Everyone knows that parenting a teenager is going to be difficult. But thank goodness few parents know the kind of awful night I had when my son was 14 and my neighbor called to tell me that "Jon" had sexually abused her child.
I was outraged and in shock. It felt like my whole world had shattered into small pieces around my feet. I dragged Jon out of bed and peppered him with accusing questions. Of course he didn’t answer, couldn’t have given me the answers I wanted in my wild state. It would have made such a difference in our lives and in how soon we were able to get help if Stop It Now! had existed then. They would have guided me more gently into the hard decision I eventually made to report my own son for sexually abusing another child. It was the only way to get real help for him so he wouldn’t grow up into an adult child molester. It was also a step towards getting help for the child he sexually abused.
Even though that was one of the worst days of my life, I feel lucky. We searched and found a good therapist experienced in working with adolescents who have sexually molested other kids. Jon completed his 3-year treatment program and has learned the tools needed to control his sexual offending behaviors. We work together and let him know he is not alone in this. We are watchful with him and we can talk together about whether a situation is "safe" for him or not. We communicate as a family, and he can always talk to his therapist about what’s going on when he can’t talk to me. I feel lucky that we’ve come through this and that my son took responsibility for changing his behaviors. But I had to show the way. I’m the parent, I’m the adult. If I won’t take responsibility and set limits of right and wrong for my family, who will?
After that initial crazy night, I learned quickly that I needed to talk with my son from my heart. It was the best thing I could have done. I told him how much I loved him. I told him that what he had done with the neighbor child was sexual abuse and it was wrong. I told him that I didn’t want him to grow up to be a child molester, and that we couldn’t solve this problem by ourselves. I wanted the best help we could find for him and we would not stop until we found that help.
It was not an easy path. We had been seeing a general therapist at the time, but he did not help us much. I looked around for additional help and was lucky to have found a specialized treatment program for children with sexual behavior problems. But the only way he could enter this program was if an official report was made. The neighbors did not want to say anything, so I took the matter into my own hands and reported the sexual abuse. It was a terribly hard decision to make. But I am glad to be able to say now that this was the right thing to do for my son and for everyone involved.
The three year treatment program had just the right combination of toughness and caring. They set clear limits. Sexual abuse, they told him, is a crime. They kept hope alive by letting him know that he and his therapists were working together to make sure it would never happen again. It was his responsibility to participate and learn the skills he needed: how to recognize when he was in a negative mood and the things he could do, the people he could talk to, to change it before he was tempted to reoffend.
Even with all the love and luck in the world, there are still some questions, some frustrating things I feel angry about in this whole process.
Jon had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder when he was two and a half. But we worked hard within our family and with his teachers to help him learn how to learn. It was working – he was bringing home A’s and B’s on his report card. Then in the fourth grade, his grades began to slip and it felt as though Jon himself was slipping away from us. We’ll never know whether he was sexually abused or what happened to cause the change. All we know is that he suddenly didn’t want to go to school and was more and more isolated. So we tried therapy. But neither of the two therapists at two different medical centers ever asked him (or me) about possible child sexual abuse or identified any sexual problem when we took him for evaluations.
So many of the professionals I spoke with didn’t know how to recognize what was going on with my son. Why? Even his therapist at the time did not want to report what happened. And when I was so alone in dealing with this situation, why wasn’t there a place for me and other parents to go to learn about what to look for and how to talk about sexual abuse with each other and with our children?
The most important thing for parents is to be able to talk with each other about child sexual abuse. But if you know what to look for and sense something is wrong, the most loving thing you can do for your children, whether they are victims or abusers, is to talk about what may be going on. And if you suspect sexual abuse, the most loving thing to do is to get them help before this becomes a fixed pattern as an adult. Treatment, especially if it is specialized treatment, can and does work. We know so much more now, and there is wonderful help out there when you reach out for it. Stop It Now! is a wonderful program for help and support.
Breaking the silence around child sexual abuse will help our children talk about their concerns and give all of us the support we need to deal with this hidden problem. It’s my hope for the future that we will be able to stop child sexual abuse. It’s up to us as parents, as adults, to lead the way.