Nearly two years ago, I wrote an article titled “Speak It” that garnered significant attention. This is a follow-up post providing parents with concrete steps for preventing, recognizing and responding to abuse. These recommendations apply to any family raising children in this broken world. But with MKs (missionaries’ kids), the added pressure they feel to shield their parents, protect their image and preserve the important work in which their family is engaged can inhibit reporting and exacerbate the trauma.
Abuse is rampant in modern society. One in three women and one in six men in North America will suffer its trauma at some point in their lives and a majority of them will not report it. For various reasons, the children of missionaries (MKs) are even less likely to reveal the offenses, though they occur more often than we’d like to admit. The forms and methods of abuse might be slightly different now than they were in the past, but children growing up in ministry today are just as vulnerable to sexual harm as their predecessors were—I’ve heard too many of their stories firsthand to doubt that reality. As a community, we must get better at recognizing, preventing and responding to abuse.
What can parents do? I’ve made a few suggestions below. If you have more of your own, please use the comments section at the bottom of this post to share them.
…and that bad things (horrible, unspeakable bad things) even happen to children whose parents serve God. We’ve anesthetized our caution with unfounded statements like “The safest place is the center of God’s will.”
The illusion of safety is a dangerous thing.
If you bury your head in the sand, you’re burying your child’s too, and the consequences could be tragic. Open your children’s eyes to danger in an age-appropriate way and broaden their understanding as their awareness increases.
The saying holds true: forewarned is forearmed. Teach your children that caution is good, that instincts are valuable and that some people, even “nice” ones, can be bad.
2. Foster honest communication on all topics
It’s hard to speak of sexual abuse if you don’t have safe, familiar words to use for reproductive organs and improper behavior. Broaden your family’s vocabulary to include clear names for body parts and talk about the kind of touching that is never okay.
Give children the words that will allow them to report back to you if ever the need arises, as well as permission to speak of sexual matters.
And make it clear that you will always—always—want to know if someone (friend or stranger) has done or said anything questionable. Even if it just might have been inappropriate, make sure your children know that you want to hear about that too and that you will not blame them for what they reveal.
3. Prove to your children that they matter the most
MKs will sacrifice themselves to ensure that their parents’ ministry isn’t harmed, because they’re convinced that their own welfare is less important than the work in which their parents are involved.
One adult MK recently wrote this to me: “I think [MKs] are desperate to please their parents, and are given a profoundly heavy dose of spiritual guilt as to how they must be good so their parents can work uninterrupted.” If that unspoken message keeps a child from seeking help at the first hint of abuse, the consequences can be (and have been) devastating.
Your children need to grow up with the firm conviction that they are more important to you than your ministry, your obligations and your deadlines.
Practice conscious conversation, the kind of focused interaction in which they see you laying aside preoccupations in order to concentrate solely on them. If they see you gladly interrupting your work in order to spend time with them, they’ll be more likely to interrupt it again if they have something important to report.
A loving, nurturing, trusting and sacrificial relationship with your children is the most potent instrument you can give them as they navigate life in a dangerous world. Let your family be the fortress in which they find safety and understanding.
4. Ask the tough, uncomfortable questions regularly
Particularly in cultures where inappropriate behavior is common, MKs might not even think of reporting back, because what happened to them is considered “normal” where they live. I can think of several instances in my own life when I shrugged something off because my friends laughed about it or because I knew it was such a banal occurrence that it didn’t warrant a second thought…but it left an imprint on me.
Observe your children, trust your instincts, and even when you don’t see anything suspicious, still ask questions on a regular basis.
Checking in with your kids intentionally and frequently further reinforces in their minds that abuse can happen and that you want to know about it when it does. It also reminds them of how much you care.
(Don’t forget to include verbal and emotional abuse in the questions you ask too. They’re sadly common in some foreign educational systems.)
5. Believe them
When your children bring something suspicious to your attention, do not use phrases that make it sound like you’re doubting them. “Are you really sure?” or “He probably didn’t mean it that way.” Nothing will shut down a victim of abuse faster than being doubted.
