Fostering Healthy Relationships
You are only as happy as your least happy child.
It’s a phrase we as parents are all too familiar with, as we suffer each of our children’s disappointments, sometimes even more severely than they do. As family members, we try to do everything we can to protect our kids from being bullied and or even worse, experiencing abuse. Research indicates that children and adults with disabilities experience abuse at exponentially higher rates than their typically developing peers. But using the word abuse may be hard to hear and even confusing because like a lot of things, abuse differs by degree. Abuse may occur in subtle ways that we may not think of as being illegal. Oftentimes kids and adults with disabilities experience targeted abuse that exploits their disability — things like removing access to adaptive equipment, like mobility or communication devices or withholding of personal care support. Or, children with intellectual disabilities may experience “gaslighting” by being tricked or given false information from a trusted person so that they doubt their own version of events, or feel like they have done something wrong. In some cases, children may have been groomed for sexual abuse, experience verbal abuse, or physical abuse. We can’t keep our kids in a bubble, but we can teach them some things that will enable them to recognize unhealthy behaviors and seek help.
Many adults who experienced unhealthy relationships or abuse at a young age have grown to be happy and fulfilled adults, but they were resilient and got the support that they needed to move forward in a positive direction. We will be sharing some strategies family members can use to help build their children’s prevention skills in a series of articles in the coming months as a regular feature.
Why do kids with disabilities experience such high rates of abuse?
As a parent of two delightful kids, my child who was diagnosed with a disability had a high number of professionals in his life at an early age. While my typically developing child had a teacher and an aide, my son had speech therapists, occupational therapists, inclusion specialists, home visits, tutors, psychologists and an assortment of well meaning adults in his life at an early age. And despite my having earned two degrees in special education, my son’s diagnosis stunned me to a point where I was desperate for information and relied heavily on a team of early intervention specialists who became my lifeline. The typical boundaries of professional relationships became blurry. Sadly, although the majority of disability service providers are dedicated and good hearted professionals, many perpetrators of abuse gain access to their victims through disability support agencies. The high number of care providers also increases the opportunities for abuse. One parent of a child with significant support needs estimated that by the age of 5, her son with a disability had over 80 adults involved in his life, whereas her typically developing child had fewer than 20.
Many children with significant physical disabilities are accustomed to adult assistance for personal care like bathing, dressing, and using the bathroom. It may be difficult for them to distinguish between an assistive touch and an illegal touch. As well-meaning adults, we may interview our kids asking if anyone has “hurt” them, however a sexual touch may feel confusing or different, but may not fit someone’s definition of “hurt, and therefore go unreported. To further complicate things, many of us teach our children what we have been taught about not “letting” people touch their private parts, which places an unreasonable burden of outsmarting perpetrators on the child. This might make the child believe that they did something to deserve the abuse, or blame themselves. Many children are taught to be respectful and defer to adults, which may be considered as trained compliance to the demands of adults. Respectfully objecting to a request from an adult or superior can be interpreted as sassy or noncompliant, and it requires a lot of practice and rehearsal that many kids rarely are taught.
“A stranger is a friend I haven’t met yet.”
Friend is a word we hear a lot, but let’s think carefully about who receives the label “friend” and what it implies. For most of us, friends are people we trust, and to have earned that trust takes some time. For many of us, they have proved their loyalty over years. Social media has upped the ante on the term friend, by providing a public count of the number of your “friends.” Adults frequently introduce children to one another and then chastise them minutes later for mistreating their new friend, or welcoming a child into a group of unknown kids and asking them to join their friends. For people who struggle to learn social nuances, there’s a fine line between teaching someone to be trusting or standoffish and fearful. And what about paid supporters, who regularly perform the tasks of friends, yet typically do not have contact with someone outside of their paid position? Although they frequently perform the same tasks a friend might, staff may not spend unpaid time with the people being supported or share personal time with them. Generally, reliance on paid support for someone with few other social networks can lead to heartbreaking separation once an employee leaves. It also increases vulnerability and the chances of being victimized.
Just as young people are taught to discriminate between different letters or numbers, we can teach characteristics of healthy and unhealthy. To make this easier to explain, we can separate the people we know into categories of good friends, romantic partners, friends, paid support, acquaintances and strangers. An additional category should be reserved for people we no longer want in our lives anymore; people who have proved to be untrustworthy or hurtful. Relationships with people may move between categories- a friend becomes a romantic partner, or a good friend moves away and becomes an acquaintance. Once trust is earned from someone, sometimes it doesn’t last forever. If trust is broken, it’s okay to switch a person from a trusted friend category to someone who is no longer a close friend.
One thing we know is that if someone experiences an unhealthy or abusive relationship, telling someone they trust how they feel is one of the first steps toward resilience. To support that, it’s helpful to help identify a person who they know they can count on, who will never hurt them on purpose, and who they would feel comfortable sharing any information-even if it’s embarrassing or traumatic. It should be a person who is not likely to make them feel worse if they are having a bad day or need to admit a mistake. Sometimes this is a family member, teacher, or other well meaning adult. Identifying the person ahead of time may be helpful if someone finds themselves in a situation when they need help. Writing the person’s name and contact information down can provide a visual prompt to reach out if necessary. But remember to write it in pencil because as we grow and our situations change, our relationships with the people around us also evolve and change, and we may want to literally erase that person as our trusted contact and change it to another person. For kids or adults who do not use words to communicate, asking questions about their time spent with others and offering an opportunity for autonomy by answering yes or no questions about their preferred care providers may also be very empowering in preventing unhealthy situations in the future.
Parenting a child with a disability presents added benefits and challenges. We, as family members, can provide our kids with the strategies that they need to live happy, independent lives with safe and healthy relationships.
Next Issue: Establishing boundaries with the people we know.
About the authors: In addition to being moms of wonderful sons who were diagnosed on the autism spectrum, Molly Dellinger-Wray and Parthy Dinora are part of The Partnership for People with Disabilities at Virginia Commonwealth University, a university center for excellence in developmental disabilities. Molly and Parthy helped on a team to develop a project to teach adults with intellectual disabilities about healthy relationships called LEAP: Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention.