“Honey, I’m worried about Rachel. She hasn’t been sleeping well, and at 14 she’s too old to be clinging to us so much.”
“See if you can get her to talk, Janet. Being her mom, you have the best chance to hear from her. In the meantime, don’t worry. She’ll get over it. . . whatever IT is.”
The dark secret that haunts Rachel is sexual harassment. While going into town on the bus, a young man purposefully brushed her breast with his fingers. Insignificant? Unimportant? Hardly.
No parent wants to hear that a daughter, or yes, even a son, has been touched inappropriately or propositioned. In our home countries, there are laws that can be enforced against the perpetrators. But when we are serving outside our home culture, we often have no recourse and little support in helping with our children.
We most often think about girls being pinched or fondled. So we try to make sure they are chaperoned and are not out after dark. But it can happen to boys, too. While we lived overseas, both our sons were propositioned at different times in a large shopping complex downtown. Many times these incidents take place in broad daylight in crowded places. Our sons were in a public place, doing nothing questionable, when it happened.
If our children were raped, we would take immediate action. But when it’s verbal sexual abuse, sexual touching, or fondling, we could be tempted to either do nothing or do the wrong thing.
In Emily VanDalen’s excellent, two-part article, Raising Radiant Daughters in Dark Places, published in Women of the Harvest magazine*, she points out that the worst part about this kind of sexual abuse is the silence. She mentions five reasons our daughters and sons don’t tell us when they are abused or propositioned. Let’s look at each one individually:
1. “There is something wrong with being a woman. There is something wrong with being me.”( I would add that our sons may feel there is something wrong with them that would attract this kind of hateful attention as well.)
In many cultures around the world, women are viewed as inferior beings. They are considered deficient, unstable, subservient to males. They are traded as property and given no freedom to come and go without their father or husband. They are also considered to be so sexually appealing that it is their fault if a man cannot control his sexual urges. Although we would never say such things to our daughters or treat them like that, they see it everywhere around them.
In her article, Emily says, “Among my acquaintances are women ranging in age from 20 to 60, adults raised in countries stretching from East Asia to the Middle East and North Africa. Many of them still silently agonize and struggle with doubts about their own value and personhood. I’m convinced that at least some of it is rooted in years of disparagement and sexual harassment that was never recognized or acknowledged.”
Boys have to deal with their own body changes and masculinity. They are growing up in a world that sees less and less wrong with homosexuality. Being propositioned by a man might even cause our sons to question their own sexual orientation.
2. “So what! This happens so often it isn’t even worth talking about. It’s a non-event.”
Just because sexual harassment is incredibly common, does not mean it is a non-event for the victim. We should not send the message that our child has failed to adapt to the culture if they see sexual harassment as traumatic. They have been violated, humiliated, and frightened. Christian psychologist Dan Allender in his book, The Wounded Heart, says,”Any kind of inappropriate sexual contact or interaction with a child causes damage. And the longer the negative interactions continue the deeper the long-term effects.”
Our children are not just at risk for isolated instances of sexual harassment or abuse from strangers in public places, but perhaps even more commonly by household helpers or others trusted in the community. Our children may speak the local language better than us and be suffering “teasing” we aren’t even aware of. The kind of abuse our children can suffer at the hands of “trusted” locals can continue for a very long time and cause long-term damage.
3. “What’s the point of talking when there’s nothing that can be done?”
Fatalism pervades the thinking in most cultures outside Christianity, so children growing up in these host cultures are immersed in an atmosphere of fatalism. They may feel that God has called their parents to this culture. And if sexual harassment is imbedded in the culture, it is useless to ask God to do anything to stop it. Or our daughter may feel that “sexual harassment is an inevitable and justifiable consequence of being born female. There is no point in complaining. It is simply my fate.”
4. “If I say something, I’m likely to be the one blamed for what happened. Talking will just make things worse.”
