Note: This article is excerpted from the recent book by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline: Trauma Through a Child's Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing (North Atlantic Books, 2007). The article originally appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Preventing and Healing the Sacred Wound of Sexual Molestation
By Peter A. Levine & Maggie Kline
Unless you have personally experienced the deep wound of childhood sexual trauma, it may be difficult to imagine how complex, confusing, and varied the long-term effects can be. This is especially true when the molestation was perpetrated by someone the child trusted, or even loved. When a child's innocence is stolen, it affects his or her self-worth, personality development, socialization, achievement and, later, intimacy in adolescent and adult relationships. In addition, these children are prone to somatic symptoms - such as physical rigidity, awkwardness, or excessive weight gain/loss - born of a conscious or unconscious attempt to "lock out" others and not be in one's own body. Also common are tendencies to live in a fantasy world, to have problems with attention (spacing out and daydreaming) and to dissociate in order to compartmentalize the awful experiences.
Sexual trauma varies widely, from overt sexual assault to covert desires that frighten and confuse a child by invading his or her delicate boundaries with unbounded adult sexual energies. When parents have experienced unresolved sexual violations themselves, or were lacked models for healthy adult sexuality in their families of origin, they may have difficulties protecting children without conveying a sense of fear and rigidity around issues of touch, affection, boundaries, and sensuality. Or conversely, parents might avoid offering either discussion or protection due to their own lack of experience in sensing, within themselves, the difference between potentially safe and dangerous situations and people.
Are Some Children More Vulnerable Than Others?
The majority of parents, communities, and school programs warn children to avoid "dangerous strangers." Sadly, strangers are seldom the problem. Other myths persist as well, such as the beliefs that only girls are vulnerable and that most assaults happen at or after puberty. Although statistics vary, the numbers of preschoolers and school-age children reporting sexual assault are astonishing. Approximately 10 percent of sexual violations happen to children younger than 5 years old , more children between 8 and 12 report molestation than do teenagers, and 30 to 46 percent of all children are sexually violated in some way before they reach the age of 18.
Sexual trauma is pervasive - it prevails no matter one's culture, socio-economic status, or religion. It is not uncommon even within the "perfect" family.
In other words, all children are vulnerable, and most sex offenders are "nice" people whom you already know! If you have been putting off talking with your children about sexual molestation until they are older, or because you are uncomfortable with the topic, we hope that what you learn here will bolster your confidence to begin these discussions sooner rather than later.
The Twin Dilemmas of Secrecy and Shame
The sexual molestation of children is further complicated by the added shroud of secrecy. Since 85 to 90 percent of sexual violations and inappropriate "boundary crossings" are committed by someone the victim knows and trusts, the symptoms are layered with the complexity of betrayal. Even if not admonished (or threatened) to keep the assault secret, children often do not tell due to embarrassment, shame, and guilt. In their naivete', they mistakenly assume that they themselves are "bad." They carry the shame that belongs to the molester.
In addition, children fear punishment and reprisal. They frequently anguish over "betraying" someone who is part of their family or social circle, and they fantasize about what might happen to the perpetrator. This is especially true if he or she is a family member on whom they depend. If not a family member, the violator is usually someone well-known. Neighbors, older children, babysitters, a parent's boyfriend, and other friends of the family or step-family are frequently the offenders. Or it may be someone who has prestige and social status or who serves as a mentor, such as a religious leader, teacher, or athletic coach. How can children know - unless you teach them - that they are not to blame when the perpetrator is not only someone known, but someone revered? Parents can pave the way to safety by teaching their children to trust and act on their own instincts, rather than submitting to an older child or adult who is using status for his or her own gratification.
What is Sexual Violation?
If sexual violation doesn't typically involve a "dirty old man" using candy to lure a child into his car, what is it? Simply put, it is any instance of anyone taking advantage of a position of trust, age, or status to lead a child into a situation of real or perceived powerlessness around issues of sex and humiliation. In other words, when children must passively submit to the will of another, rather than having the choice to defend themselves or tell someone - whether or not they are "forced" - it constitutes sexual violation or assault.
This can range from being shown pornography by a teenage babysitter, to an insensitive medical examination of a child's private parts, to being forced to have sexual intercourse with a parent or other adult. While actual rape by a parent or step-parent is less common, exposure to pornographic material or being asked to strip, look at, or handle exposed genitals, as well as rough handling during medical procedures, are far too common.
