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Sunday 16 December 2018

Ask me anything: Our resident psychologist answers your queries about sex and relationships

A woman whose relative was sexually abused as a child is determined to protect her six year old - but her husband thinks she is going too far

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Allison Keating

Question:A relative of mine was sexually abused as a child and it completely destroyed her. As a result, I am determined to protect my six-year-old daughter from a similar fate. I tell her about her private area being private and all the usual warnings. I am also very vigilant when she is around male relatives, making sure she is never left alone with anyone. It is not that there is anyone I don't trust, I just want to make sure she gets safely to adulthood. My husband thinks I am going too far, and that she will pick up on my concern. What do you think?

A I'm very sorry to hear your relative was abused - there are no words for the impact it has. I'm also very sorry to you as the impact this has upon families carries and is passed through trans-or intergenerational trauma.

The stories, the spoken and unspoken words, can leave families carrying the weight of the trauma as well, often manifesting itself as a lack of trust. Hyper-vigilance and anxiety play out as dread and fear and 'what if' questions steal your peace of mind. Was your relative six when she was sexually abused? The reality of that when you look to your own child can be unbearable and unthinkable. Of course you want to protect her and her journey to adulthood.

Too often I have seen people who pretend to play happy families when the truth is the abuse and abuser has ripped the family apart. If you know who the abuser is, stay away from them.

Verbally, arm your daughter in a factual way. Explain to her about 'good touches' and 'bad touches', which she probably has covered in school, but it is good to keep this in the conversation as part of their overall safety and self-care.

Say to her that no one can touch her where she would wear a bikini. Point it out, use the words she understands and then use the correct words. Listen to your daughter - this is one key element in building you up as someone she can trust and rely upon.

Turn to her when she wants to tell you something. When you listen to the small aspects of her day, it sets down fertile ground for her to turn to you if there is something much harder to say.

Give her permission to say no. Teach her emotional and physical boundaries. Teach her the language of consent. What she will and won't allow, what is comfortable and what is not. And most importantly give her permission to express and trust if she feels something is wrong.

Teach your daughter to trust herself. Teach her that you will believe her when she talks to you. Tell her she can tell you anything and if she ever tells you something difficult, watch your reaction. Spend those extra minutes and listen.

Bringing it back to you - ask yourself some questions.

What beliefs, stories and views about the world and the people in it have you learned from your family? Start with the basics. Do you trust people?

It is important to create safe boundaries for your daughter without transmitting anxiety from your family's past. Have you ever spoken to anyone about the impact it had upon you?

Intergenerational trauma such as sexual abuse leads to a loss of safety. This loss is psychological, emotional and physical. The vicarious traumatisation came from what your relative and family said about the sexual abuse. You also lost your sense of safety and this is being triggered for you now as you see your child as a vulnerable six-year-old.

This trauma can end with you. Process how you feel about the trauma that has seeped into your psyche - it can be very helpful to work though this with a trained therapist who has experience with trauma or PTSD.

Listen to your own instincts, trust yourself and if you feel uncomfortable around some of your male relatives, ask why. Be careful not to contaminate everyone, but tune into your gut.

It can be useful to say to your child and yourself that it is OK to come across as rude if you don't feel OK about a situation. There is a power in that. Teach your daughter that 'no' is a full sentence and to scream or run away.

Often we condition children to be polite. Give specific examples of when it is OK to be rude, especially to someone older than them, or even if they feel they shouldn't because they know them.

Keep the message clear - staying safe is number one - and teach her when and how to get out of a situation.

This is the language of consent. The hope is that this generation who are seeing women and men voicing #metoo will lead to a firm line being drawn under sexual abuse and that the perpetrators will be outed and shamed.

Pass on safety, pass on her permission and personal autonomy to being fully in charge of her own body.

If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at allisonk@independent.ie

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