To illustrate this light/dark principle discussed in the previous section on how to help kids recover from trauma, and show you the power of messages to either harm or heal, let’s explore the subject that reigns supreme in false and destructive messages: sexual abuse. Consider the following passage, which is adapted from our book Recovering From the Lies: How To Heal From Childhood Sexual Abuse. Pretend you’re a nieve child who just experienced the typical non-violent molestation. You are not quite sure what to make of this behavior, and are now being given one of two possible explanations for what occurred:
Your childhood was stolen by this evil, predatory monster who used and abused you. He derived a sick sense of enjoyment by putting you through these twisted, perverted, degrading acts that soiled your body and rendered you impure. You were victimized by a predator who set out to do you harm, your innocence forever stolen by these horrible and shameful deeds. You may never be the same again.
You had a rather unique experience with an adult. This experience might have been confusing, uncomfortable, or embarrassing, but it also could have been intriguing, exciting and pleasurable. Most likely it was a mixture of all sorts of different emotions. These things happen because sexual feelings are very closely linked to feelings of affection. So when adults feel affection toward a child (or children in general), sometimes they get confused and want to express these feelings in sexual ways. Such interaction is considered wrong in our culture, because it violates our social norms. But there are also many other cultures where such experiences are considered perfectly normal and nothing to worry about. In any case, it’s highly unlikely this person ever intended you any ill will, and nothing you experienced was disgusting or vile, it just occurred under improper circumstances. Everyone explores such behavior sooner or later, you just happened to experience it with an adult, and a little bit sooner than most.
Remembering that the only potential for lingering harm resides in the messaging, tell me: After reading each description, which one makes you feel worse about what occurred? Which one fills you with shame, embarrassment, and self-loathing? Which one makes your blood boil and leaves you feeling angry? Which interpretation is likely to leave you struggling with negative emotions for years to come? More importantly, guess which version American parents are likely to feed their children?
Not only is the second description much easier on the soul, but it’s a far more accurate and truthful explanation of what transpired, whereas the first is little more than vitriol disguised within a collection of lies. Whereas the second set of ideas heals and helps a child embrace the experience without any residual pain, the first explanation takes what is usually at most a mildly uncomfortable experience and replaces this short-lived discomfort with a set of destructive messages that will cause a child enduring pain and shame for many years to come.
Kids don’t know to feel offended or degraded or any of those other nonsense ideas we attach to sexual interaction; they accept the experience at face value based on whatever it made them feel – positive, negative, or something in-between. It is adults who stigmatize and inflate the significance of such an experience. Which is why anyone who studies this subject objectively has come to some variation of the following conclusion: “The evidence indicates that more damage may be expected from the horrified, panicky reaction of the adults who deal with the children than from the experience itself” or “the most detrimental factor is often the stigmatizing and catastrophic reactions that the family show towards the child’s experience.” (Rubin & Kirkendal, 1970, p. 51; Li, West & Woodhouse, 1993, p. 168; see also our upcoming book The Other Sexual Abuse Conspiracy.)
It’s why children subjected to legal interventions are at least 10-times more likely to become disturbed and remain disturbed than kids who aren’t “rescued” and subjected to such destructive interventions. (Ney et al., 1994) Put another way, those “helpers” working in the justice system to “protect” children are actually 10-times the threat to a child’s welfare that child molesters are, and it’s all because of the philosophy and actions they promote in response to the experience.
The same principle applies to any sort of adverse experience, especially those involving the hurtful deeds of others. If you embrace the dark side and feed a child stigmatizing messages, you’re likely to cause them more harm than the actual experience you’re worried about. So do your best to ensure the ideas and explanations you provide adhere to the following guidelines:
Your explanations should promote compassion, not condemnation
Condemnation burns its victims alive. You will never help a child by encouraging them to harbor hatred and resentment in their heart, no matter how justified you feel your scorn to be. Your explanations should always be rooted in compassion…toward EVERYONE involved. They should not separate the world into ‘good guys’ to be celebrated and ‘bad guys’ to be punished or destroyed, but should seek to help children understand why otherwise ordinary people do hurtful things, and guide them in forgiving others for these insensitive foibles. Your words should eliminate hurt and conflict in a way that radiates compassion toward others and their own unique predicament or imperfections.
You should never imply that hurt was intentional
Hurt is almost never intentional. It is an unfortunate and unintended byproduct of competing interests and desires. We all carry around unfulfilled needs, and sometimes those needs and desires conflict with the interests of others around us. Even bullying, which on its surface seems so malicious and personal, is less about a desire to harm the victim than it is a bully’s misguided attempt to soothe the insecurities within themselves.
So don’t lie to kids and suggest that others do them harm out of malice or evil intent. this is often suggested in indirect ways, such as when you adopt a condemning attitude or engage in name-calling. Instead portray hurtful deeds for what they are: an accident of competing interests, helped along by clumsiness, carelessness, a different view of the world, or a lack of empathy and perspective.
Try not to elevate the significance of the event
If a child fell down and skinned their knee, would you run up to them screaming, “Oh my God! What have you done to yourself? Look at all the blood! This is the worst thing that could possibly have happened to you! Your poor knee. I just hope we don’t have to amputate!” Or would you approach them in a calm and reassuring way intended to quell whatever distress they are feeling: “There there now. You’ll be okay. It’s just a nasty scrape. That sure looks like it hurts, but the pain will subside soon. Let’s take you inside and get you all fixed up. A band-aid or two and a bit of TLC, and soon you’ll be good as new again.”
As silly as it sounds to imagine an adult reacting in the first manner to a skinned knee, this is precisely how many respond to situations deemed more significant. In fact, in many circumstances these roles are reversed: Rather than the adult diminishing the distress in an upset child, it’s the child who’s managing okay while the adult is running around acting as though the sky has fallen…and transferring this anxiety to the child.
Your words and actions should always deflate rather than elevate the significance of the event. This doesn’t mean you take a dismissive attitude toward legitimate pain or turmoil. It just means you don’t pump the situation full of abstract ideas that make it more significant than it needs to be. Elevation usually happens because adults are moralizing the situation or filtering it through their adult-centric beliefs about what’s good versus bad for children to experience. They also let egocentric beliefs get in the way. So they interpret an experience through the filter of concepts such as pride, dignity, respect or entitlement, which cloud their thinking and turn it into something more than children would typically make of it.
If you take away all the judgmental beliefs we add to situations, you’re liable to discover that much of the “big stuff” is really just small stuff we’ve given outsized significance to. So long as an experience doesn’t maim, seriously injure, or kill a child (or someone they love), it needn’t be any more impactful than any other unpleasant experience. So be sure to approach trauma the same way you would a child with a skinned knee. Be the parent who soothes and de-escalates the situation, not the one amplifying its painful significance.
It’s okay not to have all the answers
You needn’t be a human encyclopedia and spit out an instant explanation for every unfortunate thing that happens in this world. It’s perfectly alright to say, “I don’t know” if you’re struggling to comprehend a situation yourself. In fact, this is preferable to spouting off a bunch of know-it-all nonsense off the top of your head.
Tell them you don’t have all the answers, but that you’ll search for a better understanding together. Just as importantly, emphasize that because you don’t have all the answers, it’s crucial not to presume the worst. Whenever we’re unsure about something, it’s human nature to fill in the blanks with the darkest thoughts our minds can imagine. So whenever you’re uncertain, it’s important to recognize all you don’t know, and that a lack of information is probably making things seem worse than they actually are.