Steps Caregivers Can Take (and that adult survivors can learn) to Decrease Children's Susceptibility
Model Healthy Boundaries: No one gets to touch, handle, or look at me in a way that feels uncomfortable.
Help Children Develop Good Sensory Awareness: Teach children to trust the felt sense of "uh-oh" they may feel as dread in the gut or rapid heartbeat, which lets them know something is wrong and they need to leave and get help.
Teach Children What Sexual Violation Is, Who Might Approach Them, and How to Avoid Being Lured: Teach children how to use their "sense detectors" as an early warning sign.
Offer Opportunities for Children to Practice their Right to Say "No."
Teach Children What to Say and Do: Also, let them know that they should always tell you what has happened so that you can keep them safe and help them deal with their feelings.
In summary, let's look further at boundary development:
Model Healthy Boundaries
There is a delightful children's picture book by James Marshall about two hippopotami who are good friends. One's name is George, the other Martha. They visit and play together and have dinner at each other's houses. One day Martha is soaking in her bathtub and is shocked to see George peeking through the window, looking right at her! George was surprised at her outrage, and his feelings got hurt. He thought that this meant Martha didn't like him anymore. Martha reassured George that she was very fond of him. She explained, in a kind manner, "Just because we are good friends, George, doesn't mean that I don't need privacy when I'm in the bathroom!" George understood.
This little George and Martha story models setting boundaries, communicating them clearly, and honoring the boundaries of others. Parents need to show good boundaries themselves, respect children's need for privacy (especially between the ages of five to seven), and support them when they are in unappealing situations and are defenseless to help themselves. This begins in infancy. The following illustration will help you understand how to offer this protection:
Little baby Arthur fussed and arched his back each time Auntie Jane tried to hold him. His mother, not wanting to offend her sister, said, "Now, now, Arthur, it's OK, this is your Auntie Jane. She's not going to hurt you!"
Ask yourself what message this sends to Arthur. He is already learning that his feelings aren't important, and that adult needs take precedence over a dependent's needs. Babies show us their feelings by vocal protests and body language. They are exquisitely attuned to the vocalizations and facial expressions of their parents. Their brain circuits are being formed by these very interactions that deal with respect for feelings and boundaries around touch.
For whatever reasons, Arthur did not feel safe or comfortable in Aunt Jane's arms. Had his "right of refusal" been respected, he would have learned that his feelings do make a difference, that he does have choices, and that there are adults (in this case his mother) who will protect him from other adults whose touch he does not want. A few tactful words to Jane, such as, "Maybe later, Jane - Arthur's not ready for you to hold him yet," would leave an imprint impacting the baby's newly developing sense of self. And if his mother's appropriate protection continues, Arthur's brain is more likely to forge pathways that promote self-protective responses that may safeguard him from an intrusion and assault later in his life. Although not in his conscious awareness, these unconscious body boundaries formed in the tender years of infancy will serve him well.
Trauma is a breach of energetic and personal boundaries. Sexual trauma, however, is a sacred wound - an intrusion into our deepest, most delicate and private parts. Children, therefore, need to be protected by honoring their rights to personal space, privacy, and control of their own bodies. As different situations develop at various ages and stages, children need to know that they do not have to subject themselves to "sloppy kisses," lap sitting, and other forms of unwanted attention to please the adults in their lives.
Other Areas in Which Children Need Respect and the Protection of Boundaries
Children instinctively imitate their parents. Adults can capitalize on this favorable attribute when it comes to toileting behavior. A lot of power struggles and unpleasantness for toddlers and parents can be avoided altogether. By respecting your child's timetable, you will encourage her to joyfully model mom's behavior and toilet "train" herself. Take the "train" out of toileting, and your little boy will proudly do it like "Daddy does," at his own pace.
Prevent unnecessary trauma in this major developmental area by following your child's lead rather than by listening to the "experts" who believe in timetables. Forcing a child who is not ready to use the toilet disrespects his right to control his own bodily functions and sets a lifelong pattern of expecting to be dominated by someone else. By encouraging rather than pushing, you will be assisting your child to develop healthy self-regulatory habits and a natural curiosity about his or her own body. In some cases, you may even help to prevent eating disorders, digestive problems, constipation, and related difficulties. And, as a side effect, you'll produce happy, spontaneous children.