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As a parent, you want to protect your child from everything. When you experience something frightening-sexual abuse or domestic violence, for instance-it can be difficult to know if or when you should tell your kids. There may be reasons that the issue comes up that are out of your control. It could be that you have no contact with one or more family members or that your child overhears part of a private conversation. Or, your child may have witnessed domestic violence against you in your home. Here are some tips for talking to your kids about abuse.
Choose an Appropriate Time and Place
You must first decide if it is necessary to tell your children about your abuse. While children are not oblivious to bad things happening in the world, they often are not aware that violence can touch their own family. Finding out about or witnessing violence against a caregiver can make them feel vulnerable, sad, or angry. Yet, children are often more perceptive than they get credit for. They may know that something happened to you and need comfort and reassurance.
Before going into this conversation with your child, it is a good idea to practice what you are going to say with someone you trust. It is important to stay calm while you are talking to your child so you don’t add to his feelings of fear or guilt.
Choose a comfortable, quiet place to talk alone. Don’t invite other family members into the first talk. If your child is resistant to the conversation, don’t pepper him with questions. Accept that he may need some time to open up. If your child responds by acting out, however, communicate limits respectfully and assertively.
Have a Child-Centered Conversation
Ask your child what he has observed and how he feels about it. Help him to identify his feelings with statements like, “You must have been really angry.” Be supportive of his feelings; don’t try to downplay them. Acknowledge that he may be scared or going through a tough time. Praise him for communicating with you. Give him your full attention and don’t interrupt while he is talking.
Ask your child if he has any worries. You may want to write them down and address them individually. Together, you can come up with a plan for addressing each one. If you still live with your abuser, create a safety plan for if it happens again. The action plan can include staying in his room, going to a neighbor’s, or calling 911 from a safe place.
Allow him to ask you questions in return. You don’t need to provide graphic details. Consider your child’s age and emotional maturity when answering questions. If you don’t know the answer to something, write the question down and tell your child that you will try to find an answer.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Take care not to refer to your abuser as a “bad person.” Focus on the actions, not the individual. Classifying the abuser as a bad person reinforces the idea that only bad people do bad things. While you don’t want to scare your child, it is important for him to understand that sometimes trusted people do things that aren’t okay.
Explain to your child that what you experienced happens to other people and families. This can help him to feel less different and isolated. Don’t, however, make it seem as though abuse is normal. Reinforce the fact that it is not acceptable to hurt another person.
Reassure Them and Make Them Feel Safe
Reassure your child that he has a right to feel safe and that you will always do your best to make sure that no harm comes to him. You should also reassure him that you are going to be all right because you are getting help for your problem.
If you have no contact with the abuser, your child may wonder where he is or why he is not a part of your life. Explain that adults have rules they have to follow. When an adult chooses to break the rules, there are consequences. Reassure him that you are doing what you think is best to keep everyone safe.
If you have recently cut off contact with your abuser, your child may be feeling a sense of loss. Let him talk about these feelings with you. Remind him of the other people in his life that he can lean on if he is feeling bad, and encourage him to talk openly with them.
If your child has contact with your abuser, he may feel conflicted. It is important to let him know that it is okay to still love that other adult. If you have been through domestic violence, your child may feel guilty for not intervening and protecting you. Comfort your child by reminding him that you are responsible for protecting him, not the other way around.
Use it as an Opportunity to Teach Them to Tell
As you are talking about abuse, you should take the time to teach your child about knowing and telling if something bad happens to them. Explain the difference between safe touches and unsafe touches.
- Safe touch-something that makes you feel happy, safe, loved
- Unsafe touch-something that makes you feel hurt or confused, like a kick, punch, or touching private body parts
Tell your child that it is okay to say no if someone touches him in a way that he doesn’t like. Explain that bad touches are never the child’s fault, and that he should always tell an adult if something happens that makes him uncomfortable. Emphasize that he should keep telling trusted adults if he feels like no one believes him.