I thought I had AIDS.
I thought I was going to die.
That’s why I told my dad about the abuse. That’s why I crawled out of bed late one evening, approached him as he was paying bills with a check-book in the kitchen, and spilled my guts.
I told him I had done terrible things. I told him I was a horrible sinner. I told him I wasn’t a virgin.
It was the late ’80s, and all I knew was that people who did bad things got AIDS. I had done bad things, therefore, I had AIDS and was going to die.
Perhaps that sounds ludicrous, but that’s how my kid-brain interpreted the data, and that’s why I told my dad.
What my dad did next is what he should have done. It’s what any parent should do when a child says they’ve been abused. It’s what any church leader should do when someone says they’ve been abused. But terribly, it’s not what many parents and leaders actually do.
He believed me.
That’s it. That’s the main thing: Believe your child.
“Innocent until proven guilty”
As an attorney, I’m tremendously thankful for our legal system. It’s got issues, for sure, but the general principal that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty is absolute bedrock. It’s vital to the just operation of a courtroom.
But we’re not talking about courtrooms.
We’re talking about living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens. And in those places, you should always, always, always start off believing your child. Or friend. Or parishioner.
Somehow we’ve got this false idea that false accusations are the norm. They are not. Allegations that turn out to be fabricated do happen, and we should be aware of the possibility, but our default should be to believe the person who’s talking about being abused.
Because sexual abuse is far more common than made-up stories about sexual abuse.
Now, believing the child in front of you does not mean you automatically believe the accused is guilty. I’m not saying you jump to conclusions and throw the accused under the bus. I’m just saying that you have to start off listening and hearing and giving space to the person in front of you. Start off believing.
Know that it’s often unbelievable.
Sexual abuse often happens in the context of a known relationship. You and the child will likely know the abuser, and that is typical. For me, it was a neighbor, and the majority of the abuse happened in my house.
You will probably know the abuser. You might even be related to the abuser, and again, that’s what will make the allegation so unbelievable.
If your child tells you about being abused, it will certainly be something you don’t want to hear about, and the thing is, it will likely involve someone you don’t want to think about. But listen to me, please. Don’t rush to defend the accused. Rush to hear the child.
I’ve heard enough stories from teenagers and clients and patients to say, with all the fire in my bones: If your child tells you about being sexually abused by someone you don’t want to think could do it, BELIEVE YOUR CHILD.
My dad believed me. He told me I wasn’t going to die. He told me I hadn’t done anything wrong. He hugged me.
And honestly, I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know if they talked to the neighbors. I know I didn’t see that neighbor anymore. I wish I could ask my parents what that was like. What did they think? What did they feel? Unfortunately, that conversation will never happen; both of my parents died many years ago.
I don’t remember many of the facts. But I do remember the feelings.
I felt loved.
I felt heard.
I felt protected.
I felt valued.
I did not feel silenced.
My dad was not incredulous or doubtful or skeptical. He started off believing me, and he kept on believing me.
He hugged me.
And that’s exactly what I needed.