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How to Respond When the Topic of “Childhood Sexual Abuse” Becomes a Conversation Stopper

“What do you do for a living?” or “What do you do?” One of these questions is often asked when people are first getting acquainted. My answer to that question is, “Among the things I do, my wife and I lead a ministry that helps husbands and wives rebuild their marriage that has been affected by a wife’s childhood sexual abuse.” But before I give my answer, I often say, “I’m glad to answer your question, but it tends to be a conversation stopper.”

In my previous blog – Here’s What Many People Say When They Hear the Words ‘Childhood Sexual Abuse’ – I identified how the topic of childhood sexual abuse is often a conversation stopper. We identified four types of response to the topic.

Oooooooooh
Hmmmmmm
Awwwwwww
Whoa

Here are three perspectives I’ve adopted to help me respond with grace and resilience when conversations about childhood sexual abuse become awkward or halted.

  1. Realize the individual and communal shame that childhood sexual abuse causes.

Every survivor of childhood sexual abuse has their unique story. And each survivor works through their own set of effects from that abuse. But of the various effects that can occur, shame is a common effect among survivors. Though a survivor knows that something bad was done to them, they unfortunately contend with the damning thought that they are bad. In the survivor’s mind, why else would the abuse have happened; they must be bad. The survivor’s question is, “Was I not worth enough for anyone to notice what was going on?”

When there is shame, people hide. They might hide indoors, or hide their face by looking down, or avoid eye contact by looking away. That’s what shame does. It disconnects a person from themselves and others.

I believe childhood sexual abuse brings shame not only on the individual survivor but also on the community. Therefore, people’s inability to engage in an ongoing conversation – after childhood sexual abuse is mentioned – is because of shame.

As a society, it is shameful for us to accept the fact that childhood sexual abuse is as prevalent as it is – at least one-in-four women are sexually abused before they reach the age of 18. If we admit it, we then have to consider “what’s wrong with us?”

People want to turn away or change the subject, because the shame covers us.

  1. Don’t take the awkwardness in the conversation personally.

I stated in my previous blog that when a person verbally or nonverbally communicates, “I don’t want to hear anymore,” it can feel like, “I don’t want to hear you anymore.” If and when you are the recipient of that response, do not equate their feelings towards the topic with their feelings towards you.

Though you or your wife was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, it is not healthy for you or your wife to be defined by that abuse. If a person chooses not to engage with you on the topic of your abuse, you can choose to do any of the following:

  • Connect with them on a level where they feel safe. Ask them a question about themselves.
  • Connect with someone with whom you feel safe. You need to have a safe connection. It can be with a counselor or an empathetic friend.
  • Guard against making any judgments about the individual who chooses not to hear about your abuse. All of us have some topics that make us feel uncomfortable. Extend grace and understanding.

The third perspective on offering a gracious response is for all readers and especially those who are not survivors and are not immediately related to a survivor. Here is what you want to remember when you hear of someone’s childhood sexual abuse.

  1. Validation extends more care and comfort than you can imagine.

Last night, Pamela and I were watching the CBS Evening News report of the State of Pennsylvania’s investigation of allegations of sexual abuse of children by 71 priests in six Catholic Dioceses. The Grand Jury will be issuing its report soon. While the numbers caught my attention, it was the account of Sharon Tell that gripped me. Sharon represents too many survivors who have not been listened to – or worse yet, believed – for too long. When someone does listen and believe, it means everything. Please watch the 2½ minute video and hear it from Sharon herself. Click Here.

We can be part of a survivor’s healing when we take time to listen and believe. Our listening and believing validates that a tragedy has occurred, and trauma has been incurred.

Leave the counseling to a counselor. Leave the simple answers out of the communication; there are no simple answers. And if a survivor shares their story, keep that story between you and the survivor.

By the way, the occurrence of childhood sexual abuse is not limited to the Roman Catholic Dioceses. Sadly, it occurs across denominations, churches, schools, and faith organizations. It is shameful!


For more information on Sharon Tell, go to https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/allentown/index.ssf/2009/05/sharon_tell_diocese_of_allento.html

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