The unthinkable has happened. You’re numb, panicked, and crazed with anger all at the same time. You’re precious jewel has just told you that he or she has been sexually abused – worse yet – by someone you know, love, and trust.
The aftermath of such a tragedy can be a whirlwind of events, police, doctors, social workers, and therapists. The list of new professionals suddenly intruding upon the intimate details of your personal life is staggering. Of course, you cooperate. The safety, health, and welfare of your baby is at stake.
Then, the high tide recedes as the logistics are underway. Your child is protected and receiving counseling. You are left with a big, old vacuum.
What about me?
Please feel not an ounce of shame or weakness asking this question. In fact, it’s one of the single-most important observations you can make, so, go ahead, feel some pride in your self-awareness. You, and perhaps others in your family, are the secondary victims of sexual abuse.
Coping with your reactions to the challenges that now rest on your shoulders can feel overwhelming. You’re trying to keep everything together while, inside, you’re falling apart. You need help, too, especially if you were also a child victim of sexual abuse.
A better you will make a better life for your child.
Throughout the course of my career, I’ve treated many families who have experienced this and other traumas. Individual, group, or family therapy can offer indescribable support that will point you and your family on the road to recovery.
Below I’ve listed some common concerns that emerged among the parents whom I’ve worked with. If you’ve been in this unfortunate situation, they will hopefully provide some comfort and validation.
Above all, it’s not your fault
Many parents think, “If I were a better parent, if we didn’t argue so much, if I were home more, if, if, if, if....” Fill in the blank with your own “if.” The sad fact is this: There is no sure-fire way to prevent sexual abuse. If there were, I wouldn’t need to write this article. The “ifs” are a natural way to try to gain control over an awful situation.
Although rates of sexual abuse may reportedly be on the decline, Darkness to Light reports that as many as one in 10 children will be sexually abused by age 18. So, please remember three things:
1 | You are not psychic (at least, I assume you’re not) and could not have prevented this.
2 | A determined sex offender will abuse despite the obstacles in their way.
3 | Sex offenders are exceptionally adept at setting the stage so no one would ever suspect a thing.
Your grief is a big deal
You’ve had a huge shock. It’s perfectly natural for many confusing emotions to come tumbling out of nowhere. Anger at the offender, at the system, at yourself, even – cringe – at your child because you’re wishing they had told you sooner so you could’ve protected them better.
Your child has lost his innocence, and so have you. You’ve lost your sense of safety and your trust in those around you. Perhaps you’re struggling with the profound disappointment that someone you loved is not who you thought they were.
You may even be questioning your own judgment while simultaneously feeling saddened, guilty, confused, shamed, enraged, and yet hopeful, all at once. These feelings are a normal part of the process. Finding support through your own therapist can help you navigate this bumpy terrain.
This is an adjustment period
The old day-to-day normalcy may fade as routines and relationships likely become disrupted. But soon, you will settle into a “new normal.” Don’t rush it. Allow the process to take place naturally. There will be bumps as you and your child find your way. With patience and a comfortable new pattern, an even stronger relationship will emerge between you and your child.
You need education and support
You’re in a situation that you’ve never been in before, so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know what to do or say. You might, but it’s okay if you don’t. Bounce situations off the helping professionals in your life.
A therapist who is experienced with evidence-based practices for sexual abuse, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy, would be ideal for you and your child. Your child will likely be learning many new things in treatment, perhaps about boundaries, assertiveness, and healthy relationships. You need to keep up! Active involvement in your healing and your child’s growth can result in a stronger and wiser family unit.
Seeking your own support models great self-care
Remaining involved and engaged in your child’s treatment process is not the same as getting your own needs met. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of seeking out your own individual therapist. Some areas offer groups for parents of sexually abused children. You’ll have a lot on your plate and, yes, this is a crazy-busy time in your life, which actually reinforces the need for professional assistance with stress management.
You’ll be teaching your child that it’s okay to ask for help when there is a problem. You’ll be teaching her that sexual abuse is not to be kept a secret. Some children are quite reluctant to get counseling due to a fear of talking about the “horrible thing,” but research shows that’s exactly what they need to do.
By getting your own treatment, you demonstrate the importance of talking about the hard stuff. Children are amazingly resilient. At times, for whatever reason, adults may have a bit more trouble bouncing back. Your own therapy can offer a private place to break down, out of your child’s sight.
If your own therapy isn’t feasible due to budget or schedule, books like “When Your Child Has Been Molested”, by Kathryn Brohl, with Joyce Case Potter, can be an invaluable resource.
Lastly, if you’re reading this article for a friend or just out of general interest, I’d like to thank you. Parents of sexually abused children are in a lonely position and often have a small or non-existent pool of support to reach out to. It shouldn’t be that way.
RAIIN estimates that every eight minutes, a report of sexual abuse is substantiated. Chances are you know more than one person who has walked this road. Maybe you, with this information in mind, can be the person to help that parent feel not so alone.