When I was a card-carrying, church-based youth worker, I never met a teenager with an eating disorder until the week I talked openly about what I was learning about eating disorders.
I never interacted with a person struggling with sexual identity or gender dysphoria until I started to express gently and honestly what I was learning about sexuality.
I never knew anyone engaged in self-harm until I described what I was learning about self-harm.
I never met a survivor of sexual assault in any form until I spoke frankly about sexual assault in all its forms.
I never knew what I never knew about teenagers around me until I intentionally and authentically gave the impression that I was open, safe, trustworthy, and steadfast.
Authenticating that impression certainly wasn't accomplished in a single move.
- It meant accepting the possibility I was wrong about some things I'd taken for granted.
- It required learning to talk less and — without interrogating — listen more perceptively.
- It meant eliminating the lazy, cocky humor that looks for laughs in teasing — or plainly insulting — people about gender, sexuality, physical characteristics, puberty, menstruation, strength, agility, coordination, aesthetic sensibilities, emotional sensitivity — right down to haircuts and clothing choices.
This week, The Washington Post's Petula Dvorak, wrote a column titled, "It's the Silence that Traps Them," about five boys — now men in their 50s — who were scared silent for decades after being molested by then Coach Dennis Hastert. One of those men, Scott Cross, testified at Mr. Hastert's sentencing in Chicago last week.
“I wanted you to know the pain and suffering he caused me then and still causes me today,” Mr. Cross told the court. “Most importantly, I want my children and anyone else who was ever treated the way I was to know that there is an alternative to staying silent.”
I have come to believe we — parents, youth workers, teachers, coaches, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, caring adults of every description — are the alternative to staying silent. But only if people in pain ... children, teenagers, and adults ... know we are open, safe, trustworthy, and steadfast.
We're the ones who have to change. We have to enter the silence and bring them out.