Prior to the disclosure of a child's sexual abuse
, the child and possibly other family members have not communicated about events, thoughts, and feelings. If the child was abused
by a family member, a code of secrecy
prevents effective family
communication. It is possible that siblings
knew of the abuse, did not disclose
it to a responsible adult, and have suppressed feelings of anger, confusion, and pain. If the mother
suspected the abuse, she also had thoughts and feelings she was unable to communicate. Lack of communication has stressed the family unit, distanced family members, and resulted in unexpressed emotions adding to the pain already present.
Following the crisis of disclosure
, all family members struggle with a range of painful emotions. All are in survival mode and choose to use either healthy or unhealthy coping strategies. Family members may isolate, stay away from home, avoid communicating, or attack and blame one another. Both guilt and anger may be negatively expressed towards other family members. During this post-disclosure period, the mother and siblings may experience torn loyalties, guilt, and confusion. The mother's attention may be focused on the victim, the report process, and the investigation of the abuse. Siblings and other family members may feel neglected.
Hagans and Case (1988) outline some of the signs that a family is not communicating:
- Unpredictable outbursts of anger.
- Serious arguments and fights among family members.
- Family members escaping into television, reading, and sleeping more usual.
- Family members increasing use of alcohol or using drugs, followed by family arguments.
- Reduction in shared time when the family does fun activities.
- If the perpetrator is not the father figure in the family - reduction in parent time out alone.
- Family members avoiding being home, spending time away.
- Loss of scheduled meal-times with family members eating separately or at different times.
- Family members isolating in their rooms.
- Avoiding conflict around subjects which would normally result in conflict.
- Family members having obsessions with interests and activities that they previously had no interest in.
- Again, if the perpetrator is not the father figure - reduced intimacy and sexual activity between parents.
- Physical violence in the home.
Effective communication can resolve many of the problems that follow disclosure. Many, if not most, people do no learn how to communicate as children. Open expression of feelings may have been discouraged or, resulted in punishment. Many people operate on the principle of mind-reading. They believe that others must know how they feel; however, if they do not communicate, no one can know their feelings. People guess how others feel by observation non-verbal signals and paying attention to voice tone and inflection. But that process is subject to error. People misread other people, resulting in mis-communication. The only effective form of communication is direct and straightforward. Many are afraid to do that because they feel vulnerable or weak. Overcoming these barriers to effective communication are necessary if families are to heal from the trauma of sexual abuse of one of its members.
Parents may want to protect siblings and not tell them about the abuse. Most siblings already know about the abuse, and parents run the risk of not finding out whether siblings have also been abused. Secrecy is never protective. Open communication provides the best opportunity for healing to occur and the best abuse prevention. Explaining what happened, giving siblings a safe space to ask questions and talk about their feelings will help them in their recovery process.
All families argue and make up. No family is free of conflict because families consist of human beings. Effective resolution of conflict is one of the keys to a healthy family. Healthy communication can be learned:
- Focus on solutions, not problems.
- Use non-blaming language - Avoid statements beginning with "you."
- Use "I" language to talk about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
- Do not attack the other person. Respect is the key to open communication.
- Listen carefully. Practice repeating back to the other person what you heard them saying.
- Manage emotions. Practice skills to manage your anger, anxiety, and fear.
- Pay attention to body language. You may think you are not communicating while your body is speaking volumes.
- Acknowledge or validate what the other person is saying. You may not agree but they are expressing their thoughts and feelings, not yours.
- Stay in the present. DIscussing a problem that is the result of something in the past is appropriate. But do not bring up historical events to win points.
When communicating, show respect towards the other person and towards yourself. Both you and the other person will feel better after the communication!