When children reach out about something serious, be mindful of how difficult it is for them to come to us.
After seven days of statements and testimony from more than 150 sexual abuse survivors, Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for the U.S. gymnastics team, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. Here is what we learned from the women’s testimony: Many of the accusers were minors, as young as 6 years old, at the time of the assaults. Most of the women were gymnasts but they also included dancers, rowers and runners. Some of those who shared their experiences are well-known and medal-winning Olympians, such as Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. All told, their stories reflect a pattern of abuse that took place for decades.
One of the striking themes of their collective testimony is that when some of the women—many of whom were girls at the time—told adults in their lives (e.g. parents and coaches) the adults were hesitant to believe the girls and as a result, didn’t do anything to address the reported abuse.
Further, the U.S.A. Gymnastics Team and Michigan State University, where Nassar was employed, did not report their concerns.
“Over those 30 years when survivors came forward, adult after adult, many in positions of authority, protected you, telling each survivor it was okay, that you weren’t abusing them. In fact, many adults had you convince the survivors that they were being dramatic or had been mistaken.” - Aly Raisman
“I reported it. Michigan State University, the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure.” - Amanda Thomashow
Beyond the devastating impact of the abuse on these young people, including a range of psychological effects like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), family issues, anxiety, depression, intimacy issues, body image issues, shame, guilt and suicidal thoughts, what can we learn from the courageous testimony we heard from the survivors?
What we can learn from this disturbing, long pattern is that adults must listen to children and take them seriously. When children come to us, share their experiences and reach out about something serious (e.g. bullying, bias, harassment, sexual assault, etc.), it is important to be mindful of how difficult it probably is for them to come to us in the first place.
While many young people might have an intuitive understanding that what is happening to them is wrong, they may not have the exact words or full understanding. That’s why they need supportive adults’ assurance when facing difficult, challenging or traumatic experiences.
They need our reassurance that they did the right thing in bringing this to our attention. And they need to know that we will listen, respect them and do something.
Acknowledge the courage it took for them to come forward
When a young person comes to you about a difficult and disturbing experience, let them know how important it is that they came to you. Thank them for telling you and acknowledge that it might have been hard for them to share this information. Recognize their bravery in coming to you and remember that young people do not routinely ask for help, so this is a big step.
Take them seriously
Never belittle any serious incident like this—whether it’s a one-time occurrence or something that’s been happening for a while. Don’t question that it happened or their motives in telling you. Be sure to give young people the time to tell you everything they want and need to share through active listening. That conveys that you are taking them seriously, that you care and that you will take action.
Listen and allow them to express their feelings
Young people may have a range of sometimes conflicting feelings about incidents like these including fear, sadness, rage, numbness, guilt, shame, etc. They may need to cry, shout, be silent, take a walk or something else. Allowing them to express their feelings and not judging those emotions conveys acceptance.
Encourage them by asking open-ended questions and don’t ask for a lot of details until they have gotten their feelings out. When asking for details, be open and honest at the onset if you are a mandated reporter and therefore there are certain issues that you have to report to the proper authorities.
Be proactive, talk about next steps and get them help
After providing time for them to share their feelings, explain to them what you need to do in terms of reporting the incident and getting them help. Explain the process and the next steps you will take; and get their buy-in for the (ideally) co-constructed plan. In serious cases, remember that youth get a vote, but not a veto, in the next steps—especially when mandated reporting is required.
Be discreet and whenever possible, maintain confidentiality and be clear with them who you need to tell and why. Follow the appropriate school, local, and/or state procedures for any given incident and if you don’t know what that is, ask your school’s administration. In addition to following your school's policies, is important for adults to provide young people with appropriate counseling and crisis resources.
Similar to bullying and sexual harassment in schools, these incidents often go unreported in part because the adults in children's lives are unapproachable or address the situation ineffectively. And when bias, bullying, hate, harassment and abuse are reported, sometimes young people's experiences are dismissed or belittled and therefore, not taken seriously.
As Olympian Aly Raisman so eloquently stated, we hope to create a world where children “will never ever have to say the words, ‘me too.” Taking children seriously and listening to them is an integral step in that process.
Reprinted with permission from “Listening to and Believing Children,” ADL Education Blog, January 25, 2018. All rights reserved.