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Do You Suspect Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused?

Information, Resources and Support From Mel Langston, PhD

Narcissistic Abuse and Guidance with Randi Fine

Many factors influence whether a child will tell about sexual abuse. Primary factors include the age of the child, identity of the perpetrator, level and type of threat, perception of the child regarding probability of being believed and protected from the perpetrator, severity of the abuse, and presence of PTSD symptoms. The child judges whether it is safe to tell. If the perpetrator is a family member, the child usually takes longer to tell. The disclosure may feel like betrayal, and the child experiences ambivalence, particularly if disclosure means the child loses a loved family member. Disclosure is a complex process and does not rest on one factor alone, such as a perception that the mother may not believe the disclosure, although that is a primary factor. Other reasons children do not tell:

  • Dependency of children on adults for basic survival needs

  • Ongoing needs of developing child

  • Child's understanding that he or she is supposed to obey parents and other adults with authority

  • Desire to protect perpetrator, such as brother or father

  • Normalizing of the abuse as perpetrator tells victim that this is normal behavior

  • Threats and bribes of perpetrator

  • Fear of violence

  • Anxiety and fear about what will happen if they disclose

  • Guilt and sense of responsibility for the abuse

  • Shame related to the abuse, particularly if her body responded to the stimulation

  • Inability to bring up the subject of sex due to family and/or adult inhibition or prohibition against talking about sex openly

  • The child making a partial disclosure and believing that the adult understood the content and did not act to protect

  • Belief that the mother or parents do not really care about him

  • Reluctance to give up the bribes and rewards that the perpetrator gives

  • Love and loyalty for the perpetrator and possible betrayal bond

  • Reluctance to give up the physical affection of the perpetrator

  • Fear of being blamed for the abuse

  • Fear of destroying the family

The response of a mother to the disclosure that her child has been sexually abused is different for all mothers. The grief reaction of the mother varies depending on such factors as her relationship with the child, relationship with the perpetrator, available coping skills, level of belief in the disclosure, life stress, and anxiety level. Grief reactions, mourning process, and grief tasks are similar to that of the victim. Responses to the disclosure of sexual abuse include:

  • Shock. This is a normal human response to unexpected, painful events.

  • Denial. Denial is also a normal human response that occurs in the short-term following the shock of painful news. However, denial is not healthy if it cannot be overcome fairly quickly. Acceptance of the reality of the abuse is the only way that the mother can provide support and protection to the child.

  • Anger. Anger is also a normal human response to shock, pain, and betrayal. However, if not managed, anger can become a destructive force that impedes healthy communication and processing and consumes the energy of the mother. It can either focus the mother on protective action or defocus her from the immediacy of her role. Anger management skills are crucial during recovery from the shock of discovering your child has been sexually abused.

  • Guilt. Guilt is also a normal maternal response to disclosure of sexual abuse.

  • Depression. Depression will occur if the pain, sadness, guilt, and other negative emotions are not addressed and managed. Depression is debilitating and will interfere in effective function as a mother.

  • Fear and anxiety. Fear is the normal response to threat. Anxiety is the normal response to the unknown. Mothers face a life-altering threat with no knowledge of the outcome.

  • Acceptance. Acceptance is the final stage of a grief process and, in effect, entails facing reality.

  • Confusion - Confusion is a response common to any event out of the ordinary. We try to make sense of it and have conflicting thoughts and feelings.

