The sexual abuse
of a child does not harm only the child victim
. Siblings are secondary victims
are secondary victims. Other family
members may also experience grief
, anger, loss, pain, confusion, frustration, bewilderment, and the full plethora of negative emotions felt by the mother, victim, and siblings. Grandparents suffer consequences of the abuse. Some of these include:
- Shock, grief, and worry about the grandchild who has experienced the abuse.
- Concern for their children, the mother and father of the victim.
- If the perpetrator is the father in the home, grandparents suffer complex emotions, perhaps denial initally, and anger, shame, guilt, confusion, hurt, and loss.
Reactions to learning of the abuse may include hysteria, horror, embarassment, disgust, accusation, probing, anger, or a blank. Some will simply not grasp the enormity of the abuse and some will want to kill the offender. Expect this range and prepare for it. It is helpful to think through how some may react so that you have a ready response. If the abuse involved incest, expect pressure to stay quiet and not report the abuse. It is possible that the family holds the code of secrecy and violating this code is a violation of family rules. If family members have themselves been abused and not disclosed, they may respond minimally and provide little support to you or the victim.
Expect family rifts and ruptures. Expect people to take sides. This is normal. Remember that family members may process through the same stages of grief that victims and mothers do. The first stages include shock and denial. If the abuser is denying the incest, it is more problematic as family members may be direct in disbelief of the victim's disclosure and add to the pain the victim is already experiencing. You can request that certain comments not be made in front of children and that family concerns be voiced to you privately. You can be assertive in expressing your own feelings and needs and requesting the family's support.
Some possible comments you may hear:
- "Poor child."
- "He's ruined for life."
- "What a horrible thing to happen."
- "The monster should be killed."
- "I couldn't live through what you're living through."
- "How could you not have known about the abuse?"
- "She probably just made it up."
- "Why do you think she'd tell a story like this about her dear, sweet Dad?"
- "He'll get over it quickly. Kids are resilient."
Other family members will have reactions, opinions, and advice. It is important for mothers to have strong support among family and friends. It is also difficult to deal with some of the advice, although well-meaning, and some of the opinions, even though uninformed. Hopefully this site will assist mothers in having adequate information and understanding of the process that they are able to provide family members reasonable answers while not feeling pressured to do what is suggested.
It is important not to hold the abuse a secret because of fear of a family member's reaction. Any secret-keeping is a perpetuation of the dynamic that contributes to sexual abuse. Open and direct communication is effective. It may be necessary to request from more reactive family members that they not voice anger, judgement, and harsh words in front of the victim or other child family members. Most reasonable adults will comply with that request. Family therapy may be beneficial at this time, as you may wish to include extended family members at some point for an open discussion of the abuse in a safe, facilitated environment.
Hagans and Case (1988) provide helpful hints for responding to others about your child's sexual abuse:
- Protect your child's privacy as much as possible. She is experiencing a range of emotions as a result of the abuse and will be embarrassed that others know.
- You do not have to provide details about the abuse to anyone except investigators and therapist.
- Discuss with your child the people who are told about the abuse. The victim, depending on age, has a right to know who knows.
- Ask family members not to discuss the abuse with others. Again, the goal is to protect your child and her privacy.
- Preparing ahead of time with responses will help you feel less anxious.
- Help your child develop and practice responses to questions about the abuse. Let her know that she does not have to respond to comments. Teach responses such as: "I'd rather not talk about it.," "thank you for your concern," "My mother told me not to talk about it now."
- Be aware that young children may bring the abuse into a conversation at unpredictable times. Be prepared.You may talk to your child and provide guidelines for who is safe and unsafe to talk to about the abuse.
- It is okay to be firm, abrupt, and rude, if necessary, with people that are intrusive with their questions.
- You can say that you do not want to talk about it.
- You can say that you appreciate their concern and change the subject.
- You can just nod your head and say nothing. You do not have to agree or disagree with what the person is saying.
- Remember: most people do not know very much about sexual abuse. They may think they do because they have read an article, read a book, or seen a movie. Sexual abuse in real life is very different.
- Remember: to most people, even siblings, sexual abuse is a concept. It is two words with little detail attached. The victim knows the true meaning of the term. You as a mother are trying to understand. Most others only think that they understand.
It is possible that your child first disclosed to another family member, not you. It is important that you not hold a resentment towards that other person. Instead, you can be grateful to that person because your child felt safe enough with him to be vulnerable.
Family changes occur. The following are examples of effects on family units and family members. Individual families have different relationship patterns and unique traditions. The list of changes is long and diverse according to individual family differences.
- Family celebrations and holidays change. The perpetrator will not attend, and the loss may be unspoken but felt.
- Family dynamics change. Suspicion and mistrust increases. Other male family members may be considered unsafe. Children do not sit on male family member's laps as they used to.
- Care is taken that children are not left alone with other family members.
- Bathrooms are watched. Bedrooms are watched.
- If the perpetrator was a primary support for the family, a move may be necessary. Family members may assist financially and in other ways.
- If adjudication follows the investigation, extended family members my attend the trial.
See also Rules and Guidelines.
See also Reconciliation.
See also Reunification.