Protecting Children From Lies – Part 2February 4, 2011
Emotions often hold power over our beliefs; especially pain, anger and grief. This explains why children don’t voice their most deeply held lies – they do not want to reveal what they’re feeling.
Let me give an example. Margaret was eight years old when she experienced something a child should never go through. I won’t reveal the details of the molestation, but it was heinous and involved a man known to the family. He was a good friend of her father’s. She felt unclean, unloved and abandoned throughout the period of that ordeal. Her mother was not stupid; she could tell her daughter was hiding something. She had regressed in personal hygiene. She didn’t want to leave the house alone ever. But she wouldn’t tell her mom what happened, even when her mother begged. The man who hurt her was a member of law enforcement and convinced her no one would believe a story told by a little girl.
As a result, she began believing a debilitating lie: “My word doesn’t count for anything. I will never be important to anyone else“.
That belief spawned three interesting emotions. First, she had a sense of despair. It was like a courtroom sentence. She could not overcome this belief that no matter what she accomplished in life, no one would view her as significant. The second emotion was pain. The molestation had caused physical pain and every time she remembered it, the pain felt fresh in her mind. The third emotion was disgust. She felt unclean and hated her own body because of it. Think of those three emotions: Despair, pain and disgust. How can a child adequately express those things?
Children also fear being punished if they express their feelings. Even though as parents we tell kids they can talk to us about anything, we are uncomfortable about excessive displays of emotion. During the years of emotional development (ages 1-5), children learn that they are not supposed to be ruled by their emotions. However, they often go too far and keep everything they’re feeling bottled inside. This is what Margaret did. She assumed if she revealed her disgust or despair Mom would tell her to “stop being a gloomy gussy and look on the bright side”. Margaret remembered this phrase 40 years later when we were dealing with her pain.
What can a parent do? With our kids, we taught them this: You are allowed to tell us anything you’re feeling. You won’t be in trouble. You’re not allowed to do anything you want with that feeling, but you can talk to us about it. Even if the kids were mad at me, they had a right to be angry. They didn’t have a right to hit their little sister if they were angry, but they were allowed to feel and express what they felt.
Often you will have to repeat this many times before a child will believe you. Also, a father and mother will have to examine if they are modeling this for the kids in their interactions with each other. A father who invalidates his wife’s emotions sends a confusing message.
One way of approaching a child in obvious emotional pain is to tell them a personal story. Relate something from your own life that caused you pain inside. (Make sure it is appropriate for their age). After telling the story, ask them if they can understand what that feels like. Don’t expect they will immediately blurt out everything they’re feeling, however. Children have to process things before they believe it is safe to proceed. It may be later in the day when they reveal inner feelings.
When they do reveal what they are feeling, it is okay to ask them why they feel this way. Keep asking questions until core beliefs start to come out. Margaret would have loved to tell her mother “I feel dirty all the time and I hate my body”, but no one ever asked. When I counsel young girls and boys who have been abused, I tell them I understand the pain they feel. Then I challenge some of their conclusions. I allow them to believe what they want, but I do challenge the foundation of that belief. For a girl like Margaret, I might ask, “Why do you think this was your fault“. She might say, “because I didn’t scream while it happened“. I would say, “do you always scream when you’re in trouble?” Then we can talk about how sometimes when we are afraid, the sound won’t come out. After that, we could talk about who might be most to blame in the situation.
With children, you cannot force them to believe or feel. You can only lead them away from dangerous waters.