*Trigger Note – contains references to sexual violence
Children’s safety is something all adults play a role in, but with threats to their welfare ever-present, what do we say to children? Is talking about danger an effective way to help them keep safe?
I recall a Saturday afternoon in the ‘80s, when I cycled round the block to Tessa’s. Best friends, we biked everywhere on identical blue 10-speeds we received for our 14th birthdays that spring. My parents were divorced, I spent most of my time at Tessa’s. She was a good girl, her house felt calm; I was spirited, a tad unruly and Tessa tempered my wild streak. That summer’s day, we had a secret plan. Tessa told her parents we were going to my house. Leaving our bikes on her driveway so we couldn’t be found out, we set off on foot. In the opposite direction of my house.
Jason was 19 or 20, he lived a block away. He had a black Yamaha motorbike with orange flaming decals on the petrol tank, which he always rode too fast. It now stood on the lawn, polished and gleaming like a “bad boy” trophy. Trembling excitedly, we approached his door. Checking no one saw us, we knocked, followed Jason inside and he led us downstairs to his basement apartment. Jason barely spoke, lit a cigarette and poured us each a drink. Large, hi-ball glasses full of Archer’s peach schnapps. Having discovered alcohol at 12, I distinctly remember looking at the glass Jason handed me, thinking “Schnapps isn’t meant to go in a glass that big?....” The flicker of doubt quickly passed, as I made a start on the large glass of peach schnapps.
We hung out in Jason’s flat for nearly an hour. Grateful for free alcohol, I hastily emptied my glass. Tessa, cautious and sensible was still sober, and perhaps sensed danger. She made up an excuse which I can’t remember, got us out and we made the short walk to my house.
My mother never kept tabs on me, I was always at Tessa’s. She was now waiting, anxiously. Tessa’s mum had phoned to check on us, and my mother felt inadequate not knowing our whereabouts. I was clearly drunk, and as my mother questioned us, I laughed defiantly, unwilling to tell her where we had been or what I had been drinking.
Decades later, I met Madeleine Black. Hearing her story on Our Frontcover for the first time, I gasped in shock at how alike our stories started. “I did that! I lied about where we went, and drank too much with an older boy!” I told her. Our stories had very different outcomes; Madeleine was raped by the older boys. It was the first time I could clearly see how differently my story could have ended. Subsequently, like too many friends, I experienced physical and sexual violence more than once before reaching 18.
As adults, most of us have contact with children either as parents, relatives, professionals or in our communities. Children’s adolescence should be free from a constant fear of being physically harmed or sexually assaulted. In terms of their safety, what can we say to protect children? How do we warn them without scaring them? How do we guide them without reinforcing a victim-blame culture which can lead to self-blame should anything ever happen to them? Some children, filled with blissful invincibility, simply won’t be told.
For adult survivors, talking with children can create self-doubt as they try to override their intense desire to prevent children experiencing what they went through. Shaped by our own experiences, which inform our behaviour, opinions, attitudes and beliefs, we draw on them when approaching conversations about humanity and life. For this reason, only we ourselves can decide what feels right when considering any input we choose to give to children
Guidance can be underpinned by supporting children to develop a growing understanding of concepts which can enhance self-belief and self-worth. Several readily spring to mind relevant to children’s personal growth and development. For children who perhaps ‘won’t be told’, as adults in their lives, we can model these concepts through our own actions.
* Live your now; encourage children to live in the present, learning from mistakes while never feeling weighed down by shame, regret and remorse in the past.
* Listen to your instincts; help children tune into their gut feelings, the uncertainty, the doubt – and respond to these every time, without needing to justify.
* You never owe anyone anything; remind children ultimately, they are obligated to no one except themselves, prioritize own safety and welfare always.
* You matter; above all, cultivate in all children deep rooted self-esteem and the belief that whatever happens, whatever others say or do – they MATTER.
By incorporating these concepts in our own everyday actions, maybe we can help children to grow up safer. They are watching us constantly, after all. Positive role modelling can make the world of difference.
Written byJudith Staff
Judith Staff is an early years teacher, a safeguarding lead, and a trainer. She is a member of her Local Safeguarding Children Board. Dedicated to issues affecting children and families, Judith promotes child safeguarding and works collaboratively to address sexual violence in society. Visit her website where she blogs regularly on social issues she’s passionate about.