Awkward Conversations Worth Having {And Why Sexual Abuse Prevention Matters to Me}

Not long ago, an interaction between my 4 year old son and a friend of mine prompted me to write a blog post for Denver Metro Moms Blog, about Why We Don't Keep Secrets In Our House. Judging by the response, sexual abuse prevention is a topic that people care about, and for that I am so grateful. But had I known the post would go viral, I would have written more - more about where I'm coming from and more about what I'm aiming for in terms of sexual abuse prevention. 

I would tell you why sexual abuse prevention matters to me. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and I know first-hand the long lasting and wide reaching pain that sexual abuse can cause. I am also a mental health therapist who has worked with countless kids and adults who are survivors of sexual trauma. Last but certainly not least, I am a mom.  I love my boys with a fierce love, willing to do anything possible to protect them from being violated in any way, sexually or otherwise. These three roles I play, survivor, therapist, and mom, flow into a confluence of passion.

You see, for much of my life, I've been on the "after side" of sexual abuse, recovering from my own trauma and helping others to recover from theirs. And while I have known and witnessed the insidious nature of sexual abuse, I have also seen that healing is possible. People can go on to have healthy relationships and live joyful lives.  But at the same time, I want to prevent it from happening to one more kid. I want to prevent it from happening to my kids. But the reality is, there is no full-proof plan that will guarantee the safety of my kids or anyone else's kids. I can't protect my children from everything and if I think I can, I'm simply living under the illusion of control {another post for another day}. But here's what I can do -

I can listen. I can listen to my kids, keeping the lines of communication open, creating space for them to talk to me about what's bothering them, big or small. I can believe them when they tell me someone did something that bothered them on purpose, rather than being so quick to speak and say, "I'm sure he didn't do it on purpose." I can say things like, "tell me more about that" and take the time to listen. 

I can talk about it. I can use my voice to talk with other parents and people who supervise my kids; I can talk about it with my kids in an age-appropriate way, so as not to scare them or shame them, but simply to empower them to know that they are in charge of their own bodies; I can use my intuition and voice to speak up about something that doesn't seem quite right; 

I can write about it.  Writing often helps me to navigate my own thoughts and feelings and allows me to better articulate those thoughts with the people around me. I can share my experiences with others.

So, these are the things I aim to do. And here is a little example of how it looks for me:

Picture it, a handful of moms standing around on the playground watching their little minions run and climb and play. The moms are chatting it up, occasionally {or maybe not so occasionally} interrupted by a request for more snacks or to go to the potty. Their conversation meanders all over the place, discussing topics like sleeplessness, best preschools, natural teething remedies, the disarray of their houses, the lack of sex drive, their wishes for happy hour to be here sooner than later, when all of a sudden, one of the moms breaks in and says, sohow do you all talk about body safety in your house? What things do you do to try to prevent the sexual abuse of your kids?Crickets.

Who wants to be that mom? Well, Ill be honest with you, I do. I want to be that mom. And Ill tell you why. Id like to start by telling you about my son. He has food allergies, of the life-threatening variety. We actually almost lost him once to anaphylaxis {airways closing} because at the time, we didnt have enough information about his allergies and we didnt take enough preventative measures. That was one of the scariest moments of my life, watching him laying in that hospital bed with a mask over his face, barely responsive.

I hope to never have to experience a replay of that moment. There are no guarantees that it wont happen again, but I have become much more educated on his allergies and I know what measures I have to take, questions I have to ask, instructions I need to give in effort to try to prevent a future reaction. So, whenever he participates on a soccer team where snacks are handed out, or is invited to a birthday party or a playdate or we go to a restaurant or he stays overnight at my parentshouse or we have a new babysitter - you get the idea - I inform the caregiver, parent, coach, whomever, of his allergies both verbally and in written form. I ask questions like what kind of food will be served, can I see the packaging, where will the pizza come from, do you have any nuts in the house etcWhat Im trying to say is that its an ordeal. Its inconvenient. Its uncomfortable. But I dont think twice about having those conversations with people and being proactive on his behalf because I NEVER EVER want to witness him near lifeless in a hospital bed again.

So, if it is a no-brainer for me to have a conversation with friends, parents, coaches, teachers, caregivers about his safety related to his life-threatening allergies, why would I hesitate to talk to those same people about his body safety, something that could be potentially life-threatening in both an emotional and physical sense - sexual abuse prevention and body safety? I wont. Not anymore. I wont hesitate to have those conversations, no matter how awkward they may be. Sometimes conversation stoppers can also become conversation starters.

It actually happened just yesterday, my son was invited over to someones house for a playdate {without me}. The mom was so kind about it and was offering for him to come so that I could have some time to pack for a trip. I dont know this mom very well and have never been to their house. So, my response went something like this, Thank you so much for the invitation. Im sure {my son} would love to play with {her son}. There are a couple of things Id want to talk with you about before that happens, things that I like to discuss with any parent before any playdate - allergies and body safety rules. Maybe this time we could all come to your house and the kids could play and we could talk about these things, amongst other things of course?Do you feel awkward just reading that? Maybe you do. I felt awkward saying it. I feel uncomfortable every time I have these conversations, though a little less so with every interaction.

The other mom stared at me a little bit strangely, nodding her head. I think she really had no idea what to say. She said, “Ok, interesting. What exactly do you mean by body safety?I then began to share with her about how sexual abuse is so common these days and how I want to do everything I can to prevent my kids from being sexually abused or molested and so instead of just trying to guess who might be a potential abuser and who might not {because it could be anyone}, I just choose to have the conversation with everyone. I tell her that I like to know who is going to be home when he is there for a playdate {father, sibling, other friends etc}, where will they be playing, what does supervision look like, and so on. I also share with her that my son has some body safety rules that help to guide his choices about his body and interactions with others, and I give her a heads up that he might mention his body safety rules. I then go on to share our rules around body safety with the mom {mentioned here in the post: Why We Dont Keep Secrets In Our House and sourced from the Parenting Safe Children Workshop and the book, Off Limits by Sandy K. Wurtele, Ph.D. and Feather Berkower, MSW}. She asks me more questions, mostly about what else we do for sexual abuse prevention. At this point, all nervousness on my part has subsided, and I tell her that my husband and I have these conversations with anyone who will be with our sons and we ask questions about sexual abuse prevention to schools we are looking at and any other organization whose employees might be supervising our kids. She thanks me for talking with her about this {seriously, Im not making it up} and thats that. Exhale.

I have yet to have a parent respond to me in anger or accuse me of suggesting they might abuse my child. They may think that, but no one has ever said it to me. And after the initial awkwardness has run its course, Ive found the conversations to be more connecting than anything else. After all, as parents, we want to do our best to protect our kids, right?

So, just like I hope that I can do enough prevention on my sons behalf so that he never has to use his Epi-pen for an allergic reaction, so too do I hope to do whatever prevention it takes so that my son never has to put his body safety rules into play. Yes, I want to empower my kids with their body safety rules, but the responsibility of prevention falls first and foremost on me, the parent. So, this is why I believe that these conversations {with anyone who supervises my children}, are worth every ounce of awkwardness and discomfort that may arise.