get help for me, or was it already too late?

No, I couldn’t tell. I might get in trouble. They wouldn’t understand why I had drunk from the barrel. They wouldn’t understand why I hadn’t told right away. Would they be angry?

I was more afraid of telling than I was of dying.

That was nearly 50 years ago. I look back on that experience with soberness. I could have died. I am astonished that I didn’t ask for help from the people who loved me most and would have been devastated at my death. Though it seems ridiculous from this perspective, I remember with clarity the fear I felt about telling, and I understand why kids are afraid to tell when they are sexually abused.

When a child is sexually abused, they are confused and frightened. Telling is the only way to get help. Telling is the surest way to stop the abuse, yet most children are afraid to tell. They wonder who to trust. They wonder who will believe them. Sometimes they are more afraid of telling than they are of the abuse.

To us, this is hard to understand. We want to help. We cannot help if we do not know. Understanding the fear of telling can teach us how to help our kids.

1. Be a safe person for your child to talk to. Build a strong relationship. Spend time with your child talking things over. Be a good listener. Don’t over react when your child tells you things that are sensitive. Let your child know that you are willing to talk about anything. If your child feels that some subjects are taboo, you will be the last person they will tell if they experience abuse.

2. Teach your child that no one has the right to touch them in uncomfortable ways. Teach with clarity so that they understand which parts of their body are private. A simple explanation is that private parts are the parts of the body that are covered by a two piece bathing suit for girls, or any swim suit for boys.

Have frank discussions with your teenagers. Teenagers need someone to talk to about sexuality. You do not want to leave this to chance. Teach teenagers to respect their bodies and to stand up for themselves if they are being manipulated, bullied, or abused.

Teach children and teenagers to recognize situations where they need help. Teach them to tell.

3. Model respect. Let your child see what healthy relationships look like. It’s okay for them to see parents hug, kiss, and hold hands. Show your children that you respect each other. Show respect for your own body. Respect your child. Value his/her opinions, ideas, and feelings.

4. Model problem solving and negotiation. Create opportunities for your children to voice opinions and share decision making. Give children responsibility and ownership in family work and family values. Give them lots of practice in problem solving and making choices.

5. Consider role playing. You can make up situations which will give your child a chance to problem solve in a safe setting. A child who can think things through and come up with solutions is less likely to cave under pressure. Problem solving skills empower children to take control of their own decisions, their own bodies, their own lives.

If something doesn’t feel right, check it out. Make it easy for your child to talk to you. The only thing worse than finding out that your child has been sexually abused is not finding out.

Linda Garner

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