There are a host of behaviors that children who have experienced sexual abuse exhibit such as nightmares, anger outbursts and recent tantrums, being withdrawn, being spacey, etc that most people know about. But there are others that may be more subtle that, on face value, look no different then any other issues that children are having. One of these that I will focus on has to do with making friends.
The Challenge of Friendship
Many a child survivor have experienced difficulties making friends. For young children they often report interest in wanting to play with a group of kids but those kids “don’t want to play with me”. They may resort to trying to bribe their way into friend circles with giving them snacks or covering for them when they do something wrong, all in the hopes that the group leader (and yes even at age 6 or 7 there is a group leader) will invite your child to play with them. For children who are a little older, especially girls, you will see where “clicks” are formed and intentionally exclude other girls who they perceive as different. They may make comments about your child’s physical appearance (comments like “your ugly”), style of dress, and even how they smell. For boys often they get excluded if they are not “rough” meaning they are not into physical contact like wrestling, basketball or other “male” dominated activities. What’s even harder about this for you as a parent is that your child may not even tell you all the mean things other children do and say to them so your often not aware of just how bad your child is feeling.
You may notice your child not playing with others when you pick them up or drop them off at school, but your child will often minimize and then deflect this away when you bring this to their attention. An example of something your child might say if you ask them directly why they are not playing with others is, “they were playing soccer and I don’t like to play soccer. Mom look at what my teacher gave us today.” In that instance they minimize their isolation by saying the kids are doing an activity they don’t like and they use deflection by sharing something about school that is positive and will get your attention away from uncomfortable questions.
So how does this tie into your child’s past experience of sexual abuse? You know about the nightmares and how they sometimes have a hard time listening but your baffled about peer relationships?
Humans are social creatures. We are wired for connection to others, children even more so. Because children are fragile and completely dependent on adults around them to get all their needs met, they are especially attuned to relationships. Part of development is the creation of peer relationships.
Abuse rewires the brain. It activates the Stress Response System making the body especially focused to anything that is an external threat so it can take protective action. With repeated insults or in this case sexual violations the brain becomes more sensitive to threat cues and it will filter out any information that isn’t pertinent to the situation at hand. This often leads to developmental gaps, including difficulties with socialization. Child survivors may miss the nuances of language or not be as sophisticated in navigating the dynamics of their social worlds which makes them appear different. Often times they perceive themselves as different, knowing that they carry a huge painful secret that hangs out in the background of their thoughts all the time (children will often report wanting to forget what happens, but that they are unable too despite trying different things. This takes a huge emotional toll on them as well). The result is that they feel different inside, thus they often feel like they are not likable. They then engage with peers who tell them they are different and they treat them poorly which leads creates the vicious cycle of negative beliefs about their worthiness.
Another part of your child’s dilemma is that the sexual abuse was kept secret due to the perpetrators threats against the family and maybe even your child. They learned to keep this secret to protect you and other members of the family from being hurt. This created a cycle and has become ingrained in the fabric of how your child perceives their role, to protect you (others) from anything painful. They feel like they must endure it on their own (which also can play into how they feel unworthy because painful things are “always happening” to them). So even though you recognize that there is a problem with your chid, your child, having been conditioned to holding secrets to protect you will instinctively use this in these instances so that you may not know just how bad things really are. It unfortunately sets up a cycle of feeling like others cannot protect them and continuously feeling unsafe which impacts their relationships in the present and also later in life.
How can you help your child make friends?
So your child feels alone, isolated, afraid, sad, and hopeless because they don’t have friends. Other children will not play with them and may say hurtful things to them. You don’t know all the details but you know something is wrong and you want to act to help your child.
- Getting to the bottom of whats going on at school. I recommend making statements as opposed to asking direct questions. Direct questions may be perceived as threat to the brain which may kick in the Stress Response System leading your child to shutting down and doing the minimization-deflection dance I mentioned above. Instead making statements such as “I notice that when I pick you up from school you’re often playing by yourself, would you like to play with some of the other children?” This type of statement takes the pressure off your child from having to protect you and also shows that you’re taking notice of whats going on in their life. It makes them feel good and it shows that you’re there to protect them. Also be thoughtful of your tone of voice. Try to stay as neutral or matter of fact as you can. If your upset then your child will feel upset as well and again this may lead to them shutting down. Try not to push and just pay attention to not only the words they use but also how their body is moves along. Non-verbals give a lot of clues to whats underneath. I also recommend having a talk like this which can be upsetting over a meal where you’re naturally going to be talking or even on the ride home since both of these activities are very regulating. Remember your end goal is just trying to figure out what exactly is going on so you can then create a plan to help your child make friends and feel like they belong.
- After you get some details about whats going on try to see what your child would like to happen. Here it’s ok to ask direct questions such as “who do you want to play with? Why do you want to play with so and so? What is it that you like about them?” This is an opportunity for you to learn what your child thinks about the role friends have in their life and what kinds of characteristics are important to them. You can also support them by talking about your own friends and why you like spending time. In these moments you have an opportunity to bond and expand upon your own relationship with your child in a more favorable fashion. They will learn to confide in you and not feel the need protect you.
- Create a plan. I would stick to one friend at a time and see if there is a class list or a way for you to meet the other child’s parent(s)/caregiver(s) and arrange a time for the children to play together one on one. Often in large group setting kids feed off of each other and one persons negativity can turn into group negativity. One on one there is less chance of this and you get the added bonus of watching how your child interacts with another child. You may even be surprised to see how caring and thoughtful they are to their friend or that they have some hidden leadership skills that you may not have known about. More than anything it gives your child a sense of belonging which is really important in overall mental health and can also play a big role in their healing from their own abuse.
Being a parent is tough. Being a parent of a sexual abuse survivor can be tougher. You have your own feelings to contend with as well as trying to help your child unpack everything. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and worried about how your child is coping with it all. More than anything you want your child to be healthy and happy. If you continue to have concerns or want more support around helping your child as they heal contact me.
These are just a few strategies, tips, and recommendations! I hope you found this post helpful! I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!
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Until we connect again,