Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What to Say

A psychologist told to tell my abused child, "It isn't your fault." It is important. It is the truth. It is good advice. But I noticed it bounces off of a victim's heart for a long time. Abused victims struggle with unjust guilt. It is one of the unfair things about the abuse—the victim is convinced that it is her/his fault, somehow. If only they would have looked different, played different, were more perfect, and behaved better...maybe, then, they wouldn't have been abused. Long after the head knows the truth the heart still struggles.

I discovered some other things I could say that helped my child integrate the truth of their innocence into their heart where it belongs. Little kids still think about magic and make-believe, so we can use it to bless their hearts. Try engaging her or his heart by responding to their stress with make-believe. Try saying something like, "I wish I had a magic wand and I could have turned the abuser into X (i.e. a frog, a fly, a harmless pebble....) or “I wish I could tap you with a magic wand and make the yucky things that happened disappear forever.”

It can help your child to realize how unfair the abuser was by saying something like "You're very strong for your age, but the abuser was so much bigger. It was really wrong for that big person to hurt you like that."

If you get hints or hunches about what the child's guilt centers around you can address it directly. "You didn't deserve to be treated that way. No one does. No matter what they..." (Say or do or wear or whether or not they were following the rules or what they agreed to play, etc.)

If your child is distraught or frightened and doesn't really want to talk there are non-verbal ways to help as well. I noticed when the police interviewed my child he held the giant stuffed animal that they had in the room. So I bought a huge stuffed animal that resided on our cough for a couple of years. I explained that my child could ask me for a hug anytime and that the big stuffed animal on the couch was there for anyone in the family to hold anytime . I would tell them that I'd noticed that I felt a little bit better when I held the cuddly dog toy and I hoped that it might help him feel a little better too.

If your child is acting out in anger because of the abuse, you can join them in a way that helps them feel understood and safe. More than once I took my child to a park with a river and we threw rocks into the water until we felt a little better. I would put words to the experience saying things such as, "I feel angry too. Let's go throw rocks in the water" and while we threw the rocks I would make occasional comments about it, such as "Oh, look how big this rock is. I can throw some of my mad out with this one." You can encourage other healthy actions to get out the anger such as urging stomping and saying something like, "Most of the time we try not to stomp around when we're upset, but today let’s try stomping really, really hard to get some of our mad out. Stomp! Stomp!" and then something like "Hey! This is helping. I'm getting some of my mad out. Do you want to stomp too?"

If your child feels like "they should have known" that the abuser was not trustworthy. Share the truth, "He/She fooled me too. I thought he/she was nice. But he/she wasn't what he/she seemed. He/she was sneaky and tricky." Again, you can incorporate some imagination with saying something like, "I thought he was fun and nice like a good puppy, but really he was a sneaky like a poisonous snake." Whatever metaphors work for you and your child can help them absorb the reality of the abuser's dishonesty and harmfulness.

My child also needed to hear that I would have done things to protect them if I had understood what the abuser was up to. "If I had known the bad things/ yucky things he/she was doing, I would have..." Pick actions that would make your child feel safer and cherished. It isn't the time to vent your angriest picture of what you'd like to do to the abuser. "I would have built a tall wall all around him so that he couldn't hurt people"(Using make-believe) or "I would have called the police and he/she would have been in big trouble a long time ago" or "I wouldn't have let him/her in the house because you are my special kid. I never would have let him/her do that to you."

You can't change what happened and you can't spare your child from all the pain they need to walk through. You can't rush the healing process. But you can respond in caring ways and creative ways that will help your youngster to process what happened. Try experimenting to find out how you can help your precious child recover.

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