Those who have or work with children would agree that a child’s worth is immeasurable. When children grow up in families in which they are loved and kept safe, they can be challenged, take risks, and develop the skills they need to succeed in school and life. This is what we hope for our own children, and for those children we teach or treat.
Yet children who are sexually abused–in particular, those abused by a parent—struggle their entire lives to believe in their own worth. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, authors of the groundbreaking survivor guide The Courage to Heal (2008), explain that “when children are abused, they are harmed at a core level. And one of the areas hardest hit is their developing sense of self-respect and self-worth. This lack of self-esteem often continues into adulthood.”
As a survivor of sexual assault, I can attest to the self-esteem devastation caused by abuse. As children, we are predisposed to like who we are. Sexual abuse dismantles those assumptions. Survivors grow up questioning: How valuable am I to this planet? Am I good enough? Will I accomplish my dreams? Bass and Davis explain that “when your worth is negated often enough, you begin to believe there is something wrong with you. As a result of these childhood messages, you may believe that you are unlovable, that nothing you do matters, or even that you don’t deserve to live.”
This story about Sandy, while difficult to hear, is a clear example of the deep impact of incest on a child’s self-esteem. Sandy was sexually assaulted repeatedly by her father, which littered her entire childhood with memories of fear and shame. In a recent interview with me, Sandy shared her story. “The abuse started before I could even remember. My father would come into my room and touch me when I was young, and when I got older, he would push me into the bathroom every morning and abuse me. Sometimes I would lock the door and he would stand outside, yelling ‘Let me in, let me in!’ My mom had to have heard and known something was going on.”
“When I look back, I can’t really remember good memories,” she said quietly. “I always remember being sad. The abuse went on for so long. I don’t remember ever being a normal kid. I was always trying to hurt myself. I remember one time running outside over pieces of glass and thinking I didn’t really care if I got hurt. I was a very shy, withdrawn, quiet kid. I never raised my hand in class. I always felt ‘less than.’ I was never one to make friends. I always felt like the outsider, even in my own family. But no adult showed interest in the fact that I was always sad and didn’t live a kid life.”
As Sandy grew older, several people began to understand the depths of her despair, but—as is all too common in these cases—failed to act. “I was close with my cousin, and I told her when I was a teenager that I wanted to kill myself” because life wasn’t worth living. “She just responded ‘No, don’t talk like that!’ She could have gone farther and said something to my family, but she didn’t.” When Sandy’s mother learned of her despair, she lashed out at Sandy for “hurting” her father with her pain.
Sandy kept the secret of the abuse for many years. “I never told anyone until I was in my thirties. My counselor came out and asked me if I was abused and that’s when I told. It was after that that I began to heal. I decided to confront my mother. I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you protect me when I was younger?’ There were so many signs.”
The pervasive lack of self-worth and personal safety that Sandy describes can devastate a child’s future and diminish her potential. If we expect children to strive academically, physically, and emotionally, protecting them from sexual abuse should be a top priority. Because the foundation of happy, successful lives is a strong sense of personal value, family violence must be stopped.
The call to action? Talk to the children in our lives about sexual abuse and do something when warning signs demand it. After all, it is our role to affirm a child’s worth so they can accomplish remarkable things. They deserve no less.