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childhood depression

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When Sexual Abuse Returns

There are some articles that are easy to write and there are some articles that are easy to read. This, however, is not one of those articles. Chances are, if you’ve clicked on this post upon reading the title, you or someone you love has endured sexual abuse in some way, at some time. This is not the kind of topic that gets a million likes or shares, because the nature of it is so personal – so mortifying in its nature.

And yet, 1 in 4 children are sexually abused before they reach adulthood. Beyond that, every child is exposed to sexual content or contact with another child that has been abused. So when there is a controversial subject that affects every single one of our children, I would be doing a great disservice to you if I chose to take a more “comfortable” approach with my writing.

So, today I choose discomfort. Today, I am also choosing self-disclosure, as much of this topic has affected me, and my family, very personally. But if we’re being honest, it has probably affected you as well. And because of you, I am willing to go to the hard places today.

Shame

            When a child is sexually abused there are numerous feelings that may be attached to that child when he or she thinks of their trauma. Fear. Anger. Guilt. Hatred. Confusion. But the greatest feeling a child who has been sexually abused takes with them for years to come is the feeling of Shame.

            Why, you might ask, would shame be the most significant emotion associated with this form of abuse, especially once the child has been told that it wasn’t their fault?

            The answer may not be something you’re comfortable hearing, but it’s something that you need to know. Whether a child was abused one time or one thousand times, what was done to them wasn’t their fault. That child may even be able to wrap their head around that concept once they’re old enough… but the effects of that abuse are on-going. Behaviors like chronic masturbation, looking at pornography, perpetration, voyeurism, flashing or indecent exposure, engaging in sexual acts at a young age, questioning their sexuality, fecal smearing, problems urinating, bedwetting, seductive play with dolls/stuffed animals/or while playing “house” or “doctor”, self-harm, eating disorders, trouble sleeping, depression….

            Do any of these behaviors have a positive connotation with them? No. Not one. Often times, when we raise a child that experiences these behaviors, we talk to them about what actions are deemed “inappropriate” or “wrong”. And yet, the abused child continues to feel the urge to do these inappropriate and wrong things. The compulsion is so strong that it cannot be helped. So, our children are then given consequences for their “defiance”. Moreover, it then becomes reinforced with the child that their current behavior is more important than their past abuse.

            They may realize that they were not responsible for their initial trauma, yes. But they do feel the full weight of Shame over the obsessions, curiosity, and impulsive actions they experience daily since they were abused. They feel the shame of being considered “inappropriate”, “wrong”, and “defiant”. They question what is wrong with them and take on the full blame of their behaviors – behaviors that would not have been there had someone not violated their little bodies in the first place.

            I have two children that my husband and I fostered and then adopted. We were given very little information about their pasts when they came to live with us, and as time has gone by, they've been able to share more and more glimpses into their old lives – depicting horrible atrocities that would break your heart into a million pieces. And often times, their behaviors are a direct response to the pasts they were dealt.

            And yet I, not having been fostered or adopted, growing up in a safe home, still found myself on the receiving end of abuse from someone outside of my family. I know the feeling of Shame very well, and I can recognize it when I look into my children’s eyes. And even still, I have given out consequences. I have yelled. I have caused further shame by letting my own reactions get the better of me.

            Do you wonder why your child will take a lie to their grave? The answer is once again, Shame. It feels better to lie and not admit to behaviors that you’re ashamed of, to forget that the past ever happened and to refuse acknowledgment that the sexual abuse has, in a sense, returned through your actions.

            And what’s worse is that our culture reinforces sexual trauma on a daily basis. There are countless commercials, television shows, movies, internet clips, radio stations, magazines, posters, bill boards, and everyday people on the streets that promote the body as a sexual image. For 1 in 4 children, those are daily triggers that violate them over and over again as they face the fact that their bodies are nothing more than objects used to gratify someone else’s desires. For 1 in 4 children, these triggers are reminders of their learned powerlessness over their bodies, over sex, and over the ability to say “No”.

            In a society where we spend more time promoting political correctness that we are willing to expose our traumatized children to cities where it’s become legal to walk around topless, to dressing rooms used for males/females/or whatever gender one identifies with, to ads in search engines popping up to display the latest reality star’s see-through outfit….  We, as a culture, have not only allowed our children, our sisters, our wives, our mothers, and our girlfriends to feel powerless, but we’ve reinforced that the shame they’ve held onto means nothing to the world as a whole.

