Preventing and Healing the Sacred Wound of Sexual Molestation
by Dr. Peter A. Levine
Unless you have personally experienced the deep wound of sexual trauma, it may be difficult to imagine how complex, confusing, and varied the long-term effects can be. This is especially true when the molestation was perpetrated by someone the child trusted or even loved. When a child’s innocence is stolen, it affects self-worth, personality development, socialization, achievement, and later, intimacy in adolescent and adult relationships. In addition, these children are prone to somatic symptoms from physical rigidity, awkwardness, or excessive weight gain/loss, born of a conscious or unconscious attempt to “lock out” others and to not be in the body. Also common is the tendency to live in a fantasy world, have problems with attention, space out, daydream, and dissociate in order to compartmentalize their awful experience.
Sexual trauma varies widely from overt sexual assault to covert desires that frighten and confuse a child by invading his or her delicate boundaries with un-bounded adult sexual energies. When parents have had unresolved sexual violations themselves or were lacking models for healthy adult sexuality in their families of origin, it may be difficult to protect children without conveying a sense of fear and rigidity around issues of touch, affection, boundaries, and sensuality. Or, conversely, parents might avoid offering either discussion or protection due to their own lack of experience in sensing, within themselves, the difference between potentially safe or dangerous situations and people.
Are Some Children More Vulnerable Than Others?
The majority of parents, communities, and school programs warn children to avoid “dangerous strangers.” Sadly, strangers are seldom the problem. Other myths persist, such as the one that only girls are vulnerable, and that most assaults happen at or after puberty. Although statistics vary, the numbers of preschoolers and school-age children reporting sexual assault are astonishing. Approximately 10% of sexual violations happen to children less than five years old4; more children between eight and twelve report molestation than teenagers; and 30 to 46% of all children are sexually violated in some way before they reach the age of eighteen.5 Sexual trauma is pervasive-it prevails no matter the culture, socio-economic status, or religion. It is not uncommon within the “perfect” family. In other words, all children are vulnerable; and most sex offenders are “nice” people that you already know! If you have been putting off talking with your children about sexual molestation until they are older or because you are uncomfortable with the topic, we hope that what you learn here will bolster your confidence to begin these discussions sooner rather than later.
The Twin Dilemma of Secrecy and Shame
The sexual molestation of children has the added shroud of secrecy. Since 85 to 90% of sexual violations and inappropriate “boundary crossings” are by someone they know and trust, the symptoms are layered with the complexity of the repercussions of betrayal. Even if not admonished (or threatened) to keep the assault secret, children of ten do not tell due to embarrassment, shame, and guilt. In their naivetי they mistakenly assume that they are “bad.” They carry the shame that belongs to the molester. In addition, children fear punishment and reprisal. They frequently anguish over “betraying” someone who is part of their family or social circle and fantasize what might happen to their perpetrator. This is especially true if it is a family member they are dependent on. If not a family member, the violator is usually someone well known. Neighbors, older children, babysitters, a parent’s boyfriend, and other friends of the family or step-family are frequently the offenders. Or it may be someone who has prestige and social status, or serves as a mentor, such as a religious leader, teacher, or athletic coach. How can children know-unless you teach them-that they are not to blame when the perpetrator is usually not only someone known, but someone who may be revered? Parents can pave the way to safety for their children by teaching them to trust and act on their own instincts versus submitting to an older child or adult who is using their status for their own gratification.
What Is Sexual Violation?
If sexual violation isn’t typically a “dirty old man” luring a child with candy into his car, what is it? Simply put, it is any time that anyone takes advantage of their position of trust, age, or status to lead a child into a situation of real or perceived powerlessness around issues of sex and humiliation. In other words, when children must passively submit to the will of another rather than having the choice to defend themselves or tell someone, whether or not they are “forced,” it constitutes sexual violation or assault. This can range from being shown pornography by a teenaged babysitter, to an insensitive medical examination of a child’s private parts, to being forced to have sexual intercourse with a parent or other adult. While actual rape by a parent or step-parent is less common, exposure to pornographic material or being asked to strip, look at, or handle exposed genitals, as well as rough handling during medical procedures, is far too common.
Steps Caregivers Can Take to Decrease Children’s Susceptibility
(and that Adult Survivors can learn)’
- Model Healthy Boundaries: No one gets to touch, handle, or look at me in a way that feels uncomfortable.
