Our 24 year old adult son Zach lives at home.  He requires full and constant supervision, medical care and help with his activities of daily living.  As challenging as his care may be, there are a few upsides to being the parent of an adult kiddo like Zachary.  One of them, is that as long as he is with a trusted caregiver, and/or one of us, we know he is safe.  This is not the case for the parents of Zach’s typically developing peer counterparts, and I don’t envy their sleepless nights.

This is on my mind because I was chatting with a friend recently who shared her dilemma about one of her friends’ teenagers.  The teen confided something concerning to my friend, and she wanted to somehow alert this teen’s parents.  Her dilemma was that she didn’t want to violate the trust of this young woman.  But she sensed there may be danger looming and couldn’t keep that possibility to herself.  There is no right way to handle this type of challenge but we talked through it well enough to come up with a reasonable set of next steps.  Fingers crossed.

But this experience brought up some old baggage for me.  And I am sharing it here, to drive home a critical point for anyone in a care/responsibility role with a young person:  Unless we are taught otherwise, young people generally operate under the policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  By that, I mean that lying by omission is not a crime many young people worry about.  As long as they answer the questions coming from the adult cohort they feel like they are being honest.

Perhaps this has happened in your own household with a teen, or any family member?  We ask a teenager how their day was and they confirm it was fine.  We ask a student about school, we get one word answers.  I have first hand experience with this.  Both as the adult, and also long (long) ago as a young person.

As I think back over it, there were many times that I was vulnerable growing up.  First, as a young girl, then as a teenager, and eventually a young women.  If I decide to write about ways that I have been exploited as a human being over my lifetime, that would be a post for another day.  But for this conversation, what I will share is that when asked how my day was as a school girl, I probably gave one word answers.  But no one ever asked me if the following thing happened, and I never told a soul.  Sure wish I had but like many people, I was too scared and embarrassed.

As a fifth grader I attended an elementary school across town with a couple of my peer neighbors.  We bussed to this other district so we could enroll in the “Gifted & Talented” program there.  This was my second year at the school and I distinctly recall my classroom was in the basement that year.  I could smell the mish-mash of cafeteria food during most hours of the school day because it too, was in the basement.

We had four or five rows of desks which faced the left side of a long, narrow room.  My desk was on the far right, two or three back from the front.  On my right was a concrete wall and on my left the other desks.  Opposite the front of the lined up desks, in what would be considered to be the back of the room, and behind the students, was the teacher’s desk.  I guess she was expected to monitor everything going on from the back of the group.  But that’s not what happened.

I heard some kids giggling behind me.  When I heard a boy’s voice say “Hey Lisa!” I looked to my left, and there in front of my face was the bare naked genitalia of a male student who had dropped his pants and started laughing.

I don’t actually remember what my reaction was, other than turning beet red and staring at whatever I pretended to be doing.  The raucous quieted down for those who’d seen this and been entertained, and the boy (who wasn’t exactly a fifth grader to the best of my recollection) pulled up his trousers and left me alone.

I was mortified.

When I went home that evening, and for all of the evenings for the rest of my childhood, and now into my 50s, I never told my parents, teachers, friends.  Not a soul.  Until today.

Many of us learn at an early age to keep our mouths shut.  Girls and women generally understand that our word is not the last one and if anything we probably “asked for” whatever trouble may have found us.  I am sharing this today, because the way we learn not to trust ourselves is an incredibly dangerous norm.

Personally, I am not arguing that I did, or didn’t experience trauma in that unfortunate situation.  But suffice it to say the whole thing left a mark on my 11 year old self, not sure I can really describe it.  What I am arguing, and yelling as loudly as I can, is that kids, boys and girls, don’t volunteer things like:

“School was good, except for that one kid who put his naked penis in my face and laughed at me.”

Kids just say “School was good” and leave it at that, like I did.  For 40 years.  This specific incident aside, there is a good chance that situations like these reinforce the idea that we should keep things to ourselves.  It happened so fast.  On the face of it no one was hurt.  Better to stay under the radar.

The problem is that kids (and adults) can make a habit of trying not to be seen.  We can become so accustomed to glossing over our own experiences, especially the shocking and disturbing ones, that we learn to volunteer as little as possible.  And in doing so, we embody and normalize the spirit of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  It is in the darkness around this approach that secrets live, grow and destroy the confidence, safety and security of our kids.

Let’s get a little more creative by asking more questions like:

  • What’s the best thing that happened to you since I saw you this morning?
  • What was the best or worst part of your day?”
  • Did anyone make you feel uncomfortable today?
  • What happened today that was a surprise to you?
  • Did you feel safe in your own skin today?
  • Did you help anyone that needed it today?

If we are asking these questions regularly, we might just normalize the idea that hard things can and do happen.  And then when they do, we won’t have to worry about “Don’t ask, don’t tell” because we are asking them “feeling” questions about their experience, not specifics on what someone did, or about getting someone in trouble.

Because the biggest trouble of all is when young people who try to stay invisible become adult people and don’t feel seen.  When that happens, the door opens wide for far worse than a school kid prank.  And even those leave a mark.

Please talk to our young people.  Ask questions about how they “feel” instead of how their “day” was.  If you hear something alarming, talk with a trusted guide who can help you walk through the best way to protect that child and also keep their trust.

Safety and trust are jeopardized when we stop talking.  And there is nothing gifted or talented about that.

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