When Family Fails to Protect | Things NEVER to Say

“I looked at her and I said, ‘I fucked up. I couldn’t say anything else. I couldn’t attribute it to being a young father. I couldn’t say I didn’t know any better. I couldn’t blame my own childhood. I simply looked my daughter in the eye and I apologized and I acknowledged to her, outloud that I fucked up. That’s it.”

A friend told me this story. We were talking about parenting, children, families and all those mistakes and tragedies and traumas. He told me how there were some ways in which he wasn’t the best father to his daughter and when he realized it, he had to tell her. After that, their relationship grew closer than it had ever been. They had to continue to work on their relationship but that admission was the missing link to so much hurt and sadness between them.

When you come from a family that has a history of destruction, abuse and neglect that you experienced as a child, it is important to understand that it wasn’t your fault. You were a child. Children are to be protected, nurtured and fed. That’s pretty much it. So when a child is not protected or nurtured or fed…when a child is abused and hurt thus experiencing shattered innocence, there is something to be said for acknowledging the part those in authority played in it.

I was sexually abused by my ex step father for 7 years of my childhood. He is responsible for that. My then church pastor knew of the abuse and from his position of authority, pretty much signed off on it. He holds responsibility too. Those two hold responsibility for my childhood sexual abuse.

However there were other adults involved in my life. Some with close ties to the responsibility of my life. And while those adults may not have known what was going on or felt as if they didn’t have options or felt silenced or pressured too, those adults fucked up. They did not protect a child.

Words like, ” I did what I knew to do” or “I did the best I could” or “I didn’t fully understand”….they may be true or they may not be true. But to the child….who eventually grows up and becomes her own person, she doesn’t ever need to hear those close to her say, “I did what I knew to do” as an excuse for the neglect in protecting her.

Parents, you’re not perfect. I get it. None of us are. You do the best that you feel you can do. You make sacrifices and more. This isn’t just to parents. To any person responsible for the life of a child.  You do your best but sometimes you fail and “your best” or “your intent” or even “your ignorance” has nothing to do with the simple fact that you did not protect the child.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I never want to hear anyone connected to my life…especially an adult who was responsible for my childhood say that they did what they knew to do instead of just admitting, “I failed to protect.” I know no one but my ex step father and the pastor are responsible for the abuse but I also know I was surrounded by others, who for one reason or another failed to protect me.

I’m not angry. They are not to blame. But I also do not need to hear sugar coated bullshit of “I didn’t know what to do” or anything of the sort.

Phrases like that have nothing to do with the fact of the matter. The fact is there was a failure to protect.

Its also hard as a child, to hear any adult say, “I did what I knew to do” in relation to how they mishandled a child’s sexual abuse when there were clear indicators of the same adult acting in sound judgement in other instances.

For instance, say that your mother was emotionally abusive to you. She screamed, yelled and called you a fat pig. The whole time your father stood by and watched her do this and never stood up for you. Years later, your father says, “I did what I knew to do” as the reason for his silence. However, as a child you also remember your father speaking up for a child who was bullied at a playground on some random Saturday afternoon. How does that work? How can a parent pretty much say inexcusable inaction was the best they knew to do and yet there were other instances in your childhood when they took action.

OR…what if your same father says, “I did what I knew to do.” That implies that as time has passed, your father matured and maybe NOW he knows to speak up and do better. However, let’s say he remarried another woman and the NEW wife does the same thing. Emotionally abuses the children. You would think this time the father would speak up. However, no,  the same thing that happened to one child….is now happening to another child in another marriage. So saying, “I did what I knew to do,” regarding something 20 years ago is null considering in the present day, that same father continues to fuck up by failing to protect.

Do you follow my example stories?

Whether an adult is responsible for the life of a child who goes on to be a victim of abuse or a person is just connected to a victim because they are friends or colleagues or neighbors, there are things one should never say. Things like, “Why didn’t you tell me before?” or “It  could have been worse” or “But you look normal” or “I would have done things differently.” Those are destructive, self serving comments to make you feel better or to help you understand what happened.

Instead, my friend Mark shares something you could say. “When I was doing training for my work with assault survivors, one of my fellow workers asked “What do I say if someone talks to me about their abuse?” The trainer, an amazing woman who taught me so much about life and living honestly (and was herself a survivor of sexual abuse) was totally blunt. “How about something true, like, ‘Thank you for trusting me. Talking about pain takes courage.'”

As a person connected to someone who has been a victim, perhaps you can say, “Thank you for trusting me. Talking about pain takes courage.”

And as an adult who is responsible for the safety and well being of a child who ends up being hurt by someone else, you as the adult,…. all you can possibly say is, “I’m sorry that I did not protect you.”

Every other feeling you may have about the situation, save for journal, your fictional memoir of mistaken memories or to discuss in family therapy. Otherwise you run the risk of further destroying something so precious and losing all of your credibility.

You may also want to read: A Lecture on Childhood Safetyor Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept or The Mother of a Monster



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