There is an endless amount of ideas that I could share with you in terms of preventing child abuse, but as we close this month, I would like to share something just from my heart. One of the biggest ways we can prevent our children from being hurt in such traumatic ways is something that cannot really be quantified or measured.
It is how safe and connected your child feels in the relationship they have with you. Do they know they can talk to you? Is it safe for them to make mistakes? Do they know you will unconditionally love and support them? Do you listen when they tell you someone makes them uncomfortable?
The fact of the matter is no matter how much we do to prevent and how closely we protect our kids, our children will at one point experience a situation that is in some way painful to them. This can be a difficult interaction with a friend, a peer bullying them at school, or a person of trust abusing them. We cannot protect them one hundred percent of the time even if that is what we want. The next best thing is that when they experience the pain, they have a safe place to express it. This safety and presence are created in everyday moments that speak our interest in our children and our willingness to be there for them.
By providing safety and a willingness to hold space for our kids and all the range of their emotions, we not only prevent harm but we allow them the chance to thrive.
“If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow.”
It is much more than skills or ideas in which to follow- it is your presence that continuously whispers, “You are so loved, you have value and you will never be alone.”
I listened to a conversation earlier this year by different professionals in the child abuse prevention field and they included a powerful survivor in the conversation. She had been in foster care and a man “befriended” her over the internet and groomed her until she trusted him. From there, she was coerced into a very abusive place where she ended up getting really hurt. She spoke to the fact that she realized she was in an unhealthy, dangerous situation but she was so afraid to ask for help because she would be scolded and punished for the actions that led her to that place. She did not have a safe place to admit she was breaking rules, and so instead of stopping what was happening, it led her further into danger. After spending many years being abused, she was so full of shame she could not ask for help to leave the abusive situation.
As a parent, I do not want my kid to be afraid to tell me when they have made a mistake. This does not mean I will excuse all negative behavior and that there are no limits. It means that when they are in a sticky situation, even if it is their own doing, I will be there to love them through the consequences and help them problem solve better ways to handle the predicament. It means they are met with compassion and support, not harshness and anger. It can be difficult to do. I find it essential though because each kid will make plenty of mistakes, and I would want them to be open and honest as that leads to accountability rather than avoidant and in hiding, which usually leads to more serious problems. Their ability to be open and honest is how we show up in the response to the little and big mistakes they make.
We must be a safe place for them to experience growth, and growth means making lots of blunders. This safety will mean that they can reach out to us when they need help and is one of the keys to stopping unhealthy behavior.
My point today is that we should do what we can to prevent abuse in all its forms. There are ways to do that and steps of action readily available to take. But more importantly, we must remember that being a safe place for our children to make mistakes and still know they are loved is critical. Even when painful experiences happen, our connected presence will be the best medicine for their healing. You and your love for your child matter so much to them.
One of the best ways for them to see it is safe to make mistakes is when we courageously, and with vulnerability, own our mistakes with self-compassion and accountability. This means we apologize to our kids when we make mistakes. The need for repair is real and it will show them we all are on a path of growth. They will see that we all are gloriously human. When they see your humanness, it will be safer for them to be open and honest.
Bruce Perry said, “The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”