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Helping Children Speak Up for Themselves

Wouldn’t it be great if children were born assertive? That they just knew how to feel a feeling, internalize it, and then speak eloquently of their wants, needs, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and goals? If you’ve ever spent time with people though, you know that even adults struggle to speak out. Kids communicate in all sorts of ways. Its up to us grown-ups to teach them how to do so effectively. Through our curriculums at Childhood Victories, we endeavor to give our audiences what we didn’t realize we had as children: A voice. Here are 8 ways our work is helping children speak up for themselves:

1. Teaching kids that their bodies are THEIRS

If you disagree with me here, we need to have a longer conversation. Kids are not disposable extensions of their caregivers. We do not own children nor are they our property. In order to protect themselves and have the confidence to be assertive, children need to know that no one owns their body.

2. NO ONE has the right to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable

As adults, if we touch someone in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable we could be looking at legal issues. If we forced adults in to affection the way some children are, there would be an outcry and a demand to change the culture. Hugs, kisses, and tickling can be a wonderful way to bond with people we love. When physical affection is forced or coerced we rob people of their body autonomy.

My son is definitely a hugger and will count out 10 kisses for me when I walk in the door from work. That’s just his way of saying he missed me. But never ever do I want him to feel that he has to do that. To his little mind, what’s the difference between mom demanding kisses and another grown-up demanding unsafe touches? Both are grown-ups, both want something physical regardless of how he feels, and both have power over him. I want him to know that any time he wants to say no to a touch, everyone including mommy needs to listen.

3. Helping them identify and embrace “Inner Sirens”

Kids are born with emotions and feelings. It isn’t until they are older that some parents and caregivers tell them, “Stop crying! Don’t show me your anger! Better wipe that look off your face!” Sometimes it’s unintentional; We repeat what our parents said to us. But as unintentional or intentional as our actions are, these kinds of words have the same outcome. Children learning two thing: Stay quiet about your feelings and mask any outward appearance that shows you are hurting.

Feelings or “inner sirens” as we call them happen for a reason. It’s our body talking to us. If we ignore those feelings, we are missing important information. Dissociation is very real in children and adults who have been abused. The disconnect only deepens when we tell children, “keep the yucky stuff to yourself.”

4. Safe secrets DON’T hurt; Unsafe secrets DO hurt

Safe secrets have an expiration date. No one should go through pain keeping something like a birthday party or holiday present a secret. Unsafe secrets are the opposite. They are painful and can so often terrorize us into silence. If children are present with their emotions, they can identify when a secret is unsafe.

5. Never ever do we have to keep an unsafe secret

It doesn’t matter who asked the child to keep the secret. It doesn’t matter how nice the person has been. Children should never be asked to keep an unsafe secret. Unless we tell them, they will never know it’s okay to break the promise that comes with an unsafe secret: I’ll be quiet.

6. It’s okay to tell if someone hurt them, no matter who it was

I’ve shared this many times before. My father was my abuser. Even after over a decade removed from his abuse, there’s this strange feeling knowing I told on him. As a kid I had no idea I could share this unsafe secret or that my abuser’s actions were wrong. As an adult I have an inner battle: Am I right for telling or am I wrong for defying my parents? I still have to call out my internal dialogue and reality check myself. When I present to 8th graders I ask,

“I may have loved the person who abused me. If he really loved me, cared for me, and respected who I was as a person, would he have abused me?”

No. I knew I felt yucky and that my yucky feelings better stay on the inside. I didn’t know I could tell on someone I loved.

7. If one person doesn’t believe a disclosure, keep telling

We know the reality. So often children are not believed when they disclose. I lived it and so did my sister. We did tell. For me, the person I told was apathetic, angry with me, and just cruel. It took me another 7 years to speak about my abuse. It took until adulthood to realized it was okay to tell again.

We always encourage children to have multiple trusted heroes, always hoping that parents are number one. But so are grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches, teachers, and mental health professionals.

8. It’s NEVER too late to tell

I think most will agree: children should never go through sexual abuse. It would be far more advantageous to prevent abuse from ever happening in the first place, rather than healing millions of children. But right now we know that there are an estimated 42 million adult survivors of sexual abuse in the United States. We also know that 73% of victims do not disclose for a year, another 45% delay their disclosures for at least 5 years, and countless others will never tell. Children and adult survivors of sexual abuse need to know that it’s never too late to tell, whether abuse happened yesterday or 30 years ago. To us and so many others, it’s never too late to be seen and heard.