Parents, It Is Time To Put on Your Big Girl/Boy Panties (the reality of parenting and sexual abuse)

I haven’t written a blog post in such a long time that I was not sure I could even remember my login. There are plenty of reasons why I haven’t written but it mainly boils down to the following two: I spend my days with five young children who for some reason just won’t allow me an hour or two to sit with a laptop (or, some days 5 minutes alone in the bathroom) and we had been living in small borrowed spaces or with family for nearly 6 months.
Even though I am now sitting in David and I’s office facing a wall full of windows overlooking our yard, I just shuttered writing that… 6 months is a long time to be displaced with five young kids…like, a really long time, friends.

It is a really great story with a happy (albeit, currently still messy and only slightly unpacked) ending. And I will write it. Just not to today
Between breakfast, lunch, managing kids, helping with schoolwork, and doing a little unpacking (speak nothing of the normal upkeep of laundry and dishes) I hadn’t paused until just minutes ago to check my phone or email or news to see what else has been going on in my spheres and the world at large today.
Unless you are living under a rock or with a houseful of adorable dependants like me, you have probably seen the headlines about Josh Duggar and also probably read an article or two on the very sad subject matter. I personally skimmed three such commentaries and read one. Plenty has already been said. Some of it I agree with and some of it I couldn’t finish. So why throw in my own two cents after months of not writing?

Because this is personal for me. I don’t know anything about the Duggars. I have honestly never seen an episode of their show nor do I want to. People love to jump on bandwagons, be card carrying fan club members and people equally love to throw stones. I’m as human as the next person, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not interested in doing any of that today. This particular situation isn’t personal to me or psuedo-personal thanks to reality television, but the topic? Oh, the topic is very personal.
Naturally, this is also the reason I hesitate to add my thoughts to already overcrowded conversation. So, be sure I am going to share carefully and what I leave out will be intentional.

One of the articles I skimmed and since have gone back and read was penned by Matt Walsh, a blogger who, at first introduction had me readings pieces aloud to friends and family. I was struck by his frankness and ability to do some decent cause and effect, logical thinking about complicated buzz worthy topics. He has grown a wide base of lovers and haters which at least shows the guy is actually saying something. I will give him that. I’m not a hater but I’d be lying if I said I don’t shake my head sometimes and hope that someone close to him is reminding him he’s not even 30 yet. Being a good thinker is a lost art, but it doesn’t mean he can logically wade his way through every complex issue and see it more clearly than everyone else. I shake my head without being a hater because I was once a twenty-something who thought I had a lot more figured out than I actually did. Anyone else ever been there? 

So, all that said, I read his take on the revelations of sexual abuse in the Duggar household and there were some things that just have to be said. This isn’t a rebuttal but, I hope, a chance to add a missing dimension to the subject.

Walsh’ thesis is shouted from the article’s headline “The Duggars Aren’t Hypocrites. Progressives Are.”

Before I had gotten a word further, I felt my stomach knot up. I felt angry. How in the world has this all important conversation already become political? Buried in a conspiracy about how media hates Christians? Really? It hasn’t even been a day and already we aren’t talking about the real issue, which is child sexual abuse, in case you have forgotten.

I was upset enough to skim through and then surprised enough to go back and actually read the whole thing just to be sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.

I don’t doubt for a second that elements of the media world have been hoping for a Duggar scandal. Probably a few of them do really hate Christians and have been waiting to condemn all of Christianity based on some such scandal. But likely the majority are just drawn drama wherever they can find and exploit it. But isn’t that true of humanity,by and large? Not just the “evil media” or the “liberal progressives” but isn’t it also true far too often of Christians and churches, whether they be liberal or conservative? Wait, isn’t that far too often true of you and of me?

It is easy to take sides on any issue. There’s a measure of security we feel when we know who and what we are for and who and what we are against. There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem I have with Walshs’ piece is that he is dividing the teams in a way that distracts from what should really be IN and what should really be OUT.

