"I was sexually abused as a child and have recently had a baby daughter. I know I will want to wrap her up in cotton wool as she gets older due to fear of the same thing happening to her. How can I protect her and give her the freedom she needs to grow up?"
This is a hard one because you cannot un-know what you know, and nor should you. Your daughter can be more empowered and stronger because of your insight.
We can partially protect our children through controlling the environments they are exposed to: when they are younger, not allowing them to be in vulnerable situations, and when they are older, teaching them what situations to avoid and why. For example, an older teenager coming home on time but having to leave their friends might mean they are more vulnerable than if they stayed out later with a group.
For younger children, it is not paranoid to ask to see what Safeguarding Children policy is used by any organised activity you leave your child in (including church ones). I would also ask how they implement it.
Learn to listen carefully to your child, as they have their own instincts. Check out if they feel comfortable and happy in the settings they are in, and if they give any negative indication, explore with them what is behind this. You can then create strategies together to overcome the problem. Be mindful of not imposing on them your own filter of abuse anxiety, and try to truly listen to their world, which is not yours.
Greater protection than controlling environments is developing their ‘nous’. At the youngest age this starts with giving them clarity about what touch is ok and what is not. Discuss this gently. Help them understand that their private parts are just for them, because these parts are special (not because they are embarrassing). Don’t alarm them with too much information; just give the simple principles that would enable them to know if something was wrong. Most libraries have carefully written children’s stories that enable parents to talk through these concepts.
Bring them up to know that there are a few good secrets, such as giving someone a birthday present; but there are also bad secrets that allow people to do wrong things that make people unhappy. Let them know they are doing the right thing to break a bad secret and that they can check out with adults they trust whether they should be keeping a secret or not. Give them ideas of other good adults they can talk to as well as yourselves as parents.
Assertiveness skills and self-esteem will also protect your daughter. We do not want to produce inflexible kids, but we want them to have the confidence to say no assertively, both directly to the person involved and also to draw in external help. The key is to teach them good values around what is important. Remember too that abuse can come from children as well as adults. An NSPCC survey found that the highest proportion of sexual abuse experienced by teens (66%) was perpetrated by people under 18. Encourage her as she gets older on how to hold her own boundaries and to be proud of herself when she does not ‘go along with the crowd’.
When she is old enough to go on sleep-overs with her friends and do things without your supervision, give her a mobile phone. We want to teach our kids that they are never stuck in a bad situation.
So much of this is about teaching her non-victim values and keeping good communication with her as she goes through the different stages of growing independence. Wrapping her in cotton wool will actually make her more vulnerable; better to equip her with the skills needed to navigate the realities of the fearful and wonderful world we live in.
Be careful to keep processing your own fears so as not to impose them on her. Strengthen your own view of all the safety and trustworthiness in the world, and pass onto her a lack of anxiety, based on good decisions and healthy environments.
In all of this, enjoy the ride of parenting. Love a lot, laugh a lot, be quick to say sorry and to learn; the rest we can only let go of and trust to God.