Where Do We Go From Here

            Perhaps you’re wondering where to start… where do we go from here? If you have a child or a loved one that has experienced sexual abuse, you are dealing with a fragile creature that will do whatever it takes to protect their secrets. And yet, you may also be dealing with someone who has become promiscuous or overly open about their past. What better way to take their shame and turn it into something that is now considered their “choice”, right?

            But either way, the hearts of these individuals are being held together by a string of lies, memories, and lack of power.  And what we need to do, what we have to do, is to love them in whatever form they come to us.

            My children were diagnosed with RAD – Reactive Attachment Disorder. It’s a difficult diagnosis that often overshadows other the abuse that they had to endure prior to coming to our home. It’s often easy to treat their behaviors under the guise of their diagnosis instead of the in light of their abuse. So, these are some things that you can do:

1)      Get your child into a therapist's office as soon as you can. Find a specialist that works with traumatized/abused children, and make sure you choose a therapist that your child feels comfortable with. (For example, your child may gravitate towards a male therapist if a man abused him or her… your child may also greatly fear a male therapist due abuse from a man. Each child is different and you need to make sure your child is comfortable. Even if that means you go into sessions with your child until the fear is gone.)

 

2)      Work to reverse the sense of Shame. Remind your child that their abuse was not their fault and that there is a reason for the feelings and impulses they still face to this day. We don’t use abuse as an excuse to engage in these actions, but we begin to remove the feeling of shame by acknowledging the role of the abuse in these behaviors.

 

3)      Teach boundaries. If your child or loved one is expected to interact with the people around them, then enforcing positive boundaries is a must. Passing on “bad touch” is too often considered normal childhood behavior. But in reality, it is something that then transfers shame onto another child. And that is not something that we should accept as part of a normal childhood. Teach, Review, and Practice safe boundaries. Remind your child that they can say “No” to anything that makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Be an example of modesty and take an active stand against people, places, or groups that threaten the boundaries of your children.

 

4)      Remove sexual stigma. If your child has learned from an early age that their body is sexual, that may be the only way that they see themselves – the only purpose they see in their lives. Remind them that their bodies were created beautifully and perfectly. That there is a function for their bodies that goes far beyond sexual acts. That their purpose is internal and not external, and that they are judged not on their appearances, but how they treat others with love and respect.

 

5)      Empower. And most of all, remind your child that they have power. This may be a feeling that is so foreign to them that it is terrifying. Discuss dangerous situations, prepare them for unwanted advances, safeguard them against temptations. Because the safer they feel at home and in their everyday lives, the easier it will be for them to find the strength to say “No”, to run, or to tell someone their broken secrets – the easier it will be for them to heal.

 

If this article has impacted you in any way, please know that you are not alone in your struggle. You are not alone in your Shame. There is restoration and hope in Truth. There is love and acceptance to be found.

Isaiah 61:1-7 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair... Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance.

Picture by Chirag Rathod

Picture by Chirag Rathod


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When 9-Year-Olds Get Depressed

     Women, have you ever tried to talk to a man about his “feelings”? Fun, isn't it? And Men, have you ever actually wanted to talk about your feelings?? Probably not! It goes against all that you are and everything that you stand for in today's culture. Men are told from an early age that they're supposed to be tough – no whining, no crying, no feeling. And if you DO happen to feel something, it better come out as anger, right? Because that's the socially acceptable way for a man to express an internal need. (Hey, I don't make the rules, here. I'm just a social observer!)

     And Parents, have you ever tried to talk to your young children about their feelings? Yeah. And how did that go? I'm guessing you probably got a lot of “happy/mad/sad” answers, or even a shrug with a mumbled “I dunno”. Am I right? That's because kids have no idea what they're talking about most of the time. They don't know how to attribute a name to an emotion because deeper feelings than happy, mad, and sad are foreign to them. It's like trying to identify the color purple when your entire life has been colorblind.