He has taken this huge conversations and boiled it down to a cat fight between the liberal left and the conservative right and made the topic the marginalization of the Christian worldview in the media. I won’t argue that the cat fight exists and that the topic is real. I won’t even argue that the topic isn’t worth volleying back and forth. What I am going to argue is that it doesn’t matter in this context. Not only does it not matter, but it actually detracts from the real issue that needs attention. If the sky is falling, then who cares about the hissing of cats over their perceived territory? Not me. And when it comes to the very real, very prominent, staggering reality of sexual abuse by and against children in our culture, trust me when I tell you, the sky is falling.

Walsh is correct to say having something tragically sinful happen in a believing family doesn’t nullify the gospel. We can all be thankful for that. Jesus died for tragically terrible sin and all of the fall out it leaves in it’s wake. He didn’t just die to cover it, though, and I think this is a vital distinction. He died and rose the Victor over all of it. There is no need to scuffle about, weakly not living what we believe is ideal, feeling like a fraud who just can’t  do better. The reason while the gospel is good news is that Jesus offers us His life. Not just His blood as a means of atonement but His very essence as the means for transformation. 

Whether or not others are soaking in hypocrisy, dripping with contempt as they wag their fingers in disgust is besides the point. Or at least it should be. This isn’t a time for politicking.

I have read Josh Duggar’s statement and the ones put out by his parents. There a few things I hope you will keep in mind when it comes to this highly sensitive topic. One, “molestation” can mean many different things. It is a word used to politely describe a host of vile interactions between unequal parties and it also is sometimes inaccurately used to describe sexual play between children. Two, the ages of the parties involved greatly impact the situation.

Prepubescent  cousins who are close in age and touch each other during nap time does not actually constitute abuse or molestation. If a parent was to report that, they would be told by any hospital or social service employee exactly that. Does it mean it wouldn’t impact those kids? That the parents should just shrug it off and not address it? Of course not. But since those details aren’t public and shouldn’t be for the sake of those involved, it is hard to know much about what happened.

I hope Josh Duggar got whatever help and sexual education he was lacking. I hope the other parties involved got help to process through what happened to them. I pray they weren’t shamed or dismissed. I hope the apologies are sincere. I really do. From afar, I can hope and pray. I don’t need the details. Shame on any bystander attempting to dig up details to make a buck or a point, even if it is a vain attempt to protect the Christian worldview. The people who need the details are the ones involved, and again, I pray they have access to everything they need to heal.

We must not miss the forest for the trees, friends. There is this particular situation with people few of us actually know and then there is the larger context of sexual abuse. There are two sides here, but you have to define them correctly if you want the security of knowing where to stand.

To me, the sides are simply good and evil. We want to be smart and insightful and see some angle that others haven’t. But, there’s really nothing new under the sun. When power (or perceived power) is used to wield control over another persons body that is never ok. Never. It is rampant in our culture. The older I get, the fewer people I know who haven’t  experienced some form of sexual interaction that left them with feelings of powerlessness, shame, and insecurity. This should not be.

We all have to do our part to speak out against the arsenal of sexual misconduct and better yet, we all have a responsibility to live a life lined up with what we know is good and right and whole. For my part, I need the resurrected life of Jesus alive and well in me to do that. Power is enticing.

So we all have this incredibly important part to play in this sexually wounded world in which we live in but no role is more central to the issue than the role of a parent. If you were a fly on a wall in our house you would hear us say again and again to our kids that our job is to keep them safe. It isn’t our only job, but it is the job we must do to be able to carry out the rest of our parenting imperatives. If we don’t keep our kids safe, then how can we teach them anything? If they aren’t physically safe with us, then all bets are off. But they also need us to provide them with emotional,mental, spiritual, and yes, sexual safety. It our job to protect them and teach them how to engage the world in such a way that they remain safe and contribute to the safety and wellbeing of others. If we don’t do that, we have failed. Boundaries and respect go hand in hand and are necessary to the foundation of anything worth constructing. Period.

Walsh’ comments about being uncertain how he would handle it if his son assaulted another child, turned my frustration into fear..,fear for him and for the pervasive  lack of understanding in our culture regarding sexuality.  I had been mad enough to keep reading but the following comment from his article is what prompted me to write this post.