Our children may have good reason for feeling they would be blamed if they said anything about sexual abuse that they have suffered. Many parents react with anger, and our anger is not always aimed the right direction. If our child tells us he or she was accosted while not with us, we react with a barrage of angry words at them. But we are really angry at ourselves for not being there. We may say, “What were you doing walking on that street? Why can’t you just watch where you’re going?” We cannot shout at or attack the perpetrator, so we yell at our child.
Emily says, “Your child will learn from your anger. She’ll learn to be angry as well . . . angry at herself for being female and vulnerable . . . angry at her body for somehow inviting an attack . . angry with parents who made decisions which placed her in a difficult culture . . . angry at God for not protecting her and valuing her. And she’ll learn to hold that anger in silence, because instinct tells her that a protest or response could quite possible result in more blaming.”
5. “I won’t be heard, so why talk?”
The fear that they won’t be heard keeps many PW kids from talking to their parents. It is not that we don’t want to talk to our children, we are just too busy! But God does not make a deal with us that if we go and serve Him in another culture, He will raise our children for us. We serve others best when we live our lives together as a loving, caring family, for a healthy family speaks to the world around us. When our family is well taken care of, we earn the right to speak into the lives of those in a different culture around us.
Here are a few suggestions for parents:
- Be there for your child. Take time every day to talk to each of your children. Let them know it is all right to talk to you about anything. On the spur of the moment you may not have the words to say, but a hug, comforting words for the child, and a prayer will go a long way to helping your child initially. Let your child know you are the advocate for them and against the perpetrator.
- Teach your child by every means at your disposal how important he or she is to you and to God, the Father. Let them know they are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
- Learn and teach your children to identify culturally appropriate relational boundaries. Learn the differences in “personal space,” in eye contact, and in posture.
- Teach your child that no one has the right to touch any part of the body that is covered by a one-piece swimsuit. Tell them they are allowed to say “no” even to adults who might want to touch them. They should move away from the person and report the incident to you or to another trusted adult caregiver.
- The more serious the incident, the more severe the symptoms can be. The first 24 – 72 hours after the traumatic event are the most important. Even if our child doesn’t tell us, we could know if we are aware of the signs and symptoms of sexual molestation and abuse. These symptoms may not appear right away, but would be evident if the abuse is not dealt with thoroughly. These signs can be: nightmares, terror in the night or other sleep disturbances, unusual fear of strangers or of specific individuals known to the family, unusual fear of separation from parents or of being left with a babysitter, physical bruising or abrasions, vaginal infections or inflammation, loss of appetite, behavioral problems, depression or withdrawal, loss of interest in normal activities and involvements, and unusual mood swings or weepiness. These symptoms may also appear after mild harassment that is sustained over a period of time. If these symptoms continue, it would be wise to get help from a qualified counselor.
- Dad’s relationship to the child is so important. For a daughter, her father’s attention and approval fortifies her against inappropriate male attention. For a son, his father’s attention and approval lays the foundation for appropriate masculinity. When a father makes time for each child and expresses physical affection, it convinces them in a way nothing else will that they are acceptable and valuable.
- The mother’s role in modeling strength, dignity, joy and gentleness of spirit are invaluable to her children, both boys and girls. Knowing that she will take time to listen and interact teaches them that their dreams and worries are important.
It is hard to talk about such issues, but keeping them hidden and trying to ignore them don’t make them go away. Even if you don’t have to deal with these issues in your own family, it is likely sometime you will be the trusted adult some child tells their dark secret to, or the shoulder a co-worker or friend cries on as they ask how to help their son or daughter.
Here are some books that can be helpful in teaching your children about sexual issues: Stanton and Brenna Jones’ series God’s Design for Sex is a graduated series of four books for children age three through 14. Published by NavPress, 1995, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
Preparing for Adolescence: How to Survive the Coming Years of Change by Dr. James Dobson is a book and also an 8 cassette series of talks. These resources are available through Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO, USA or go to: www.family.org
*Women of the Harvest is a bi-monthly magazine. Please visit their website at: www.womenoftheharvest.com to subscribe to the magazine. For reprints of Emily van Dalen’s two-part article, “Raising Radiant Daughters in Dark Places,” March/April and May/June 2003, email your request to: firstname.lastname@example.org