Note: In this post, I write about talking with my daughter about “unwanted touching” and about feeling powerless in medical situations. Please proceed with care and self-compassion if either of these is a trigger for you.
I asked my daughter this morning, “If a doctor does something that hurts you or makes you feel uncomfortable, is it okay to tell the doctor, ‘No! Don’t do that!’?”
“No, it’s not okay,” my daughter answered, eyes wide.
I felt a tingle of fear in my chest.
She and I have been attending the “Our Whole Lives” K-1 sexuality class series at our church for the past few weeks. We talk about our bodies and the cool things they can do and how to keep our bodies safe and healthy. We talk about relationships and families and the different ways families are made. This weekend the topic was what to do if someone touches you or says something that hurts or just feels wrong in some way.
It was pretty intense.
At one point I started getting nervous. I wondered if my daughter, at just shy of seven years old, was too young to be learning this. Beyond her brother head-butting her, I don’t think she’s ever thought about someone doing something to hurt her or needing to defend herself. I worried that this would plant a seed of fear in her that would make her distrustful and nervous. I want my daughter to trust herself, including trusting her fear and her intuition, but I want her to trust other people, too. I don’t want her to be fearful; I want her to be confident and safe.
“Why is it not okay to say no to a doctor?” I asked as evenly as possible, my heart pounding in my ears.
“Because she’s a doctor and the things she’s doing are to make you better, even if they hurt,” my daughter answered.
My husband says I hate doctors. This isn’t completely accurate. I just don’t trust doctors implicitly. In my experience, most doctors act as though they have a right to act upon my body in whatever way they choose, regardless of the opinion of the person (me) attached to the body. This kind of attitude tends to turn interactions with doctors into traumatic experiences for me.
I am not good at speaking up to doctors. I dislike conflict and in my experience, doctors do not back down easily, which makes it necessary to be very, very clear and firm about my preferences. I generally lack that level of conviction when in a medical setting, especially when there’s the lurking fear that, even if I’m crystal clear and expertly assertive, they’ll do just what I’ve told them not to.
Exhibit A: My experience birthing my first child at the hospital. I went into it with my experience as a doula and all of my education and information. I knew what I wanted and I was prepared to get it. But when I was there, I became someone I didn’t recognize. I can’t have my underwear back? Okay. I can’t move more than three feet from my bed? No problem. You want to perform procedures on me that are not medically indicated without my informed consent and that I’ve specifically said I don’t want? Have at it. You want to have residents perform these procedures for the first time on me? Sure. I did put my foot down when the doctor told me to pick the time for my non-medically-indicated c-section (and I birthed my daughter vaginally just hours later, thank you very much).
Or perhaps my daughter’s birth is Exhibit B and Exhibit A is when, at age 6, I kicked and screamed myself purple while four grown men held me down so a nurse could give me a booster shot. Or maybe it’s when—well, there are a lot of reasons why I distrust medical-type people.
My question is, how do I teach my daughter to stand up for herself when receiving medical treatment when it’s not something I’m adept at doing myself? How do I teach her to both trust and distrust an authority figure? And how do I do this without giving her a phobia of doctors?
Here’s what I went with:
“Sometimes doctors need to do things that hurt our bodies in order to help our bodies heal themselves. Like when you got your stitches? It hurt to get those, but it helped your body heal faster than if you hadn’t gotten them. But it’s a doctor’s job to make sure that they don’t hurt us emotionally while they’re helping us physically. Doctors are human beings. They’re not always right. And they don’t always know how the things they’re doing feel to their patients. If you tell them, that gives them a chance to explain what’s going on to you better. If they explain it well enough, what they do might still hurt your body, but you will feel comfortable in your heart and in your mind. If you don’t feel comfortable in your heart and your mind, they’re not helping you the way they’re supposed to do.”
My explanation was clumsy and wordy, and doesn’t remotely address all of the nuances I was trying to get across. I know we’re going to have to have this conversation multiple times before I feel confident that she understands that no one has carte blanche to do or say things that hurt her or make her feel icky or weird just because they’re a doctor or a minister or a police officer or a relative or a friend of one of her parents or anyone else in authority. I want her to know in her heart, without a doubt, that she matters and her feelings matter and that no one has a right to manipulate her or wield power over her for any reason.
It’s a complicated message to get across. I hope that, through a combination of my words and my actions, I’ll be able to leave her with the confidence to protect herself. And maybe I can gain more skill in standing up for myself in the process.
Have you addressed this issue with your own children or in some other setting? What have you found works to help kids feel confident that they have the tools to protect themselves rather than fearful of the “bad” things that might happen?