He said this, “As a parent, you have to think whether your 14 year old deserves to have his life ruined over his mistakes. Maybe you’d decide that he does. I can’t say I’d agree.”

As a parent, if your child was discovered to have abused or violated or even been a little inappropriate with another child, you certainly do have a lot to think about. You certainly would be worrying about the trajectory of your child’s life but to frame the question as if your child’s sin was something that happened to them or is something whose impact you allow or disallow, is to see the concern through the foggiest of lenses!

What your child deserves or doesn’t isn’t the point. There are ramifications for behaviors, cause and effect. Legally and socially those things will play out and your role as parent is still to prepare your child to go out into the world, with the knowledge of how to care for themselves and how to respect the boundaries that exist between their needs and wants and the needs and wants of others ..….and all of hard, tricky places where those needs and wants intersect. If your child has violated a sacred boundary, then your job had gotten harder and more complicated but it is still the same job.

Walsh, defending the Duggars apparent neglect in reporting and effectively dealing their  son’s perpetrating of younger children, asserts that no parents first thought is to call the police after learning something horrible has been done by their child. Of course, no ones first thought is legal in nature. The first thing that happens to you is called shock. Your brain is amazing and it knows that this information is much too terrible for you to grasp all at once. Not unlike the way the permanence of death becomes real in waves of emotion and realization, the reality of your what your child has done will roll over your awareness again and again until it becomes more and more real.  You’ll find you are bargaining with yourself or imagining a different reality or considering outlandish, improbable scenarios that allow for a better explanation of the events.  This is s normal response to tragedy; this is a necessary part of grief.

The thing is that at some point shock and disbelief give way to reality, as ugly  and horrifying and unpredictable as it may be. And when that happens, a parent has a pivotal decision to make. Will they stand in the light and line up on the side of truth and good or will they hide in shadowy ranks, an accomplice of the wrongdoing they do not want to face?

You see, if your child assaults another child, this isn’t something that happened to them passively as if their body acts outside of the direction of their will. If the child is young, or for a legitimate reason unable to make such choices, then that will be discovered in the light. The prefrontal cortex is the final part of the brain to develop and it’s the governing, decision making part of the brain. This is why children aren’t expected to have the reasoning skills and maturity of an adult and why they are so dependent on the loving direction of their parents. The system isn’t  perfect and it does fail so don’t think I am suggesting you wouldn’t need to advocate for your child.

The thing is, you should be advocating for your child like a parent.  If your child did not understand their actions, then your advocating looks like figuring out what in the heck they have been exposed to and then also making sure they get everything they need to heal personally and to ensure they have the information and the skills to never, ever hurt anyone sexually again. Your job will have gotten immeasurably harder, but it won’t have changed. You would need to learn and receive help about how to reorder your home, set firmer boundaries, and how to talk about these adult topics with your children. You would need to talk to your other children, your nieces and nephews, the parents of your child’s friends to give them the chance to discover any other wrongdoing that needs to be uncovered. This, of course, puts your heart at great risk for being broken again but you have to do it anyway. Someone has to put on their big girl or boy panties and be the adult. Parents, that person is you.

Advocating for your child is not in conflict with being truthful. Your child will never learn if you stand between them and the consequences of their behavior. Do that, and you have gone to the dark side as an accomplice and perhaps worst of all, your child knows it. In covering up their sin, you are telling them in no uncertain terms how very untrustworthy and unsafe you are. You want to fix this horrible mess? Then tell the truth.

And when the haze of shock lifts and you are looking  at the child you love and heartbroken over what they have done, don’t shrink back in fear. It will eventually come to you that you need to do something other than cry and be angry and beat yourself up for every parenting error you have ever made. And when that occurs to you, make those calls.

