Imagine you are 3. Or 9. Or 16. The age is not the important part.
Imagine that you are in your room or at church or playing your favorite sport or at a sleepover. The place is not the important part.
Imagine you are with your parent, your teacher, your pastor, or your favorite aunt. Now, we are starting to get to the important part.
Imagine you have something to share. Something that is big. Something that is so big that it is almost impossible to say out loud. Imagine that this super big, almost impossible to say thing makes you worry. It makes you think that you are not good enough, that you are to blame. It makes you feel less than and ashamed. Imagine the struggle to stuff it but every time you push it down it makes you feel more and more strangled. And then you remember. You remember that person. That favorite aunt, that pastor, that teacher, that parent that you think, maybe, just maybe, might believe you.
Imagine that you pull up every ounce of courage and arm yourself with every piece of bravery that you have and you take the leap. You tell them that impossibly big thing – haltingly at first, as you struggle for the right words. Imagine telling this even as you wonder: “Will they believe me? Will they care?” You offer just the briefest of hints into what your heart is hiding because you don’t really know, not yet, what this trusted adult is going to do. And so you shield yourself. Because your super big almost impossible to say thing has taught you that you always shield yourself. The world is not as it seems. It is not as safe as your trusted adult tells you. So, you say as little as you can and then…..you wait.
Imagine this wait. Imagine the sweaty palms, the racing heart. Imagine the “what ifs” that are racing through this child’s head. And then imagine you are that trusted adult. You are the one they trusted with their secret but maybe they don’t know quite how to say it. So they call someone you like a name or they use a word that gives you pause but you think “oh, surely not.” Or, maybe they don’t say anything at all because there are no words, not really, for what is happening to them. They only know how to tell you through their actions. Maybe they start acting out or they stop participating in a beloved activity or they suddenly have a need to be perfect at everything. Or maybe they do have the words and they come tumbling out like a volcano erupting – spitting at first but then the fire flows destroying everything it touches. Maybe this child confesses someone touching them in a way that makes them uncomfortable or introducing them to pornography or forcing them to have sex. And you, the trusted adult, want to believe that you misunderstood or that maybe the child misunderstood because the other option, the option that this could be true, is too much to wrap even your adult brain around. And all the while, this child is watching – for your reaction and for your response. However you respond will forever mark this child and their journey. You get one shot at this, so what do you do?
Imagine that this child tells this story to a trusted adult who gets it. This adult knows the importance of telling this child that they believe them. This adult knows the importance of telling this child that they are so sorry they did not know but that they are so very grateful that this child put on their brave and told them because now – now they can help. Imagine if you get to be the adult that reports to the Department of Children’s Services. Now it’s your turn for your palms to be sweaty and your heart to race but you know that this is the right thing. You know that you are the only voice that can protect this child. And without you, this child is back to being alone. Back to feeling less-than, powerless, and unimportant. But you, in how you respond, can begin to give some of these losses back. By telling them that you believe them, you can be the one to let the child know that their experience and life and words have value. By telling them that you are going to do something appropriate about what they told you (it is not appropriate to kill the person who has harmed this child), you are telling this child that they have a right to dignity and that shame should not be theirs to bear. Imagine the courage it takes to be the person who does the right thing. It is an immense amount, but this courage pales in comparison to what this child will experience if the trusted adult doesn’t get it.
Imagine telling someone that does nothing. Or worse yet, tells you that you must have misunderstood or that the person didn’t mean to touch them inappropriately or that they are lying because this accused individual is a beloved authority figure. Imagine acting out or being perfect in front of someone who doesn’t understand what they are seeing. Or worse yet, has an idea that something isn’t right in the child’s life but lets the “what if I am wrong” mantra drown out the child’s cries for help. Imagine the message that adult sends to this sweaty palmed, heart racing child. That adult has just reinforced everything the child already believes – that they are unworthy, unbelievable, and untrustworthy. That adult has struck a blow to this child’s sense of safety, sense of power, sense of deserving. And for some children it will be the last time they speak about it in their childhood and they will become masters of disguise as that super big, almost impossible to say thing becomes a dirty secret that takes root in their very soul. The roots will spread into the very fertile ground of self-hate and suddenly this child begins making choices that harm them because they believe they don’t deserve something better.
Imagine. One child. One trusted adult. Two choices – to act, to not act. As our kids return to their routines, we need to commit to ourselves and to our children that we will be adults of action. We will not let their fears be realized if the unimaginable happens. We will not ignore their voice or the one in our head. We will gather our courage and we will respond. And if we are unsure, we will ask and then we will do because we are the voice that our children need.
Written by: Valerie Craig, Co-Founder, Tennessee Voices for Victims