“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 18:10
As Orthodox Christian parents, we may find it difficult to address the topic of child abuse, especially regarding our own children’s well-being and safety. We may like to believe that our children are protected by our prayers and our Orthodox community, but in reality child abuse can happen to any child, anywhere. Despite this, it is important to not let fear paralyze our parenting decisions. Sheltering our children impacts them negatively as it will prevent them from learning resilience and other critical life skills.
Child abuse is when someone, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. This maltreatment includes neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and emotional abuse. In addition, today we have other forms of abuse, such as cyberbullying through social networks, online games or mobile phones.
Emotional abuse, referring to the psychological and social aspects, is the most common and most difficult to detect. Children can be emotionally abused by any adult in a position of authority, such as a teacher or coach, and even by a peer (as in the case of bullying and cyberbullying). Physical abuse involves non-accidental harming of a child. Some examples are burning, beating or breaking bones, as well as sexual acts.
As a school counselor for many years, I saw far too many students who came to me because they had been abused. Yet, as tragic as this was, I remained so thankful that the children came to tell me so that help could be found for them as well as for the abuser. As Orthodox Christians our challenge is to find strength in our trials and grow in our faith. I personally can find no greater challenge than learning my child has been abused and I did not protect him or her. Thus, it is helpful to arm ourselves with ways to protect our children and become aware of signals that our children may have experienced abuse.
First and foremost, develop a trusting relationship with your children so that they will share their lives with you—both in good times and times of trouble. It is important for parents to let their children know that if anyone, whether a stranger or someone they know, approaches them in an inappropriate way—or even makes them feel uncomfortable—they should tell a trusted adult. Today, most schools do an excellent job educating students, especially in the elementary grades. However, it is not enough for our children to hear about it in school. Parents should review and reinforce the materials sent home as well as revisit the subject periodically. It is important to find a healthy balance because we do not want to fill our children with fear; rather, we must empower them with tools to keep them safe and seek help when they feel uncomfortable.
Parents need to be aware of the signs of abuse, which are not always obvious. Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse and can widely vary. Here are some red flags:
- Unexplained injuries: A child may have injuries that don’t match the given explanations.
- Unusual sexualized behaviors: It’s normal for children to show curiosity about their bodies. However, behaviors that seem more mature (for example, what you may see in pornographic films) or age-inappropriate statements about sex may indicate they have been exposed to something unhealthy or possibly molested.
- Changes in behavior: A child who was once outgoing may become withdrawn. They may lose interest in an activity that was once loved or begin to develop sudden fears of certain places or a person. Teachers may share that they are noticing a change in your child’s behavior at school, such as more aggression with classmates or a decline in academics. There may be a lack of interest in socializing, and your child may become clingier to home or parents.
- Sudden change in relationships: Parents, siblings or friends may notice that the child interacts differently.
If you suspect your child has been abused, consider the following guidelines:
- Avoid denial and remain calm.
- Don’t interrogate your child.
- Reassure your child that he or she did nothing wrong. It is important that children understand they are not responsible for the abuse.
- Seek out appropriate support from professionals such as counselors and school personnel, as well as law enforcement agencies. Safety comes first.
- Talk with your priest. There are many gifts of our Orthodox Faith that can be part of the healing process for both the child and parents.
- Read the Bible together. Start with either the daily readings or Psalm 23.
- Say prayers together. Ask your priest to read prayers of healing for your child and suggest some prayers to read at home.
- Attend a service for Holy Unction together. Before attending, go over the wonderful Bible readings of the service so that your children will better connect with the sacrament.
- Make time to prepare for and go to confession. Oftentimes when people are abused there is some level of guilt even though they did nothing wrong. This sacrament can help them process the shame and refocus on God’s unconditional love.
- Prepare for and receive Holy Communion. Discuss the purpose of Holy Communion for the healing of body and soul, both physical and spiritual.
- Find an icon that may bring comfort to your child to keep nearby, especially during difficult times (Christ the Good Shepherd, a guardian angel or a patron saint, to name a few).
- Keep looking toward Christ. When you are able, pray for the abuser and for the ability to forgive him or her. This is not just for his or her benefit but also for your child’s healing, as well as your own. This is not an easy task, so be patient. Healing will be a long process for all involved.
It is difficult to find the proper balance between safety and helping our children grow into strong and independent adults. As parents we must continue to pray for our children’s safety and for the strength to guide and protect them.
Jeanette Aydalette retired after thirty-eight years as an elementary school teacher and counselor and is currently living in Florida. She is the coauthor with Marilyn Rouvelas of the books in The Silent Way series, Eleni Looks at Jealousy and Peter Clashes with Anger, available on Orthodox Marketplace (orthodoxmarketplace.com). Their website is sites.google.com/site/silentwayseries. Jeanette’s professional website is thecounselingcoach.weebly.com.
For more information on keeping our children safe, visit safelyeverafter.com.
This article originally appeared in PRAXIS Volume 16: Issue 3, “Sacred Childhood.” To learn more about PRAXIS, including how to subscribe, visit praxis.goarch.org.