A child is like a tiny seed; a tree at the start of it's long life. The quality of the soil, the water, the climate - all determine the tree that seed will grow into. It's the duty of everyone who comes into contact with that little sapling to nurture it and protect it from the elements; to help it grow.
I don't have a child, but I've been one, and so have you, so we're all qualified to speak about this topic. We all remember the bewildering feeling of being small, defenceless; not yet understanding the world. Everything we encounter as a child is new: in turn awe-inspiring and confusing, fascinating and terrifying, as we look to the grown-ups to guide us and help make sense of it all. To be betrayed by the very adults that are meant to protect us causes lasting, irreversible damage. The bark of that young tree is marked with permanent scars.
The recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse in football have once again brought this difficult topic to the fore, although for victims of abuse it's never far from their minds. A survey last week revealed that 86% of respondents had either been abused themselves, or knew someone who had. This figure, whilst shocking in itself, is likely to be even higher in reality, as it doesn't include those who have never breathed a word of their suffering to another soul - of which I'm sure there are many.
So I, alongside many others, was disgusted by the recent ignorant comments made on Twitter by Eric Bristow: a washed-up former darts player who was probably spouting his nonsense from his front room, beer can in hand, whilst watching old reruns of Bullseye.
Eric, the overweight chain-smoking dinosaur who's been putting the "cock" in Cockney since 1973, implied that the victims were somehow "wimps" for not taking action sooner. I took to my own social media account to let him know exactly what I thought of his careless and damaging remarks, and was horrified to discover that although the majority of my friends and followers firmly agreed with me, there was the odd (very odd!) person who defended him. One particular Bristow-sympathiser was a woman, albeit an "old school" one from a similar era as him, who questioned why anyone would "wait thirty years to speak up."
Whilst infuriated and incensed by their comments, I'd actually like to thank Eric and his out-of-touch cronies, as their ignorance inspired me to write this piece.
Firstly, they clearly have never experienced any form of bullying, assault or abuse themselves, otherwise they would have some understanding and compassion for the shame, fear and self-loathing that wraps itself around the victim like a bone-crushing boa-constrictor.
Many years ago, when I was of primary-school age, I was sexually assaulted several times by the neighbour of a relative. Despite being appalled, disgusted and terrified on each occasion, I didn't tell anyone what had happened until much later and soon after that, the man died. I came from a loving family, I knew it was wrong, yet I was told by this person to stay quiet, so I did.
Does that make me a wimp? Of course not. Quite the opposite in fact. It takes a lot of courage to carry around a burden like that, especially as a child. I know several people - strong, amazing people - who have also been sexually assaulted, raped or abused. In most cases, the perpetrator went unpunished.
So I have nothing but the utmost respect for these footballers and others who have been abused - in fact all victims of any crimes - who find the courage and strength to speak out - no matter how long it takes for them to feel able to do so.
Self-confessed selfie-queen Karen Danczuk has also recently been in the spotlight for winning a court case against her brother, who was last week found guilty of repeatedly raping her (along with two other victims) throughout her childhood. Having attempted to bury the trauma for many years, Karen finally spoke out on Thursday during an emotional interview on the daytime television show Loose Women, during which she told of her shattered confidence and efforts to seek approval from others through constant selfies, a habit which had previously seen her ridiculed and written off as arrogant and narcissistic.
Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I don't shy away from broaching difficult topics, yet it's taken me until this post (my 60th article for 'Life: A Bird's Eye View') and forty years of life on Earth to write anything about this subject - although I've started to a few times then hit the 'delete' button instead of 'publish.'
Common effects of abuse include anger issues, low self-esteem, depression, self-harm, law-breaking, substance abuse and promiscuity. This may seem like a tenuous link, but I directly attribute my childlessness to those unfortunate childhood experiences, since the careless behaviour which led to my cervical cancer surgery and subsequent inability to conceive was a direct result of my damaged self-worth caused by those events.
The repercussions were mental, as well as physical. I was afraid of bringing another person into this world, for fear of passing on my flaws; the responsibility for shaping the personality of another human being just too great. Well, I got my wish and never became a mum. (I later changed my stance on this and went on to have multiple failed IVF cycles; it was too late).
Why am I telling you this? Certainly not for sympathy, or to jump on any bandwagon; rather to illustrate the far-reaching effects of sexual abuse, and that it can happen to anyone.
So how can we protect our children from these vile predators?
It is vital to talk to your child. Even if you think they are too young for such a conversation - they are not. The NSPCC Pants campaign and accompanying Pantosaurus Quiz are great tools to assist with this, and the charity recommends introducing them to children as young as four.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that it can't or won't happen to your child. Abusers are usually well known to the child: a family member, family "friend" or trusted adult in a position of authority. These are rarely scary strangers in macs; they are the smiling, normal-looking men you've known (and trusted) for years.
This has to be a joint effort. It's up to all of us to protect all children, not just our own. One in five girls under 18 is a victim of sexual abuse, and one in 25 boys. If you suspect something, do something. If a child's behaviour changes, find out why. The internet presents a whole extra dimension of risk that didn't exist when my generation was growing up; including very young children being groomed online whilst their parents watch TV downstairs, oblivious. Educate yourself - your children are probably more internet-savvy than you are.
By talking openly about uncomfortable topics such as this, we remove some of the shame, guilt and isolation felt by the innocent victims. Perhaps then, we can prevent some of these incidents happening in the first place - and if they do happen, hopefully victims will feel able to speak out sooner and the perpetrators punished so that they can't harm anyone else.
We've all heard the saying: "from tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow." Well it's up to us to nurture those tiny acorns as they grow into trees, warding off silent predators that creep like poison ivy, threatening to wrap their suffocating fronds around delicate branches. A child can only truly reach his or her full potential as an adult if they are allowed to blossom without suffering physical and/or psychological harm.
So please, look around you; be aware. Let's not blindly trust people with access to our children, no matter who they are or how well (you think) you know them. Sometimes, you can't see the wood for the trees.
NSPCC parents' guide
The Compassion Cure
This article has also appeared in The Huffington Post UK.
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