- Help Children Develop Good Sensory Awareness: Teach children to trust the felt sense of “Uh-oh” they may feel as dread in the gut or rapid heartbeat, which lets them know something is wrong and they need to leave and get help.
- Teach Children What Sexual Violation Is, Who Might Approach Them, and How to Avoid Being Lured: Teach children how to use their “sense detectors” as an early warning sign.
- Offer Opportunities for Children to Practice their Right to Say “No.”
- Teach Children What to Say and Do: Also, let them know that they should always tell you so that you can keep them safe and help them with their feelings.
Let’s take a more detailed look at these steps: Model Healthy Boundaries
There is a delightful children’s picture book by James Marshall about two hippopotami that are good friends. One’s name is George, the other Martha. They visit and play together and have dinner at each other’s house. One day Martha is soaking in her bathtub and is shocked to see George peeking through the window looking right at her! George was surprised at her outrage and his feelings got hurt. He thought that this meant Martha didn’t like him anymore. Martha reassured George that she was very fond of him. She explained in a kind manner, “Just because we are good friends, George, doesn’t mean that I don’t need privacy when I’m in the bathroom!” George understood.
This little George and Martha story models making boundaries, communicating them clearly, and honoring the boundaries of others. Parents need to show good boundaries themselves, respect children’s need for privacy (especially beginning between the ages of five to seven), and support them when they are in situations that are unappealing and are defenseless to help themselves. This begins in infancy. The following illustration will help you understand how to offer this protection:
Little baby Arthur fussed and arched his back each time Auntie Jane tried to hold him. His mother, not wanting to offend her sister, said, “Now, now, Arthur, it’s OK, this is your Auntie Jane. She’s not going to hurt you!”
Ask yourself what message this gives to Arthur? He is already learning that his feelings aren’t important and that adult needs take precedence over a dependent’s needs. Babies show us their feelings by vocal protests and body language. They are exquisitely attuned to the vocalizations and facial expressions of their parents. The brain circuits are being formed by these very interactions that are specifically about respect for feelings and boundaries around touch. For whatever reasons, Arthur did not feel safe or comfortable in Aunt Jane’s arms. Had his “right of refusal” been respected, he would have learned that his feelings do make a difference, that he does have choices, and that there are adults (in this case his mother) who will protect him from other adults whose touch he does not want. A few tactful words to Jane, such as “Maybe later, Jane-Arthur’s not ready for you to hold him yet,” would leave an imprint impacting the baby’s newly developing sense of self. And if his mother’s appropriate protection continues, Arthur’s brain is more likely to forge pathways that promote self-protective responses that may safeguard him from an intrusion and assault later in his life. Although not in his conscious awareness, these unconscious body boundaries formed in the tender years of infancy will serve him well.
Trauma is a breach of energetic and personal boundaries. Sexual trauma, however, is a sacred wound-an intrusion into our deepest, most delicate and private parts. Children, therefore, need to be protected by honoring their right to personal space, privacy, and to be in charge of their own body. As different situations develop at various ages and stages, children need to know that they do not have to subject themselves to “sloppy kisses,” lap sitting, and other forms of unwanted attention to please the adults in their lives.
Other Areas Where Children Need Respect and Protection of Boundaries
Children instinctively imitate their parents. Adults can capitalize on this favorable attribute when it comes to toileting behavior. A lot of power struggles and unpleasantness for toddlers and parents alike can be avoided altogether. By respecting your child’s timetable, she will joyfully model mom’s behavior and toilet-“train” herself. Take the “train” out of toileting and your little boy will proudly do it like “daddy does” at his own pace. Prevent unnecessary trauma in this major developmental area by following your child’s lead rather than listening to the “experts” who believe in timetables. Forcing a child who is not ready to use the toilet disrespects his right to control his own bodily functions and sets a life-long pattern that being dominated by someone else is to be expected. By encouraging rather than pushing, you will be assisting your children to develop healthy self-regulatory habits and a natural curiosity about their own body. In some cases, you may even be preventing eating disorders, digestive problems, constipation, and related difficulties-and as a side effect, producing happy, spontaneous children.
This article is excerpted from the recent book by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline:
“Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing”
(North Atlantic Books 2007)