It wasn't a big thing. I started by telling her the proper names for body parts, both male and female. I told her she has control of her body, and no one has the right to touch her without her consent. I told her that if anyone ever did touch her, or ask her to touch them, I would not even for a second be mad at her, and she could tell me. I even told her that adults who try to hurt children lie, and no matter what anyone tells her, I am always on her side.
I don't view the talk as a one time thing, something that happens around the age of 12 with downcast eyes and nervous breaths. It is an ever-continuing conversation. Changing and getting deeper as she grows older.
We practice openness, and have a shame-free approach to conversations about bodies, sex, and everything else (there are super fun conversations about alcohol, books, drugs, being kind to your neighbor, the death penalty, Rainbow Looms, Christianity, movies, child marriage, and politics happening at our house too, if you ever want to come over on a Saturday night).
There is one thing I had not told my daughter, though. I had never told her I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. It is something I have thought about over the years, but I wasn't sure exactly how to tell her, or how much to tell her, or when was the right time to tell her. She knew some things, like the fact I don't have a relationship with my father because of choices he made when I was a child that put me in harm's way, and the refusal to be honest and work though those choices and situations now that I'm an adult. But I never really told her I had an uncle, or that that uncle sexually abused me.
It never came up in conversation.
That is a bit of an excuse, of course, because how would it have come up in conversation if I didn't start it? It wouldn't. It didn't. Until yesterday.
Yesterday we were talking about growing up and bodies changing, and Katarina told me, "Sometimes talking about stuff like this feels a little awkward, but it isn't bad. And I think it is less awkward the more we talk about it. I know you won't freak out, and I feel like I can ask you anything. You tell me the truth, and I appreciate that."
And then she asked me another question, and I heard myself say, "There is something I want to tell you."
There is something I want to tell you.
When I was a child, I was sexually abused.
How old were you?
It started when I was four. My uncle, my father's brother, was the person who abused me, and it stopped when I was nine years old and he died.
Are you like Jenny from Forrest Gump? Do you feel hurt, and confused, and want to cry and scream and throw things?
Sometimes. Sometimes I do feel like that. Not as often now, but when I was younger, I felt that way a lot. But unlike Jenny, I was able to tell someone what had happened to me, and eventually I was able to ask for help. I got counselling. I spent time in prayer. I learned about healing and worked on myself a lot.
You went to counselling? Was that scary?
It felt scary sometimes, because I was talking about things that were hard, and dealing with really big feelings and bad memories. But it wasn't actually scary. It was really, really good. I'm glad I did it. There is no shame in asking for help, or in going to a professional to get that help.
I don't want to know any details. But it does make sense in a way.
Don't worry. I'm not going to give you details. I just wanted you to know the truth about my story. And I wanted you to know that even if something bad happens in your life, you can work through it.
This is why you sometimes write about child abuse on your blog, and spend time on the phone and computer talking about funding rape kit testing. And why you and dad sometimes talk about survivors. And why you get upset when your dad calls the house. And why you tell your friends they should teach their kids to say penis and vagina.
Yes. I try to use what I know to help other people protect their children, and to help other survivors find healing.
Our conversation veered and continued from there, but this was the part that will stay with me forever. When we were finished talking, my daughter gave me a big hug and told me she was glad I had gotten help, and that I was helping other people get help, too.
That conversation that had been so scary for me for a long time, that I wasn't sure I could ever have the right words for, happened. And it was a little bit like going to counseling for the first time. Scary, but really, really good.
Ten was the right age for me to have this conversation with Katarina, but it will be different for every child. If you are a survivor wondering how to share your story with your child, this is my advice.
Telling your child you are a survivor:
- Be age appropriate.
- Skip details.
- Talk about healing.
- Use your story as a chance to reinforce talking openly about anything, including bodies, sex, people who make you uncomfortable, etc.
- Answer questions.
- Keep it simple.
Have you had this or other difficult conversations with your child?
How do you approach difficult topics?
*I'm linking this post with Shell at Things I Can't Say. This was something I was scared to say for a long time, but I'm really glad the conversation happened.