Q. My friend just discovered that her teenaged daughter was sexually abused years ago but didn’t tell her. My husband and I have three girls (14, 11 and 7). If someone even tries to abuse one of them, I want her to tell me so I can stop it. Why don’t girls who’ve been abused tell someone?
A. Fear is probably your answer. It’s commonly the cause when children don’t speak up. Often, the abuser will tell the victim that something terrible will happen if she tells anyone. As parents, we all need to tell our daughters (and our sons) that they can tell us anything anytime, and we will listen and help them. Advise your children that even if people say something awful will happen, they can still tell you.
This means we have to listen and not react negatively. If a child tells you something that upsets you or you don’t believe, you can say, “Let’s think about what to do and talk again later.” All children need to feel that what they tell you will be received well and treated seriously.
What can you do to encourage your child to speak up?
∞ Try to engage in something every day that gives your child a chance to talk to you. That might be on the car ride to or from school, a walk or part of the bedtime routine. Listen to and talk with your child while you are both relaxed.
∞ Encourage your child to talk to you about difficult topics. You might need to be the one that broaches the subject. You can bring up difficult topics by saying, “What do you think about ___?”
∞ Believe that you can listen and do it. Stay calm around your child. Remember you are nurturing them, not critiquing or judging or reacting. Take a few deep breaths and check your ability to stay calm.
∞ Learn about your child. Do you know about their fears or something they are proud of doing?
∞ Model appropriate assertiveness for your child. Do role playing with your child about standing up for what you and they believe in.
Some of us adults were raised to be quiet and not tell our parents anything at all. How did that work? My dad was the poster child for this. He demanded quiet, to the point that nothing crunchy could be eaten in the house. This caused me to have a potato chip addiction I’m still working on. It also made me relatively quiet for years, until peers and teachers helped me change my behavior. Look around you and see what other parents are doing to encourage their kids to talk or to not talk. You can learn a lot by observing other parents.
I hope some of these ideas will help you and your friend. If you need more help, check out the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Farber, Elaine Mazlish and Kimberly Ann Coe. There is a 20th anniversary edition that you can buy used for very little money.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.