16 Nov Olympic Gold: Child Abuse and Strong Families
At Penn State’s Child Sexual Abuse Conference, Olympic medalists Sugar Ray Leonard and Margaret Hoelzer, as well as Elizabeth Smart, who had been abducted as a child, told very different stories about how they handled sexual abuse.
Boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard told how, as a teenager, he was sexually abused by a man who had been giving him financial support. Some time later, with another man who was then providing financial support, it happened again. He went home from both of these experiences shattered and in shame, and told nobody. Why didn’t he talk with his parents, I asked him. He said his parents cared about him, but they were ‘old school, they weren’t open and easy to talk with. He took out his anger and rage in the boxing ring. But as he grew older, Sugar Ray continued to suffer alone, using drugs and alcohol to “numb” the pain that never went away. He became sober six years ago, but still has not talked about these devastating experiences with his parents or siblings.
As a young girl, swimmer Margaret Hoelzer was abused by her father’s friend. Fortunately, Margaret was close to her mother and soon after, shared what happened. Her mother sought professional help and Margaret began her ongoing healing process. She channeled her fury through swimming, and told herself she was stronger than competitors because she had survived a horrible experience. But, with support and help, Margaret did not develop addictions or other destructive habits. Now 29, she speaks openly about sexual abuse, advocates for child protection, and runs swim clinics for children. (I suggested to her that she combine her passions, and begin offering workshops for child athletes around staying safe and healthy!)
Elizabeth Smart, abducted at age 14 by a stranger, told us what helped her survive throughout her horrific nine-month ordeal. Elizabeth single-mindedly focused on the love of her parents and family, and decided she would outlast her horror. She outwitted her captors and led them back to her hometown, where she was recognized by bystanders and rescued. Elizabeth now studies harp and speaks out on behalf child abuse prevention. She told me that the child abuse tragedy at Penn State that have come to light now give us an opportunity to create national change in the way we protect our children.
Bottom line: Open communication and shared love in a family make a difference when bad things happen to a child.
If children feel safe and loved in their family before bad things happen, they are more likely to share these experiences with their parents and get the help they need. If not, shame and anger can easily lead to self-destructive and harmful ways of coping. And even if the bad things that happen to a child are the more normal problems of bullying, school difficulties, or simply feelings of insecurity, family bonding can still make all the difference for how kids talk about, deal with, and—when necessary—get help for their problems.
At Family Foundations, we believe that cohesive, loving families begin even before the first child is born. A strong family starts with how pregnant moms and dads prepare together, as a team, to support each other and their new baby!