     Now, put the two together and try to talk to a young boy about his feelings. Not only does he not WANT to, but he has no idea HOW to! As a therapist, I know this. Yet as a mother of quite dramatic and emotional kids, it's hard to know when they're having a RAD day, a day filled with traumatic memories from their previous life, or simply a day where they're sick/tired/cranky (aka NORMAL!).

     This past week was quite trying for our family, particularly our oldest. He's 9-years-old and comes from a past of abuse, neglect, drugs, and a bucketful of unsavory crap that shall remain his to tell someday, if he should ever choose. When he came to us at 6-years-old, he was diagnosed with RAD (https://mommyhood-shivonne-costa.squarespace.com/the-blog/2015/6/26/my-kids-have-rad) and a few other milder disorders. And some days, I only see RAD – everywhere I look, between him and his sister, THERE IT IS! But we also have days (weeks, even) where all seems normal and I forget that there is this deep emotional need that rises up within him… something that he just can't put words to yet. Something that he may not even want to put words to because, let's face it, focusing on yucky feelings just plain sucks.

     Because of so many ups and downs that both my older ones face, I sometimes neglect to see what is right in front of my nose. And this week, it was the obvious fact that my 9-year-old son is depressed, but I completely missed it. Perhaps you have a child that, too, struggles with moods. Maybe your child takes medicine, sees a counselor, or you're suspecting that he or she needs to. Here are a few signs that I overlooked and passed off as symptoms of other things… signs that you may see in your child.

  • Sleeping more – He's usually the last one up in our house as it is, but even when we started moving his bedtime earlier in preparation for school starting, he was still sleeping just as late. I assumed he was tired from the sudden heat wave and working outside in the yard for hours at a time.
  • Some days eating a ton and other days, not much of an appetite at all – This is unusual only in the sense that he normally has a huge appetite EVERY day. For him to turn down extra food… well, that should've tipped me off!
  • Crying spontaneously but not wanting to talk about it – I feel badly that I didn't read more into this sign. But like I said, RAD days and past memories days are often filled with tears as well, so it's not always as it appears.
  • Not able to find joy in anything and constantly asking for more and more (time, things, attention) – Sadly, I thought he was just being ungrateful. He often gets a sense of entitlement and he expresses his desire for more in rather frustrating ways (aka, “If you would just make more money, you could buy me more toys so I wouldn't be bored and sad!”) Yeah… that one just ticked me off and I didn't recognize it for what it was - an inability to communicate that he was feeling depressed, not because he doesn't like his current toys, but because there is no joy to be felt in anything at the moment for him.
  • Affectionate one moment and aloof the next – Isn't this just boys, though? I don't know. He's not a real lovey-dovey kid and I usually don't push it as not to make him feel uncomfortable. But he was very up and down with it this week, even for him.

  • Argumentative and irritable – Again, I attributed this to the fact that school is starting up again in a few days and this, for many kids, is no-good very bad news.

         It wasn't until my kid started writing goodbye letters to our family that I realized. The tears… the arguing… the “boredom”. He wasn't cranky or tired or nervous about school. He's depressed. He's in despair and has no idea how to tell me what this terrible feeling is inside of him. It wasn't bad behavior or ungrateful words that he was trying to share. It was just the only way he knew to show me that something is very, very wrong inside. (So glad I paid all that money for my MSW, right??) He was literally screaming for me to WAKE UP and see his need, for me to look past the diagnoses and the medicines and the end-of-summer blues. So he took it to the only place his mind could fathom next.

     If you find yourself in a similar situation with your kids, or even children that you're with regularly through your job or your family, I hope that you are able to look at a child's behavior with wisdom and insight – to see it for what it truly is, not just for what it appears to be.

     Not everything is for attention… but even if it is, if they're willing to go that far for your attention, doesn't that say something? Some kids have a need that is sooo great that they can't find the words to tell you. But they will show you. If you're watching.

     As school gets ready to start, pay extra attention to the changes in behavior, routine, stress levels. Kids can't tell you when they've “had it up to here!” or that they “need some time away to unwind and regroup”. Nope. Kids will tantrum and cry and dump out all your shower supplies while grandma is babysitting.

     It's up to us to pay attention and help them learn the words they need to express all those crazy new feelings they're encountering. A bad day is a bad day. And may be a bad week is a bad week. But just in case, be attentive, Moms and Dads. Your child doesn't know it yet, but one day they will thank you!

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