Support for Parents
Feelings you may be experiencing
Parents whose children have been sexually abused talk about experiencing a kind of grieving after the disclosure of the abuse. Some parents of children who have been abused describe the grieving as death without someone dying. They feel the pain is long and never ending as the abuser remains, to some degree, in their life. There is a sense of much loss when a child has been abused. For the non-offending parent there may be the loss of what may have been a good marriage or partnership. You may feel the loss of years of work put into a marriage and perhaps creating a family. You may grieve for your child's loss of a sense of safety and trust. Feeling that your other children, your parents and other relatives may have a sense of something lost is common.
Even though you may come to accept that you are not responsible for the abuse itself, often a parent can be left with many feelings of responsibility. You are expected to be strong and supportive of your abused child and others. You are expected to make the right decisions for your child, even though you may not know what these decisions are. You may be responsible for making choices such as: Should l tell my other children, parents and relatives? Should l allow my children to have any contact with the person who abused my child? How do I protect other children now that l know he/she is an abuser? You might feel that it is almost impossible to make any of these choices. Some parents find solutions to these problems quite quickly, while for many the decisions will only come with time after speaking with supportive friends, family and counsellors.
As well as grief and responsibility, it is likely that you and your child are experiencing a whole range of conflicting emotions. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Each person will react in their own way and confusion is common.
A Mothers Love....
Upon disclosure, mothers often feel anger, shock, grief and confusion and tend to blame themselves for not "knowing". They may also experience a crisis in parenting and lose faith in their judgement. It is common for mothers to feel full of guilt, self blame and shame. They may begin to question their relationship with the child, particularly if the child disclosed to someone else and if the abuse had been going on for a long time. In these circumstances the mother may ask herself: "Why couldn't he/she tell me?" or "Why couldn't he/she tell me sooner?"
It can help to talk about some of the reasons why the child felt unable to tell you. The offender may, for example, have threatened the child, made the child feel "bad", and encouraged the child to feel responsible for protecting both you and the family unit.
Mothers may feel particularly guilty because we are taught that it is our job to keep our children safe. Mothers tend to have more day to day responsibilty for their children and may feel guilty for not noticing behaviour changes or for not listening carefully enough.
The reality is that we can never protect our children from everything.
When things go wrong in our lives it is a natural response to want to blame someone or something. Often we need to blame because it is less painful than admitting one is totally helpless. Guilt can be easier to handle than feeling powerless.
Not all your child’s behaviour will be related to the sexual assault. Children have different worlds to grown-ups. As a parent, you think you know everything in their world, but you don’t. Things are important to a child that perhaps a grown up wouldn’t register as important. This is because we have big people’s concerns. Parents need to remember the child’s world.
It is important to remember that everyone in a family will feel distress following a child’s disclosure of sexual assault, and will each react or behave differently as a result of this distress. A common reaction for parents is to suddenly place their child or children “under a microscope” where every thought, feeling and behaviour is attributed solely to the sexual assault(s). Similarly, if you have read about or know of a child who had disclosed sexual abuse, you may begin to “see” such signs in your child. Perhaps you were sexually assaulted as a child, and now feel hyperaware in relation to your child’s behaviours.
As parents, try to think about what else is going on around your child. Ask yourself questions i.e. Is this a behaviour that my child demonstrated before the abuse? Whilst you may consider your child's behaviour as indicative of the sexual assault, they may also be signals relating to other things impacting upon your child or family.
Children may experience psychological reactions to a traumatic incident. They react to frightening events in many different ways and there is no typical or “normal” reaction. Younger children in particular may find it very hard to understand what has happened to them, their parents or siblings. Like adults, they will have strong feelings; unlike adults, they may not be able to tell you how they are feeling and instead will express their emotions through their behaviour. When a family member experiences a trauma, everyone in the family is affected. It will take time for the family to adjust as they try to understand the reactions of other family members, and may have to learn to relate to each other in new ways.
Some common reactions in children include:
- fearfulness, especially at night or when separated from parents
- clinging, dependent behaviour
- a return to “babyish” behaviour that they had grown out of
- nightmares and sleep disturbance
- aches and pains
- general misbehaviour and “naughtiness”
- grizzling and whining
- tantrums and attention seeking behaviour
- poor school performance
These problems are all normal reactions to an abnormal event that has affected the whole family. It is important not to get angry and blame the child for this behaviour.
How to help
Like adults, most children’s reactions diminish over time. Parents and other adults can help the recovery process in the following ways:
- Keep communicating: talk about what is happening, how family members feel and what they need from each other. This helps prevent children from feeling alone, isolated and misunderstood.
- Reassure them that they are safe and will be cared for.
- Listen and talk to them about the experience; honest, open discussion is best, as the unknown is often more frightening than the reality for children. Even very young children know that something is going on and, again, the reality is easier for them to deal with than the unknown.
- Some children will need extra encouragement or special attention, especially at bedtime.
- Allow expression of emotions - they are part of the healing process; support the child and allow them time to work through it.
- Do things as a family and make sure time is reserved for enjoyable and rewarding experiences together. Shared pleasure carries a family through many difficulties.
- Keep family roles clear: don’t allow children to take too much responsibility for too long, even if they want to care for a distressed parent. Equally, do not become too overprotective of children after a trauma; try to understand if they cannot fulfil their role for a time (like going to school or helping around the house), but talk about how they will resume normal activities as soon as possible.
- As much as possible, treat the child the same as you normally would. The child then can understand that you don't see them as 'damaged' or different to what they were before the disclosure.
Messages for your child
- I believe you.
- It is not your fault, no matter what has happened.
- The offender is to blame for what has happened.
- The adult or big person knew what they were doing was wrong.
- Adults can do wrong things like assaulting kids.
- The adult or big person knew that this was a bad secret.
- Now that I know, I will do everything I can to keep you safe.
- I know about other children who have had this happen.
- As far as possible I will try to limit the number of people who know about it.
Remember, make no promises you can't keep.
Like adults, most children will adapt and grow through a crisis with the love and support of their family and friends. However, if the child’s reactions are particularly severe or prolonged, or if you have other concerns about the way that your child is reacting to a traumatic incident, do not hesitate to contact someone who is trained to assess the situation and advise you. Try contacting your local G.P or Health Visitor.