You know how when you’re pregnant you start to think that everyone else around you is pregnant because you just notice it more? I feel like now that I’m a parent, I have a new superpower for being hyper aware of every bad thing that could possibly happen to my child.
I see at least two to three stories a week about parents killing their own children. Or a family member or friend killing a child. Sometimes after torturing them. Or sexually abusing them. I won’t go into the details of some of these stories because they are just too horrific. I have historically had a pretty thick skin when reading about these kinds of things — being able to remove myself from them — but I’ve broken down in tears multiple times over the past couple of weeks reading them.
Today, a friend and I went to a workshop designed to train parents and community leaders on how to prevent sexual abuse or how to recognize the signs and to intervene if necessary. The training included watching a video that had many survivors talking about their experiences and how it effected them. These people were abused by their babysitters, their coaches, their family members — even their own fathers. They described how they struggled with giving and receiving love as adults, with self-esteem, with trust, and so much more.
My friend and I left a little overwhelmed. Our questions were the same kinds of questions that most parents would have: What can we do? How can we talk to our children so that this kind of thing never happens to them? How do we, as I put it to my friend, make sure that they don’t have to “learn the lesson the hard way?”
I guess it’s an issue that most parents struggle with. These stories hit home for me because I did have to learn these lessons the hard way. I was sexually abused as a child, and then again as a teenager. I didn’t tell my mother either time. (Though she later found out about the first time.) On top of that, I lived with a drug addicted mother who was physically, emotionally and verbally abusive, and I had an alcoholic father who I never saw.
I understand the “ripple effect” that they talk about with abuse all too well. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life. I have PTSD. I can’t be alone in a house at night without experiencing severe dread and possible panic attacks. Just last night, I had a recurring nightmare that I’ve been having for years.
What’s the point of all this? There isn’t a single day that goes by that I don’t measure my parenting against the experiences I’ve had. I am conscious of every word I say and every move I make. When I yell at my daughter, I hear my mother screaming in my ear. When my daughter throws a tantrum, I hear my mother mocking me, and I reach down and comfort and empathize with my daughter instead. When I am having a huge fight with my husband, I think about the screaming matches I witnessed, and I try to take a step back.
I’m not perfect. I’m not always successful. In fact, I fail often. But I am constantly fighting to make sure that my daughter has the kind of life that she — and every other child — deserves. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. I don’t want her to have to overcome her childhood. I don’t want her to have to piece together a healthy framework through her friends and teachers, the way I did. I don’t want her to ever have to experience things that she feels have to stay hidden.
I know I can’t protect her from everything. I know that bad things can happen no matter how vigilant I am and how much I try to teach her. I can’t be with her every moment, and I can’t make her decisions for her. However, I can give her the kind of life that makes it easier for her to heal when the things that are beyond our control happen. I can make sure that she doesn’t ever have to feel fear when she’s near me. I can make sure that she knows that she always has a safe place. A loving place. A home.
This is why I parent the way I do. I’m not chasing a trend or subscribing to a philosophy. I’m parenting in a way that seems natural because it is focused on love, empathy and respect.
I know far, far too many people who have experienced sexual abuse or were physically abused by their parents. No surprise: A lot of them struggle with issues like depression, anxiety, relationship issues and a whole lot more. Not everyone can overcome those experiences. Think about how many parents were abused who go on to abuse their own children. Think about how many people were abused who go on to become criminals or drug addicts or homeless. Think about what that does for our world.
Want to change that? The way you parent is by far one of the most important things you can do to change the world. Your child will go on to influence thousands of people in his life, including his own family, all of whom will go on to spread that influence. What kind of influence do you want to have?