I am a survivor of sexual assault, and this is how I cope while being a parent

Warning: This story discusses sexual assault and sexual abuse. 

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A few weeks ago, my husband was in the kitchen and our child was repeatedly running into him, just like any silly, super-physical 5-year-old does. But after telling him to stop, he (you guessed it) did it again. While this is challenging, it’s normal behavior for a kid his age—but my reaction, however, was anything but normal. Hot anger flooded my body as I picked my kid up and placed him firmly in his room. Seeing him purposefully slam into someone after being told not to, pushed that spot in my brain that screams, “When someone says to leave them alone, you do it!” This part of my brain exists because I’m a sexual assault survivor, and I’m learning how to cope while I parent my son.

The truth is, everyone is different, and triggers can change as quickly as children grow. However, for some moms, the vulnerability of parenting (being responsible for someone else’s well-being) or the physicality of taking care of a child (like co-sleeping or breastfeeding) can trigger old feelings to surface.

One in six women in the U.S. has been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and 86% of women in the U.S. in 2016 have had a child at some point in their lives. That means we have millions of moms in the U.S. who are parenting as sexual assault survivors.

Becoming a mom can quickly bring past traumas to the surface even if women have worked hard to heal from their sexual assault. Joyelle Brandt, co-editor of Parenting with PTSD, says this is a common experience.

“I have done all of the counseling I could access and I was still completely blindsided. There was little to no recognition [during these sessions about how] pregnancy and childbirth could be horribly triggering for a lot of survivors.

While bringing up a child is incredibly hard to do in and of itself, parenting a kid, while navigating sexual assault trauma, is a whole other thing. The good news is, we don’t have to do it alone. Here are four ways I learned how to cope that may help you if you’re wondering how to navigate this difficult situation.

Actively teach your children about bodies and consent without shame.

Teaching your children about consent without shame is something that everyone can and should do with their kids no matter how old they are, whether they’re babies or high schoolers. Of course, you can’t expect a baby to say, “yes, you have permission to change my diaper,” but you can explain what you’re doing as you change the diaper by using anatomically correct words. Using “cutesy” names for body parts can instill a sense of shame and potentially prevent kids from coming forward if they ever experience abuse in the future. Plus, using actual names for our body parts is a great first step in helping kids develop a positive relationship with their bodies.

The Kavanaugh hearings were very difficult for many sexual assault survivors. When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, children were given a terrible message that any sexual assault they might experience won’t matter. This is precisely the opposite of what I want my kid to know. I want him to understand that how he chooses to treat people—whether now and beyond—is important, that his experiences matter, and that consent and mutual desire are the most important things about any sexual interaction.

My child knows about consent—because we’ve made it a point to teach him. He doesn’t have to hug or kiss me, his dad, or extended family. We have ongoing conversations about consent and try our best to model it at home.

"It’s important to start teaching children about consent from a young age to normalize it—we want the word 'no' to become something that children hear and can learn to respect," says sex therapist and clinical director of Allura Sex Therapy Centre, Diana Sadat. "This includes teaching children to ask permission before touching another child and learning that it’s okay to hear the word 'no.' This also includes making sure the child also experiences their own 'no' as a boundary and stopping when a child says it no matter what."

There are so many good resources for kids on the issue of consent, too. The book It’s My Body! What I Say Goes! and the animated videos for kids age 4 to 13 from Amaze are two of my favorites. 

Establish privacy and boundaries with your children.

I didn’t fully understand how physical parenting was going to be, especially in those early years. This amazing and beautiful little creature depends on you for their every need and has a seemingly endless desire for snuggles and milk. Some doctors even call the newborn period the 4th trimester, because while they’re not technically inside your body, they might as well be. Even moms without a history of sexual assault can end up feeling exhausted from being overly touched during those early months. But for some survivors of assault or childhood sexual abuse, breastfeeding can be a major trigger, and, the truth is, they may not be able to do it.

I’ve found it especially important for me to set up private spaces in my home when I need a few minutes to regroup. Honestly, this tip is still a work in progress for my family, but we’re working hard to teach our child that when I say that I need to be left alone in the bathroom for a few minutes that I mean it, and he has to respect my boundaries every time I request it.

"Private spaces are a wonderful idea. We create boundaries around what certain spaces mean, especially if doors are closed. For example, if the bathroom door is closed, it means we can’t walk in unless we ask permission," Sadat says. "Teaching children that there are private spaces for them as well as for us shows them that we hold them and ourselves to the same expectations."

Trust your instincts.

Protecting our children from predators and teaching them about consent and healthy relationships is difficult for any parent. But it can sometimes feel impossible for someone who has experienced a sexual assault. Are you being hypervigilant, overprotective, and paranoid? Do you see trouble everywhere you look because you know far too well that the worst-case scenario is sometimes a reality? When you get a bad feeling about someone or a situation, it’s important to listen to your intuition.

"We should also teach children how to take care of their own bodies. [Talk about] what feels right or wrong, and [have them understand that] they can express [their emotions] and be respected. This includes letting children wash their own genitals (and teaching them how to, of course!) [so they can] learn that when others do it, it’s a boundary-crossing rather than just having many people do this for them. And soon, ding, this will become normal," says Sadat. "This can result in confusion if it comes from the wrong person. This also helps them learn and differentiate between themselves and others, which can create bodily autonomy from a young age."

Know yourself and get the support that you need.

“If you’re aware of your triggers in advance, you can avoid being blindsided and organize support for yourself,” says Brandt. She recommends finding a trauma-informed therapist or a somatic practitioner who can help you identify your patterns and how to cope by putting strategies in place.

“There are a lot of people out there now working very hard to make trauma-informed care the standard but change takes time and a lot of people talking about it, says Brandt.

However, if a trauma-informed therapist doesn’t fit in the cards for you at this time, Sadat says parents should not only become aware of what their own boundaries are, but also communicate about them with loved ones so everyone is on the same page. “[It’s important to] communicate with your partner [or loved one] on how they can best support you during these times, and how they can be there for the child when you may need to take some self-care time,” she says.

Hopefully, if you’re a mom who is a sexual assault survivor, you have a partner or close friend who is able to support you. If you need support now, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE, or find help by live chatting with a volunteer on the RAINN website.

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