Call your pastor or religious mentor, yes, please do that. You need support and friends and faith. But your church elder likely doesn’t know more about sexual abuse and trauma than you do, so for the love of your child, please don’t only call that person. You need to call another parents whose children may be involved, you need to call your local child advocacy center and/or children’s hospital and as much as I hate to say it, you need to call children services. It’s terrifying. I know, trust me when I tell you I know. Call anyway. They don’t want to investigate anything unnecessary so if the kids are close in age or too young to understand and the touching was external and not coerced, they will tell you. The gerneral rule of thumb is four or fewer years between ages of prepubescent children doesn’t constitute sexual abuse, provided that there was no penetration or use of force. Even in those cases, children need help. Your job isn’t done because an intake worker tells you that doesn’t fall under what they are required to investigate. Ask for the names of good, reputable counselors. You need to talk to one who has experience with sexual issues in children. You need help knowing how to talk to your child so you can bring clarity instead of confusion, information instead of shame, and an open line of communication so you can steer your child in the way he or she should go. Your child may need help too. Lots of hospitals offer good classes on body safety for kids with same age peers. Your child may divulge something happened to them or that they’ve seen sexual images that provoked their behavior. They may tell someone else before they tell you. They may need counseling. You may will need to change. Your job as parent has gotten complicated, but it hasn’t changed.

Your child may not be too young to understand; your child may have understood. Your child might be more than four years older than the person they violated. It might not have been an external touch. Your child may have really injured another. It’s going to be hard to believe but if it’s true the most loving thing you can do is see it for what it is and to not protect yourself at the expense of your child. That will ruin their life.

Your chance to bring about redemption has everything to do with what you do next. Consequences can ruin lives but they don’t have to. If your child has knowingly done a heinous crime against another person, stepping out of the way to allow justice for the injured party is the first step in your child’s healing. If you walk away in disgust and abandon them, then you add to the destruction. If you love them and still refuse to partner with their sin, there is no cap on the beauty and redemption that can result. Being known and found out and still loved changes people. When we don’t shield people from accountability but stand with them as they right their wrongs, we give them strength and reason to change. When you grieve the atrocities they have done, you show them the seriousness of their actions. When you humble yourself and admit you need help to navigate this and  honestly take a look at where you have knowingly and unknowingly tripped up in parenting them, you teach them about taking responsibility. When you don’t leave but instead roll up your sleeves and offer to learn and change and help, you demonstrate your love and commitment to them. When you hold on to the hope that they can grow and change, you are showing them the nature of Gods love…and no consequence in the world can take that away from your child.

That is the kind of life saving love a parent can uniquely impart to a child in crisis.

In a world where so many have been sexually assaulted and kids are far too often exposed to sexually charged images, bad things are going to happen. Kids are going to play out what they have experienced and seen, not unlike they ways in which they imitate benign adult behaviors like mopping the floors or pretending to be a police officer in the back yard.

The good news is that we live in a time when more is known about the brain and trauma and sexual development than ever before. Children who sexually react before puberty are surprisingly not very likely to go on to be pedophiles and rapists.  Given even a small measure of intervention, the majority mature along with their brain development and once they’re able to understand and predict the outcomes of such behavior, they choose to abstain. The brain is very amazing and prunes itself constantly. If inappropriate acting out is stopped, over time the brain will actually pair back the neural  connections made by the behavior because  it isn’t using the pathway anymore. Given some time and space and very protective boundaries, the brain can actually decide to cut off the connections to those experiences. There has been an explosion of research and consequently, effective therapies for traumatized persons. If you haven’t learned about EMDR, for example, it would be wise to get familiar with it. You probably know a handful of people whose life could be changed by it.  No kidding. I have personally done EMDR as have some of my children and it’s staggering to me how well it works.

I want to finish this post with some information that some of you may find helpful. It is information that been helpful to me as a parent.

The long range impact of sexual abuse has a lot to do with the following variables:

  • - how close the person is to the abuser (sexual abuse by a family member is much more damaging than rape by a stranger)
  • -whether or not the victim is believed and advocated for once they tell

Of course, the length of time the abuse occurs and the severity of the abuse also matter but not nearly as much as how the situation is handled. If a child is believed and  action is taken to protect them and it is clear to them who is innocent and who has done wrong, there is reason to hope for a full recovery, regardless of how violent the crime. Sadly, the opposite is also true. If a child tells that someone close had violated them and the adults around live in denial or fear the backlash so much that they do not take all the necessary steps to fix the issue, there is reason to suspect that hidden sexual impropriety will fester and cause a quickly spreading infection. And that is much harder to resolve and clean up.

