I squared off with a healthcare provider, yesterday.
One of our foster kiddos, Alpha, had a medical appointment which involved needles, and a measurable amount of pain and discomfort.
Was the procedure necessary? Yes.
What was not necessary was the words of the provider, immediately afterward.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked.
Alpha didn’t say anything.
“Did you have fun?”
Alpha, looking uncomfortable, didn’t respond. The appointment involved needles, and tears. I feel secure in telling you Alpha did NOT have fun during his appointment.
I stepped in for him.
“Alpha, you don’t have to say it was fun, if it wasn’t. It’s okay.”
“Awwww… you’ll hurt my feelings!” said the provider, in a mock whine.
At that point, my blood boiled, and I didn’t hold back.
“Alpha… You are not responsible for the feelings of adults being hurt. Adults can handle their own feelings.” I gently put my hand on his shoulder, and guided him toward the exit.
The provider was taken aback, and quickly dismissed us.
Here’s the thing…
I’m sure the provider didn’t consider his words before he said them. I’m sure he’s a great human being. In fact, most of our other interactions with him have been awesome (he sees several of our children).
BUT… words like his can hurt our children.
When children learn they have to please adults (“Say you had fun”), in spite of what their own feelings and bodies tell them (it wasn’t fun, and it hurt), it teaches kids that pleasing adults is more important than feeling safe.
When children learn they are responsible for the feelings of adults (“You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t ________”), it teaches kids they must comply with what an adult tells them to do, even if it doesn’t feel good or safe.
This lesson is especially critical when we put it in terms of childhood sexual abuse.
Telling a child, “Hug your (adult relative), or you’ll hurt (their) feelings,” teaches that child that the adult’s feelings are more important than the child’s comfort. Further, it teaches the child that the child has an obligation to do what the adult wants, to preserve the feelings of the adult.
I know a childhood sexual abuse victim who was forced — as a child — to apologize to her abuser, by her mother, for saying she didn’t like how the abuser touched her when her mother wasn’t around. Because it upset the abuser.
When I was raped at 14 years old, an adult made clear to me that whatever I did, I couldn’t tell my dad, lest his emotions get out of control, and he do something regrettable. At 14, I was tasked with keeping my dad’s emotions in check.
Children are not responsible for — nor should they be saddled with feeling responsible for — the feelings of adults, and when we let language like this go, without correcting it, we are setting our children up to be perfect targets for abuse.
Children should not be pressured or compelled to be “polite” about their experiences, when those experiences cause them pain or discomfort. To allow other adults to suggest otherwise, without correcting it, sets our children up to be targets for abuse.
A friend recently shared her story, about how she finally told her mother about the mother’s boyfriend sexually abusing her (my friend). The day after the disclosure, the boyfriend was angrily stomping around the house.
My friend said, “I wish he wasn’t so angry all the time.”
Her mother responded with, “Well, you know what you need to do (to make him not so angry),” suggesting my friend offer herself up as a sacrifice to soothe the emotions of the angry boyfriend.
Perhaps this is an extreme example. I know it was certainly outrageous, and heartbreaking, for me to hear.
However, people don’t need to implicitly instruct children to submit to sexual abuse in order to groom them for it, through language.
Words that tell children they are not in control of their bodies groom them.
“Give your auntie a kiss.”
“Your grandpa wants a hug. Go hug him.”
Words that tell children they must state they are comfortable and enjoying themselves — when they are not — groom them.
“Tell your uncle how much fun you had on his boat (even though you were terrified the entire time).”
“Your cousin wasn’t hurting you… he was just tickling you, and playing (even though you repeatedly told him to stop, and started crying and trying to get away when he wouldn’t).”
Words that tell children they are responsible for an adult’s feelings — and that children have a duty to protect those feelings — groom them.
“Mommy is going to be really sad if you don’t kiss her goodbye.”
“It’s going to hurt Daddy’s feelings if you don’t go fishing with him.”
It’s not enough to avoid using this language, ourselves. We need to also correct it when other adults use it, and expose our children to it.