By Tanu Shree Singh
“It can never happen to my child.” This is the unwritten, unspoken lie that we convince ourselves with whenever we read stories of child abuse. We keep them safe. We guard them with our life. Yet, sometimes, despite everything we do, the lies that we fear the most look us in the eye. What does one do then? Does one submit to to rage? Or hush the child?
However unimaginable this might seem, it does happen. And if it unfortunately does, what would you rather have—a child who cannot confide in you or a child who can trust you? As parents, there are a few things we need to keep in mind:
The child is already scared. So if you express your outrage, or question them, you are not helping. The most important thing to do is give the child confidence. A hug goes a long way. Tell the child that you are proud of them for coming to you. Do not hush them up.
Trust the child
The worst thing we can do in this situation is to not have faith in the child. By questioning the child we are closing doors forever. “Are you sure?” “What if uncle just meant to hug you?” These statements are nails in the coffin. Do not use them. Believe the child. It has probably taken them a lot of courage to talk to you.
Express anger appropriately
You will obviously feel rage. But expressing it in front of the child might do more harm than good. Threats of violence towards the culprit or expression of extreme anger might actually scare them. Children often blame themselves for anger. So find your support—friend, family or counsellor—whatever works. In front of the child, you need to be calm and collected.
Be very clear
In our bid to protect the child, sometimes lies seem to be a comfortable option. Refrain. The child might expect you to keep it a secret. They would be apprehensive. Gently discuss the need to involve others—authorities, counsellors, etc. Do not go behind the child’s back and discuss with the relevant people or take action. The child trusts you enough to tell you. Do not break that trust.
Reassure the child
In a lot of situations, the children blame themselves. They could have enjoyed the company of the abuser, or may have been led to believe by the culprit that it is what they, the children wanted, and so on. The result is tremendous guilt that scars for a lifetime. Reassure the child that it was not their fault no matter what they felt. Spell it out loud and clear and repeatedly at that. Saying it once will not do it.
Authorities scare us. But by not reporting we are letting the culprits believe that they can get away with it all. Do not shy away from the ordeal and the proverbial, “log kya kahenge”. What people say is their business. Yours is to protect the child, reassure them, and make sure that the culprit faces the law.
Being paranoid will not help. It has happened once, it can happen again. Take relevant steps to protect the child in future situations. There are some dos and don’ts to help the child get out of the situation or recognise an abusive situation early on:
- Do not force physical expression of love. “Give aunty a kiss” or “give uncle a hug”, should strictly be off the table.
- Do not shy away from talking about birds and bees.
- Do not rely on “because I said so” reasoning while asking a child to do something. That gives them the message that adults can order and compliance is expected. Reason it out.
- Do not ignore any signs of a behavioural change in the child. Watch out for, anger outbursts, signs of self harm, mood swings, etc.
- Address all organs by their true name. Take the shame out of it.
- Discuss strategies with the child if they were caught in a situation.
Treat it like disaster management training. We do teach kids what to do in case of fire, don’t we?
- Be approachable. Give the kind of an environment which enables the child to come and talk to you about everything under the sun.
- Use books. There is a treasure of books out there dealing with all sorts of difficult issues. Use them.
- Talk about the child’s privacy and the appropriateness of touch.
There is no strict handbook that a parent can follow to protect the child and prevent abuse. These are just some of the things we can do to protect the children. And protecting the child doesn’t mean snipping their wings. As parents the best thing we can do is listen to them, trust them and always be there for them. And also, do not be harsh on yourself. You are not God. Even gods fail to protect their kids sometimes. The important bit is to pick up the pieces and fix it all.
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On.)