“My 7 year old child was approached by a man who exposed his genitals to her in the park. I have reported it to the police but worry what damage this might do and how best to deal with the situation from here.”
What a disgraceful, horrible situation to be in. I am so, so sorry to hear that this has happened to your child.
A Stranger Exposed Himself to My Child
I will answer this question in two ways. First, I’ll address ways that you might deal with the situation with your child as the victim of this kind of assault. Second, I’ll address ways that you might help your child understand this scenario in a case where they’re not the victim, but may be a sibling or friend or classmate of the victim.
When your child is the victim
There is some controversy in the psychological field around the best way to help people who experience traumatic events. One of the more popular suggestions that is often promoted is that of some kind of ‘talk-therapy’ or ‘stress-debriefing’ may be useful. The idea here is that when something stressful or traumatic occurs, the victim needs to be able to talk it out. A trained therapist can help them make sense of the trauma they’ve experienced and respond to it in constructive ways.
This idea of some psychological debriefing seems like an effective intervention on the surface. Surely getting people to discuss their feelings and experience can be helpful, rather than keeping it all bottled up.
But let’s put this idea to the side for a moment and consider an alternative method of dealing with the issue. Rather than having our child re-live the horrible experience, what about letting a little time go by and then see if she is still traumatised. If so, we could have her write about her thoughts and emotions and how it relates to her life for four nights in a row. We could chat with her about what she had written and provide some gentle ideas about why that man did such a thing, and what it says about him – and how it has nothing to do with her. And that’s it.
Which would be more effective?
If you’re like me – and most other people – you’d probably be inclined to think that trained professionals and special techniques would be needed. It makes sense that an immediate intervention is best, and that trained psychologists or counsellors can make the most positive impact. But that would be wrong.
Scientists have found, however, that people who receive that ‘special’ and immediate help in a variety of traumatic circumstances end up more traumatised, more anxious and stressed, and more depressed than those who don’t get that ‘help’’. In fact, a report by Harvard psychologist Richard McNally into these debrief techniques, said that “for scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people.”
Instead, the writing exercise, which has been tested in dozens of experiments (where people write about personal trauma vs mundane daily life) seems to promote more pain during the writing, but lead to far better outcomes and improvements over time.
So, in short, it seems that the best thing you can do for your child is ask her to write about the incident for four consecutive nights, describing her thoughts and emotions in relation to the incident. After that, you may wish to have a brief discussion where you assure her that “the man” has some weird problems and the police will help him once they find him.
Additionally, you may wish to ask her if she has any questions – and then answer them honestly and directly, particularly if they relate to issues of a sexual nature. She doesn’t need to hear everything, but she does deserve to have some idea of sex. Lastly, it is imperative that she understand that she has nothing to feel bad about.
As hard as it is, don’t dwell on the issue. Instead, let it go, and always be open to responding to her clearly and directly. And check in one or two times per year, just to see that she’s ok. Do it discreetly and lightly, but check in just to stay across things.