Monsters live in the dark. You’d hear me say that a lot  too if you were a fly on the wall here. If you didn’t know better you might think our kids are just scared of the dark. But it’s really me who wants all the dark snuffed out by the light. Cause in the light of day monsters are challenges and big as they may be, they are chances to see the goodness of God in the seemingly impossible. That doesn’t mean some nights you won’t cry yourself to sleep or lose your temper or need a glass of wine or a punching bag or a venting session with your best friend. It’s still real and hard. But God knows how to do the impossible. He shows up when we give Him room to be and do what we aren’t and can’t.

These issues aren’t foreign to our family. I’m sitting with a glass of Merlot now and at least three times today I had to call on Jesus to help me because I did not have the ability to be nice or loving or not lose my temper with a child. Don’t think for a single moment I am writing this post from some mountain of superiority. I am writing to you out of the depth of my own concerns, surrounded by seemingly ever mounting needs. I have so little figured out I sometimes actually wonder if I actually did know more as an single twenty something.

Still there are time bedrock truths that I know in my very core. These are the things I never doubt. The truth is never a bad choice. Living in the light is freeing. Dealing with hard stuff is worth it. Hope really is an anchor for the soul. And love..is does not fail.

So tonight, let’s pray for all those involved in this scandal and all of those whose equally horrific stories will never make the news. Let’s pray for Christians to spend more time being transformed by the mystery of God in us than demanding their rights in this world. We need a lot less debate and a lot more demonstration of the healing, transforming power and love Jesus said we would be marked by. Right? Go ahead an argue about marriage until your blue in the face if that’s how you want to spend your life….but if you’re bored with that or need to catch your breath, maybe instead begin to walk in step with the spirit as you go about your day. You might be surprised how little anyone wants to argue with that.

One quick comment I want to make to parents reading this post. Please, please, PLEASE talk to your children about body safety, sexual touches, secrets, threats, what to do when they feel natural sexual sensations and urges. I don’t care how young they are, they’re not too young. If your child can communicate, it’s time to start the conversation. If you’re uncomfortable, get over yourself. If you don’t know what to say or how to bring it up, ask for help. It’s too important to side step.
Love to all of you and your families from the very bottom of by heart.

 

4 Comments

  1. Once again, Kate, somehow you found the time to address one of the most critical issues facing parents- one we faced without anything close to the sound advice you give here. I have no idea who the Duggers are but I hope they follow the principles you cite here. This is impossible to avoid and it is a very real part of parenting especially in the current cultural climate we live. Thank-you for jumping in and bringing light and help for others as you are learning and growing in your own understanding. I am amazed at your ability to be equally vulnerable
    and strong. Love you and your family so much.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this! As Christians we so easily forget to walk in the light when it becomes difficult but our healing and redemption begins by stepping into the light.

  3. Kate, you are an amazing Mom and writer. Your insight really gives courage to parents who want to give their kids a platform for conversation about sex, but don’t nessessarily know how. You just do it. That’s how. On hat note, I have one who is very curious AND loves books. Do you know of any good Christian books that deal well with this subject?

  4. Hello Kate! I liked this topic you wrote about. I have watched the show and I do have to say I have read the interviews. I have to say I am very disappointed in the parents because what I just read on your blog, you hit it right on the head! The parents were very aware of this and they did not do anything about it. They did however say oh yeah we forgave our son a long time ago. No! It still is sad to me that they do not see the big picture of what they are going through. After reading your post, the one thing that caught me was the parenting advice and the point of view you came across. I now see what we need to teach ourselves and our children about when this topic comes across. It is VERY important that we teach ourselves and our children about securing ourselves in this world. This blog really hit me. Thank you!

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