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Why Do Children Tell?

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When discussing child protection, we often talk about why children keep unsafe secrets. Anyone who has worked with victims of sexual abuse knows that children and adult survivors share similar emotions like fear, nervousness, shame, and embarrassment. They carry around a learned-guilt and the belief that what happened was their fault. Maybe they didn’t know that sexual abuse was abuse; They were taught to be quiet, do as they’re told, and keep the secret to themselves.

This is a crucial conversation to have with adults and children alike. Adults need to understand children are not being defiant by keeping secrets, nor are they trying to punish anyone. It’s not that children don’t trust their parents! The explanations behind unsafe secrets are complex and confusing. Instilling false beliefs, threats, and grooming are common-place tools in an abusers arsenal. Parents and caregivers need to know the reasons surrounding secret-keeping and have the skills to fight back. Parents are often the first person a child tells, and that reaction can determine how a child heals the rest of their life.

Children need to know they are not at fault, the difference between safe and unsafe secrets, and how powerful they are when they raise their voice. Experts have covered why children do not tell, and it is has opened our eyes with empathy and understanding. Today, I want to have a different conversation. I want to talk about why children do tell.

Fear and shame are some of the strongest motivators in our bodies. Fear can save us if we listen closely and not suppress the emotion. If I saw a venomous snake and had a jolt of fear, then I have received the signal that I am not safe. I change course, walk around, and I have avoided the danger. Fear saved my life! Let’s rewind, though. I’m standing back in front of that snake. I ignore the fear, because I was taught fear is weakness. I step over the snake and the snake strikes. Suppressing my fear, rather than embracing it, quite possibly cost me my life. We are born with fear and it’s a necessary emotion. Fear is for us, to protect us!

Shame, on the other hand, is learned. It’s used to stop a screaming toddler. For example, “Everyone is looking at you, you are embarrassing me!” Shame can be used to correcting sports performance. “Stop throwing like a girl” is a good example. And to keep kids silent about sexual abuse, the statement, “This is all your fault” is used to instill shame and guilt into a child.

With shame and fear being used against us, the battle to teach assertiveness to a child is daunting. How could adults possibly hope to raise a child that knows it’s okay to speak up? Is it even worth the fight? Well, of course it is. But we need to put in the work.

Shamed-based fear is nothing compared to love and awareness. Having open and honest conversations with children empowers them to Be Seen and Heard©. They feel valued when the people they love most in the world listen. When a child is encouraged to embrace their “Inner Sirens”, they feel the motivation to share with their trusted heroes. They do not feel ashamed of their fear, but rather see it as a sign to use their voice. When we listen to the simple things a child has to say, the bigger conversation like bullying, abuse, and violence will follow.

Children tell when they are empowered to do so. Children tell when they feel safe. Children will tell when they see another survivor, hear another story, and connect with the idea that silence holds no place in their life. Children tell when they realize they are still worthy of love. This is where awareness comes in. Knowing the signs and symptoms of abuse while simultaneously creating an atmosphere of acceptance and openness. Truly fostering the belief that says, “No conversation between you and I is too big and no feeling too messy.”

This is why we share our stories of surviving abuse. This is why Erin’s Law has passed in 37 states since 2013. Children deserve to be heard, and it’s our job to make it happen. At times, reliving our trauma is painful. To remember what we tried and failed to forget in the past can be an emotional roller coaster. We share anyways. The hurt of reliving our past doesn’t compare to the pain a voiceless child feels while living with an unsafe secret. We’ve lived through the darkness that is sexual abuse. We know the terror of carrying a shame not meant for us. More importantly, we know the relief one feels when voices are heard, fires are ignited, and the weight of secrets is lifted.