Denial is a normal, healthy reaction following disclosure. Mothers have to move out of the shock stage and gather strength to face the reality of the sexual abuse and deal with it. Sometimes denial is present for the first few minutes, few hours, few days, few months, or it may be ongoing. The psychological health of the mother and a host of other factors influence the ability of the mother to come to terms with reality. Psychological risk to the child is immediate if the child does not perceive that the mother believes her disclosure of sexual abuse. Belief is the most important factor in maternal support and the most important predictor of victim recovery. If the mother remains in denial and does not accept the sexual abuse of her child, she places the child at risk of future abuse. Denial may present itself in different forms:

  • Denial of the sexual abuse

  • Acceptance of the sexual abuse but denial of its harmful effects

  • Denial of the need for help in resolving the crisis

  • Denial of perpetrator responsibility for the abuse

Denial is a factor by which mothers are judged as capable of continuing to care for their children. Its importance cannot be overemphasized. Denial in the face of shock. Ongoing denial of the event of sexual abuse, the immediate and long-term negative effects, and the absolute responsibility of the perpetrator presents as inability to parent. Another aspect of denial is the tendency of some mothers to move back and forth between denial and acceptance. Denial can feel safe and comfortable. The grief process and acceptance of reality engenders pain, confusion, stress, anger, and losses.

Mothers need support as they come to terms with the abuse and support the child as she processes through the aftermath of child sexual abuse

Acceptance is both an end point and a process. To get to the place of acceptance implies processing the denial, the doubt, the internal conflict and ambivalence, and facing reality. Aspects of acceptance include the willingness to believe something is true and coming to terms with that belief. Belief in child sexual abuse comes in phases. Depending on the identity of the perpetrator and factors about the abuse such as age of child, severity of the abuse, and length of time, the initial stage of denial may be more painful and difficult to navigate. Mothers may know that they have to believe the child and also know that they cannot believe the child - the reality is too painful. Following the initial stage, however, the doubt and ambivalence may not go completely away - again depending on factors related to the abuse. Sometimes acceptance is just the simple process of tolerating a fact that is painful. It is the ability to be with it without fighting, to be present without running away. This is acceptance of the here and now - what is occurring in this moment, the shock, denial, anger, guilt, and depression; the feelings of responsibility, feelings of unfairness, and ongoing pain and hurt; the betrayal, isolation, and loss of self-esteem. The overall facts of life must be accepted: the child's victimization, the perpetrator's actions, and the process and losses of life following the disclosure. The process hurts, and it is hard. That fact of life must be accepted. Acceptance is the core of mindfulness. Mindfulness is being present - in the here and now. It is feeling the feelings and sitting still with the thought without trying to push it away or avoid it. Mindfulness and denial are polar opposites. By its definition, mindfulness is being mindful of the present - opening the eyes, ears, and all senses to experience this moment. Denial is the non-acceptance of reality. It is refusing to see the truth of a situation and to acknowledge thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as they are. Denial disconnects you from reality. Acceptance and denial are polar opposites. If you accept what you see - then you can see. If you deny what you see - then you cannot see.The big book of Alcoholics Anonymous (2001) states that acceptance is the answer to all problems and that being disturbed about anything is the result of not accepting some situation, thing, or person. It goes on to say that without acceptance, there can be no serenity or peace, and therefore, no happiness. A slogan often used in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is "accepting life on life's terms." Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) (Linehan, 1993) uses Radical Acceptance as a skill to regulate emotions. Radical acceptance implies acceptance at a deep level with no reservations - accepting whatever presents itself in the deepest part of the intellect and emotions. The past cannot be changed. The present simply is. The future is more or less contingent on the choices that occur in the present. The present is all that anyone truly has. Radical acceptance is putting the past behind and looking forward. It is accepting things as they are and life as it is. This acceptance includes yourself, others, events, situations, the past, the present, and whatever the future holds - all things outside your control and all things within your control. What is in your control? Your choices and your responsibilities are within your control. The choices of others and the responsibilities of others are not. You have a choice about what you choose to think and feel about a situation, a person, and yourself. Mothers who have reached the point of acceptance following disclosure accept both the fact of the sexual abuse and the consequences to child victims, families, and themselves. Mothers have hope at this stage of the process. They have already gone through so much. They know they can survive the losses and changes in their lives. Child victims go through an acceptance process as they move through the stages of grief. Children, however, may not fully process the sexual abuse until they are older, and true acceptance may not occur until much later. The initial process, though, of moving through the denial, pain, and grief are similar for all family members affected by the abuse.



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