How to explain a family trauma to a 7-year-old? Consider telling her the truth.

Thursday, 12 October 2017, 10:03:43 PM. Children notice the whispers during phone calls, the fake smiles, the half-truths and lies. And they may be able to handle more truth than you think.

Q: My oldest child, 19, recently moved home from college after surviving a sexual assault. She is, thankfully, beginning to get the help she needs. I’m writing to you about my younger daughter, who is 7. She sees that something is up with my oldest and is constantly worried about her, asking things like “Is Susie okay? Why won’t she play with me?” I’ve been telling her that “Susie” isn’t feeling well and that we need to give her space. But I can’t keep this up forever. What should I tell my younger daughter about what happened to her sister? I don’t want to scare her, and I don’t know whether she’s ready for the sexual assault talk.

A: I am so sorry your oldest daughter was sexually assaulted, and I wish her love, strength and healing. Your family has experienced a trauma, and although I am encouraged that your daughter is receiving the help she needs, I would also invite you to make sure that you, too, are receiving support. Therapists and therapy groups can offer you a safe place to let out your anger and grief.

As for your 7-year-old, here’s the thing with kids in the midst of a crisis: They feel everything. The younger the children, the less they understand what they are feeling. But your daughter knows that something is up. She notices the whispers during phone calls, the doors that close, the anguish in her family members’ faces, the fake smiles, the half-truths and lies. She can tell that everyone is dancing around something.

Unfortunately, younger kids (and older kids, too) assume that all the weird energy is about them. Children are focused on themselves — and that is how it is supposed to be. Development and maturity work so that focus begins with me and then moves out to you, and then we become us. It’s why true sharing and empathy can take so long to develop (so much longer than the forced sharing we place upon 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds).

The good news? Your daughter is 7, and if everything is proceeding as planned, she has entered the age of reason. Many children around her age have less of a black-and-white understanding of the world and know instead that it exists mostly in gray. They can generally understand “on the one hand, on the other hand” thinking.

But this doesn’t mean that your daughter can stay in this mature place all the time or even all that long. Many 7-year-olds can show great maturity and empathy, only to have big emotions the next moment. This is normal. Remember, a 7-year-old is still young. Her maturity is just picking up speed.

Why do I tell you this? I am suggesting that your daughter may be mature enough to handle some truth here. It may sound like “Veronica, a person hurt Susie at school, and she needed to come home to get better. Have you ever needed to come home and rest after someone hurt your body or feelings at school?” See where the conversation goes from there.

I strongly encourage you to answer the questions as honestly and age-appropriately as you can. Do I want you to get into the details of the sexual assault? Not necessarily. But let me put it to you this way: If someone had punched and kicked your older daughter — a straight-up physical assault — would you be hiding in shame and keeping the details so private? Wouldn’t you tell your younger daughter, “Veronica, someone really hurt Susie at school, and her body and heart need to heal.” Would there be shame in that? No. But because your older daughter was sexually assaulted — and because women still take on the blame for sexual assault in this country — we instantly begin to lie and whisper and dance around the truth.

You might begin to have conversations that address sex and sexuality, so be ready to explain some basic concepts (if you haven’t already done so). There are some lovely books that can help you tremendously with this topic. I like “What’s the Big Secret?: Talking About Sex With Girls and Boys,” by Laurie Krasny Brown, and “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie H. Harris (meant for slightly older children, 10 and up). Remember, you don’t need to have perfect answers; you just need to be a listening ear and a source of age-appropriate honesty.

While gently telling your 7-year-old the truth, remember that this is a long conversation, not a one-time gig. You want to maintain an “all feelings welcome” stance in the home while everyone heals. It is appropriate for the 7-year-old to feel sad, angry, worried, scared and lonely. She has her big sister there, but not “there,” and it is clearly hurting her feelings. You don’t have to fix anything; you just have to keep the feelings moving. “Yes, it is hard when Susie doesn’t want to talk to you. I can imagine how sad it makes you.”

Truthfully, you can’t fix anything here, but if your youngest can see you as a container for her sadness, your family will make it through this hard period.

I wish you healing and ease.

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