How many opportunities to listen to kids are missed because grown-ups have so much on our minds? I’ll be the first to admit that as a parent, I was often distracted and inattentive when my child was talking. I’ll own up to being dismissive and assuming that their chatter was not as important as the tasks at hand. I know better now. You might describe my job as a forensic interviewer as “talking to kids,” but when I introduce myself to a child I prefer to explain that it was my job to listen. Is listening to kids part of your job too?
As parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators, childcare providers you are truly the first responders to a child’s outcry. When a child has worked up the nerve to trust you with their most intimate fears, your response sets the tone, or trajectory, from then on...throughout the entire investigation and the child's future. Are you ready? Chances are you are not.
Would you be surprised to learn that a child can be more emotionally traumatized by being not believed than by what the offender did to them? It takes a lot of guts for kids to open up to a grown-up that another person has hurt them. Many things get in the way: fear of being embarrassed, fear of being blamed, fear of being punished, and even fear of causing harm to the offender who is most likely someone they care about.
Research on adverse childhood experiences tell us that child abuse can inflict lifelong damage if the adults who are supposed to come to a child’s aid don’t step in. You don’t want to hear the words coming from a child that he or she has been touched inappropriately. Your first reaction, at a gut level, is to think and say “no!” or “that didn't happen,” or “surely you misunderstood,” or worse... “you're lying!” Those words have the power to crush a child's spirit and chances of recovery...even though that is not your intent. Will you offer uplifting support, or trigger a downward spiral that confirms the child’s fears?
You must be ready to listen to the child’s message. Even with doubts racing through your mind, you can say "I'm sorry that happened to you,” “I'm glad you were brave enough to tell me,” or “I'm here for you." Even without knowing all the facts, you respond in a way that puts the needs of the child first! Thankfully, it's not your job to determine what did or didn’t happen. That duty goes to the “next” first responders, trained law enforcement officers working alongside trained child protection workers who gather the evidence and determine if a crime occurred.
If you take the easy route and dismiss the child’s outcry, and fail to report it to the authorities as required by state law, you have left that child in the lurch...in harm’s way. And you have left many other children in danger as well since statistically there are four other children harmed for every one of them that tells. Have you ever considered, before reading this, that listening gives you the power to help a victim of child abuse along the path to healing and provide safety to many others as well? That's where the Dearing House slogan of hearing helping healing comes from. The importance of hearing the child's words allows us to help him or her and the family on the path to healing. But without your support as the first adult they trusted, they may never get that chance. Who’s listening now?