At the back of every parent’s mind lurks a dark fear. They bring a child into the world, watch it grow, and love it more than they can bear. And yet they also know that as the years pass that child will move further out into the world, a world in which assault is a real possibility.
Different Forms of Assault
Assault takes many forms. The most obvious example is school bullying. In some cases this can be vicious and relentless. Indeed, the effects should never be underestimated, and certainly not dismissed as “part of growing up,” or “character building.” In fact, bullying teaches nothing but fear and cynicism. Indeed, some children literally kill themselves as a result.
Yet what qualifies as assault? Obviously a punch or a kick is assault. But how about a pinch or shove in the back? If a child pulls the chair away as your son sits down, does that count? Remember, assault isn’t always done to cause physical harm. When a child pulls away your son’s chair, or trips him up in the corridor, the goal is humiliation.
Of course, bullying doesn’t always occur on school grounds. Children intent on real harm catch their victim somewhere isolated and lonely – like the edge of woodland, or a back alley. Sometimes the victim will know his attacker, sometimes not. Gangs often target strangers in order to ‘blood’ a new member. In other words, someone gains acceptance by attacking and beating a random victim. By doing so, they win a reputation and deter others from assaulting them.
The attack may be personal, or it may have nothing to do with your child. In some cases, the attacker just wants to make a name for himself, in others they have developed a real dislike. Maybe they resent your child’s academic achievements or good looks. Others resent their happy home life or material wealth.
Then there is sexual assault. Again, this takes different forms. Girls, for example, can be sexually assaulted within a relationship. Others may be blackmailed. Boys sometimes use drugs to gain a hold, either spiking a girl’s drink or introducing her to something addictive, which he then provides in exchange for sex. Unfortunately, Internet pornography has warped the minds of a whole generation of young men.
Sexual abuse is also common within families. In fact, a child is more likely to be sexually assaulted by a relation or friend of the family than by a stranger. And it can happen in an instant. Some victims will quite literally be assaulted in the kitchen as their mother or father sits and chats in the next room.
What to Do When Your Child Is Assaulted at School
First, you need to reassure them. Any assault is a shock (children, for example, will experience “spasms” of fright, repeatedly shaking even when safe at home). For a child, especially one from a calm and loving home, it may alter their whole view of the world. Your first duty is to hug and soothe them. Make it absolutely clear that no one has the right to assault the body of another human being, whether that means groping, kicking, hair pulling, or whatever it may be. Keep it as clear and simple as that. The right to physical safety is the most basic right of all.
Also, assure them that it isn’t their fault. Children often feel ashamed of being bullied, believing they deserved it or brought it on themselves. Teachers exacerbate this by urging the child not to sit next to the bully, or not to provoke him by answering questions in class, etc. When people are bullied (and this is true of adults as well), they feel hurt and rejected. Indeed, physical violence is a kind of rejection. The other person despises you so much they literally damage your body.
Boys in particular often feel ashamed of physical weakness. Being a teenage boy means learning to “be a man,” which means violently asserting oneself. In spite of changing attitudes, such toxic views of masculinity persist. In mawkish Hollywood movies, the weaker child fights back and teaches the bully a lesson. In reality, of course, it is likely to get them seriously hurt.
Your first thought will no doubt be revenge, but your priority should be their safety. If your son has been punched by another boy, for example, you may want to confront the parents. Be wary, however. On the one hand, they may be decent, reasonable people. If you do confront them, give them a chance to explain. Threatening to hit the boy’s father is no way to behave; he may be appalled at what his son has done.
On the other hand, the parents could be violent monsters with no regard for the consequences of their actions. You don’t want to knock on someone’s door and then be faced by a drunken oaf wielding a baseball bat. Some people also pursue nasty feuds. Before you know it, the bully’s family are smashing your windows and setting fire to your car.
