Published on April 3rd, 2018 | by Aya de Leon3
Ask Aya: As a Sexual Trauma Survivor How Do I Support My Baby Daughter’s Bodily Autonomy?
I have a 10 month-old daughter. Can you share your experiences / advice with helping a daughter to feel comfortable with boundaries and her bodily autonomy from an early age? I mean, she’s little and all, but as a survivor of teenage sexual trauma (who had great parents and yet still fell prey to the manipulations of an older sociopath), I feel like I need to start the lessons as young as possible. I ponder daily how to keep clear and authentic communication with my child, how to educate her about enthusiastic consent, how to safeguard her and shepherd her through situations, like old-school European relatives treating her baby-self like a doll that exists to validate their need for a reaction (many pinches and pokes have been swatted down by this mama; many stern “don’t tickle her”s have been delivered). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.
Thank you! – Lauren
What a great question!
And what a fortunate daughter to have such a fierce, loving mom who is thinking about how to support her safety and power from such an early age.
First off, YES, you are right to be vigilant with the relatives. Pinches and pokes are not helpful. I would add that the compulsory hug or kiss also needs to go. You can give a kid options at hello and goodbye: handshake? fist bump? high five? Let the child choose.
Also, you are particularly on target with the tickling. Tickling can be fun when it’s consensual or happening between people of equal size and power. However, when adults tickle children, there can be an aspect of domination, and the kid internalizes the fun along with the experience of being overpowered, dominated or anxious. So it’s good to avoid tickling until the kid is old enough to consent verbally, and only with adults who are able to be aware and figure out how the fun can be more child-centered (the kid feels in charge and is having fun) as opposed to adult centered (it’s so cute/delightful/pleasurable for me, when I am able to make a child laugh). Also, many survivors recall that sexually abusive relationships or episodes began with tickling. So I would just say “in our family, we don’t tickle,” until my kid was old enough to ask for tickling, and then I helped her set boundaries about how she wanted to be tickled.
So, you have already started the lessons. Another thing that is wonderful (although I couldn’t keep it up in the sleep-deprived haze of early motherhood) is narrating your touch of her body. “I’m taking off the diaper. I’m gonna wipe you now,” in a pleasant voice. Just normalizing that she gets to hear, know, and understand the touch that happens to her body, and that the adult is aware and present, are all helpful in her developing expectations of how people will touch her and interact with her body.
And you won’t be able to do it perfectly. You won’t be able to prevent every single unwanted pinch or touch. Sometimes, people would be so quick that I couldn’t swat them away. It was important that I not get too uptight or confrontational in front of the baby, because that would be harmful in another way. It’s important to know that your girl will be able to recover from these smaller invasions, and you can help her. Starting in toddlerhood, children LOVE to play games about power where the adult pretends to be the smaller, weaker, less coordinated one. Toddler’s love to knock their parents over, wrestle with their parents and win. When my daughter was just learning to walk, I had a game I played where I held her over my chest and said “Godzilla, Godzilla, you’re destroying the town!” And then I would walk her across my chest with bass-toned steps, “boom boom boom boom!” Any game that emphasizes her as powerful is helpful. Because she will need to recover from the many minor challenges to her power, and show a caring adult (likely you!) how mad she is about it and get to laugh and laugh and sometimes even cry about what it’s been like to be a little person in a world dominated by big people.
As she gets older, she will continue to be mad. I took the position that I wanted my daughter to have a safe place to show that anger at home. So I let my daughter fight with me, kicking, biting, punching (I haven’t got much of a core, but I’ve learned to take a 7-year-old punch to the gut). I’ve had a few bite marks in my leg. I’ve had some scratches that bled (“darn, I meant to cut her nails!”) This is not for everyone. But I wanted my daughter to get used to letting out her rage with a consenting target so that she would neither bully someone younger, nor keep it bottled up. I don’t recommend this for anyone who was hit as a kid, because it can be too triggering. But as the mother of a black girl, I felt even more committed, because, as they get older, black kids who show rage out in the world get suspended, expelled, shot, and locked up. So I wanted to make some early investments that would lessen the anger load she carried around.
In general, I think it’s critical to make as much room as possible for big feelings. You never know, a kid may be recovering from that pinch to the face by auntie so-and-so later that night when they are mad that there’s no more noodles and having a big meltdown about it. In general, it’s not about the noodles, and I try to welcome my daughter’s upsets as opportunities to get feelings out, even if the pretext for the blow up seems ridiculous.
I put her in martial arts. I put her in a community of feminist peers that support her development as a strong girl. Here in the Bay Area I’m a fan of Spotlight Girls, which runs the Go Girls! camp. I’m also hearing good things about Curious Jane camp in New York and SF. It’s good to spend time in all girl environments. Also KidPower is a great resource, as well as Impact Self Defense, when she gets older.
I also supervise my kid pretty closely. She’s definitely only with adults and older kids that I really trust. And around the age of five, kids start to show any sexual traumas they’ve experienced to other kids through their play. This looks really different between peers and is way less damaging than when older kids or adults act that stuff out on young children. But my kid doesn’t need to bear witness to another kid’s sexual trauma, so I make sure the door’s open, and cheerily investigate any whispering or secret/private stuff.
Finally, and this may be the hardest, we have to put in the work to heal from our own traumas. Not that you have any spare time as the mother of a 10-month-old. Hand in Hand parenting is a wonderful resource for all things parenting. They have great info about how to support children emotionally, and they talk about the importance of parents having listening partnerships where we can offload our own feelings that come up. A few issues have surfaced where I had the slightest worry that some sexual trespass might happen or have happened to my daughter, and I was just a nauseous mess of panic. I needed places to let my own feelings out, and see that I was overreacting, and my daughter was fine. There is no such thing as being too vigilant in rape culture. However, if I’m so triggered in my own trauma, I can’t see clearly what’s actually happening with my daughter. I’m too busy reliving what happened to me. I think one of the dangers in parenting is that we can be so busy guarding against the traumas that happened to us, that we don’t see the harms that are actually happening to our kids, particularly because—if we have improved on the previous generation—they are much more subtle than what happened to us. Also, if we are constantly uptight and scared about sexual trauma, then we communicate to our girls that the world is scary and that they won’t be able to be powerful enough to triumph over what comes their way. We want to model confident power, take steps to protect, and give space to recover.