One well-known problem in the child welfare field is that children who suffer abuse are at much higher risk of being victims of violence later in life. For parents of abuse victims, it is extremely important to empower our children and help them avoid becoming repeat victims. One trend that I find extremely unhelpful, however, is to avoid giving victims techniques for avoiding dangerous situations because we don’t want to “blame the victim.” I understand the impulse, but we really don’t do our children any favors by thinking that empowering them is the same as blaming them.
A recently-published study from Australia illustrates this trend. The study found that children who had been victimized before the age of 12 and children who had suffered anxiety disorders, substance-abuse problems, or personality disorders showed a significantly higher incidence of victimization later in life. The researchers concluded, “Although the responsibility for offending behavior properly lies with the perpetrator and not the victim, these results suggests that it may also be beneficial to develop interventions that provide strategies and supports to [child sexual abuse] victims to reduce the likelihood of interpersonal revictimization (e.g., safety planning, negotiating family and intimate relationship dynamics, interpersonal boundaries).”
I was struck by that halfway apology for developing strategies to avoid victimization. It’s all too common for professionals to avoid teaching victims of sexual assaults how to prevent future assaults for fear that they will be “blaming the victim.” Of course, we need to be careful that our language and attitudes recognize that the blame lies with the perpetrator. We have to be certain that we are communicating steps that our kids can take, not shifting responsibility to them. But we still have to empower them to avoid future harm.
To take an analogy that is less emotionally charged, we never think twice about teaching our kids how to avoid car theft. If we leave a car running with the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked while we run quickly into a store, we know that we are making ourselves vulnerable to theft. If someone steals the car in those circumstances, we don’t say that leaving the key in the ignition gave that person consent to take the car or made us responsible for their decision. We know that theft is theft. Nevertheless, we all know to teach our children that leaving the key in the ignition with the doors unlocked is not a good idea.
In the same way, we need to find ways to teach our kids to be less vulnerable to becoming victims without loading onto them any responsibility for the crime. It may be hard to find that balance and communicate that truth, but we need to do it. Any other option leaves them vulnerable to continual victimhood.