Parents of Sexually Abused Children
Much has been written about the emotional trauma experienced by the sexually abused child. According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, over 85,000 children are sexually abused in America each year. That figure could in reality be much larger, since much abuse goes unreported or unnoticed.
The emotional distress parents endure also runs deep and frequently goes unnoticed. In the course of working with abused children, therapists have noted that parents often experience symptoms of PTSD, deep anger and depression. Thoughts of violent revenge have lead several fathers to murder.
A parent’s emotional state plays a large role in their child’s mental health. A child who notices his/ her mother’s extreme distress upon disclosure of the event could experience anxiety, confusion and deep guilt, leading to an impeded path to recovery. Clinicians have noted that children of depressed mothers display higher levels of emotional problems than the children of more balanced mothers.
Also common is a shift in relationship between the child and his/her father. A father’s physical interaction with the child may become more tentative, fearing to remind their child of the molestation. Some children reject their father’s affection when the perpetrator is also a man. For fathers this can lead to feelings of failure, powerlessness and the fear of becoming a lesser family member in the eyes of their children.
Incest adds additional complications. Some mothers may react in defense of their husbands, sometimes to the point of denial. The maternal imperative to protect a child can conflict with her desire to support the family structure. In a recent study, mothers who did not believe their child’s claim that incest had occurred gave less accurate reports of their children’s symptomatology than mothers who believed their child’s assertions.
Fathers tend to have more vengeful responses to molestation, becoming more violent when the molester is a step-father, new husband or lover of the mother; possibly as a reaction to the implied threat a new man creates in the biological father’s sense of family hierarchy.
However, when the molester is from the father’s family (as was the case in almost half of the families in the study), the father’s reactions were less violent and more grief-driven, similar to emotions due to the death of a loved one. Some fathers expressed a sense of their child’s innocence “dying”.
A parent’s emotional stability is critical to the continuing recovery of their molested child, which in many cases takes years. With therapy, as well as support from family and friends, most parents of molested children can learn to move beyond the trauma and be a source of comfort and healing. Their family bonds may even become stronger as a result of overcoming the trauma together.