Today was a bit of a tough day at work. I sat with a family who has weathered one of the worst storms that a person could ever imagine…childhood sexual abuse. Children, under the age of 5, traded for sex and video taped for porn. Now, a decade later, these children have to deal with their inner demons. No, they are no longer living with the people who did this to them. No, they have no contact at all with anyone from that part of their life. Yes, they are physically safe. Yes, their heart and their minds are changed forever.
My colleagues and I were faced with supporting the hell out of the amazing people who are raising these children. How do you sit with people knowing that these scars will be life-long? Praying, hoping that the hurt will eventually turn into a scar and not remain the open, gaping hole where anger, behavior problems, and hatred spill out.
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These children have a brain wired so differently than others that it’s hard to understand their behavior and why they do what they do. Parents and caregivers who raise children who have been sexually abused usually face this difficult challenge on their own, with little support.
Children who have experienced such intense abuse may not understand pleasure or fun. They instinctively distrust the human in their life and they will do all that they can to push those who are loving them away. Their fear of getting harmed again is just that big…I must not risk letting these people love me because the last people who said they loved me, hurt me in unimaginable ways.
So, what’s a parent or caregiver to do?
First, send consistent messages. When you say “I love you” mean every word of that. Understand that “love” takes time to build and understand for these kiddos. Love can be a foreign language that takes time and consistency. Do not hit these kids. Spanking, hitting, and slapping reiterate the very message you are trying to overcome. The child hears, “Yep, these people say they love me, but they will hurt me just like everyone else.”
Second, stay as calm as possible. Do not cross over into their crisis. Be the emotional crisis responder. Recognize that these children have a gap between their chronological age and their emotional age. That 14 year old body may need what an 18 month old infant needs…rocking, snuggling, quick forgiveness, firm limits, and love.
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Third, be mindful that the wounds may be deep, wide, and gushing. They will take time to heal. The scars will come. And, just when you think you are making progress and the scar is starting to heal, the gash will get cut wide open again and another major crisis will occur. Be patient and kind.
Lastly, love openly, deeply, and unconditionally. Accept the apology for the hundredth time. Hug and repair relationships before the child goes to bed, if possible. Forgive quickly. Most of these kids are not intentionally hurting anyone. They are feeling the intense pain on the inside and they have no idea how to put words with this pain. Most of the pain may have happened pre-verbal, before there were any words.