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Why Child Survivors Obey

Caring for child trafficking survivors is unspeakably complicated. Their needs begin in the extreme and end in the impossible. For the lucky ones, their experiences, while excruciating, hold great hope for recovery into a relatively normal life. These are the kids who found themselves in sexual slavery because of bad decisions or a job search gone terribly wrong. These are the ones with parents and families who love them and who are fighting with them for their healing.

Then there are others who have a much more difficult time with the healing process. These are the ones who never had a family to begin with or, if they did, it was their family that initiated the violence and exploitation in their young lives. These are the ones that begin their recovery with very little sense of love or value because they have never experienced what a protective, caring relationship is like. These are the kids that begin fighting and breaking house rules in their aftercare centers BECAUSE they are experiencing love for the first time, and they do not know what to do with that kind of relationship. It terrifies them.

Whichever end of the spectrum child survivors are in, all aftercare centers struggle to find the line between tough love and gentleness. We recognize that deeply wounded children will wound others and that fear initiates a host of behavioral problems, but we also know that boundaries are crucial and teaching children to develop mutually respectful relationships is a core life skill.

One thing that is helpful is to remember that obedience can come from two different places. Obedience can be a product of fear, and to be frank child survivors are very good at this kind of obedience. They know exactly what it is like to do something only because they know the threat behind the command to obey. This is not the kind of obedience that we want in our aftercare centers. Children that obey merely because they fear the consequences are not healed children.

What we are really after is obedience that comes from a place of trust. This kind of obedience does not require agreement or even understanding. It only requires belief that love is behind the rules and that the rules are designed for life-giving and not exploitation. It requires a survivor to believe that their caregiver is trustworthy. Our goal is to have this kind of obedience when it comes to rule-following, but we know it is very, very hard to cultivate this kind of trust in children who have been destroyed by people in power over them. Trusting does not come easy when you expect betrayal and selfishness. It is only won by consistent compassion that does not waver through the worst tantrums and rule-breaking. It is won by gently enforcing the consequences while refusing to attach identity to misbehavior. It is won by love.

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