If you’ve never been submitted to the multi-faceted trauma of this kind of thing, you can’t possibly understand the courage it takes to report it.
One word of doubt—even a dubious facial expression—can cause the victim to shut up and never speak of it again.
Instead, gently ask questions. Gather as many details as he/she is willing to reveal about what happened. Many times, the “purging” that accompanies an initial revelation will be the most complete story that victim offers, as if a dam has burst and the speaker can’t stem the retelling.
Later on, the victim might be much more guarded in the revelations he/she makes, at least for a while. So make of that first conversation a validating, supportive, inquisitive, non-judgmental interaction in which important details about the allegations can be expressed. Make sure you give the child the time, the affirmation and the freedom to say everything he/she wants to say in that moment.
Eventually, the victim will need to see your anger and grief as you all process the trauma together. That’s an essential part of the healing process, one that validates the child’s right to feel violated and victimized. But in that initial conversation, though you must be genuine in your response, make sure your own emotions don’t hinder your child’s ability to fully disclose what needs to be “unpacked.”
6. Be willing to sacrifice your world to save your children
There are several instances I’ve witnessed in which parents knew that something horrible had happened, but refused to go public with it because it might make things “complicated”—damage their ministry, harm important relationships, be misunderstood by supporting churches, require that they stop serving God to care for their injured family member. Atrocious considerations, I know, but sadly not uncommon.
Report abuse to those who can do something about it, and if they don’t, move up the chain of authority until someone does.
Enlist others you trust to help you and advocate for you. Comfort your children. Validate their pain. Move them to safety. Get them the help they need. And show them that they are important enough to God that He will not let you rest in your pursuit of justice, whatever inconveniences and losses it may demand.
Being silent doesn’t make the reality, the pain or the consequences of abuse go away. It allows them to fester and to become more devastating over time. It also allows the perpetrator to harm and harm again, making you complicit by inaction in his or her future crimes.
7. Look behind your own closed doors
I’ve seen well-intentioned missionary mothers and fathers causing irreparable harm to their children. I’ve seen the other spouse turn a blind eye to it or excuse it with lame murmurs of “He’s under a lot of stress” or “Give her some time–it’ll get better.”
I’ve seen wives doing nothing when their husbands have seared their children with their anger. I’ve seen husbands simply spending more time at the office or on the road when their wives made their family a toxic environment.
If your child is being harmed at home in any way, admit it, seek counsel, then be proactive. Be courageous enough to acknowledge your own failures, to risk being misunderstood, to make impossible decisions, to accept that private wounds be made public, and to sacrifice life-as-you-know-it for the safety and welfare of the children God gave you.
8. Seek help
The repercussions of child abuse are never a do-it-yourself project.
If lasting and complete healing is to be reached, the involvement of a person trained in counseling victims of abuse and their families is absolutely essential.
If the first person you see isn’t a great fit, try another. Be relentless in your family’s pursuit of wholeness. Child abuse is a crime that can hobble generations in myriad ways. Let nothing come between your child and healing.
A loving word for the MK who is being abused:
My own history of abuse prompted me to write this related article for people who have suffered as I have. I urge you to reveal what you’re going through to someone who will hear you. Whether it’s a stranger, a respected member of your community or your own parent hurting you, do not let a false sense of loyalty or a very real fear of repercussions silence you.
If you can, surround yourself with one or two people who will stand with you. If speaking is hard, write it down, then hand that paper to someone in power. Whether it’s a family friend or your own mom or dad harming you, what they’re doing is wrong and needs to be exposed. I hope you can find the (huge) courage it takes to say the hard words a soon as you can. Sooner than I did. Sadly—and I hate that this is true—it sometimes takes repeated attempts before a victim is truly heard. So speak and speak again until somebody acts. Exposure and justice bring a kind of healing little else can…so speak. And believe that people like me stand with you.
(Please contact me if you’re struggling from unspoken abuse and I’ll do all I can to help you bring it to light.)
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