Your first stop should be the school. They are responsible for the safety of your child, and they have failed in this duty. Contact them immediately and ask for an appointment. Do not turn up unannounced, banging on the receptionist’s desk and demanding answers. However, do be firm. Make it clear that you are not going to tolerate this and that if no action is taken you will pursue it further.
When you find yourself alone with a teacher, keep your temper under control. This person had nothing to do with the assault, and would probably have intervened had he had the chance, so don’t get personal. You have a right to be angry, but accusing the teacher of negligence, or threatening to get him (or her) sacked, will put them on the defensive. The barriers will come down and their priority will be their own job rather than your child.
When Your Child Is Violently Attacked Outside of School
When it was a random attack on the street, that is a matter for the police. Again, be sure to hug and comfort them. People assaulted in this way no longer feel safe, and many experience post-traumatic stress. Be on the lookout for any change in their mood or behavior. Have they stopped going out? Do they now seem reluctant to walk home on their own?
You should never encourage violence, not least because hitting a violent person will only enrage them and spur them on to still greater violence. If you are going to fight back against such people it must be all or nothing – either you passively accept the beating or you make sure you put them down. Doing that isn’t easy, of course, and also risks inflicting serious harm, which may mean arrest and even imprisonment. Nevertheless, it may help if your child learns to defend him or herself. Are there self-defense classes in your area? Even if your child never uses these skills (and hopefully they never will), simply knowing that they could defend themselves will give them confidence and reduce their fear.
If the assault was particularly bad, leading to a spell in hospital, etc., the child may need counselling. Talking it over with a stranger can be very helpful. The counsellor will help them cope with the trauma and prevent it from shaping the rest of their life. It may also help them to return to the scene of the attack, to reassert their presence and their right to be there (especially if the assault occurred near to home).
When Your Child Is Sexually Assaulted
With sexual assault, one of the biggest problems is shame, which can be both extreme and intense. Victims of sexual assault often feel dirty or polluted. And they may also feel guilty. A teenage girl, for example, may decide that it was her fault for walking home on her own, or for getting drunk, or even for wearing a short skirt. So assure your child that it was not their fault, that sexual assaults are never justified and that they have absolutely no reason to feel guilty or ashamed. You can demonstrate this by hugging them harder than you’ve ever hugged them before.
It is also important to talk openly about what happened (unless the child makes it clear they don’t want to). Obviously that does not mean making light of the incident, or talking about it in front of neighbors and friends. But you shouldn’t repress it either. Many parents are so upset they can only cope through denial. In part this is because they feel guilty for not preventing it. But by not talking you risk confirming the child’s fear – that the assault was shameful, and that he or she is now “damaged goods.”
A child needs to express the emotions boiling away inside: the anger, hatred, fear and self-loathing. It may help to see a therapist who specializes in abuse. Remember, your child probably fears upsetting you and is unlikely to have told you what is going on inside their mind. These emotions have to be released. If that isn’t done in a healthy and constructive way, the child may resort to self-harm. The therapy room is a safe space for such release. Therapists also teach coping mechanisms, and will discourage your child from seeing themselves as helpless victims whose lives have been ruined (thus giving their attacker all the power). A support group would also be useful. As with any trauma, no one understands like those who’ve been through the same thing.
Just because your child seems calm and stable, it doesn’t mean they are. Neither does it mean they are coping. On the contrary, calmness can be a bad sign, suggesting detachment or dissociation. That doesn’t mean they must re-live the trauma over and over again (a certain amount of repression is inevitable), but you cannot move on from something until you face it and release the emotions.
It is also important to consider the long-term effects. How is this going to change the way your child sees other people? If your daughter has been sexually assaulted, for example, will it affect her ability to form relationships? Will she ever be able to trust men again? Whatever the circumstances, the child needs to understand what a healthy and happy relationship means.
Above all, remember one thing: it isn’t about you. Your priority must always be your child. So swallow your rage and focus instead on reducing their fear and shame.