[Note from the Editor: This is an unusual piece for Off the Page. However, when the question was submitted to us, we knew we needed to respond. The best things to do for the victim is listening to their story and get them help. The more proactive they can be in their own recovery the better. Our recommendation is for the direct and indirect victims to seek out a trusted therapist immediately.
Krispin Mayfield has been helping abuse survivors work toward healing since 2007. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and provides therapy to teens and adults at Northwest ADHD Treatment Center in Portland, OR. He earned his undergraduate in Bible and Theology, and Masters of Counseling at Multnomah University.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be used in place of psychotherapy. Also, the opinions here are representative of the writer, and do not reflect the views of NW ADHD Treatment Center.]
Anonymous asked: “Do you have anything on here about parents who have to deal with abuse of their children by other family members? I just don’t know how to help my kids or how to cope. 1 out of every 3 girls in this country has been sexually abused. 2 of my 3 daughters have been sexually abused. The two things that overwhelm me are brokenness and anger. My heart is broken, and I don’t know if it will ever be fixed. I don’t know that my anger will ever satiate.”
Learning that your child has been sexually abused is one of the most painful experiences a parent can undergo. You likely feel intense guilt because you weren’t able to protect your children. You may also feel conflicting feelings if the perpetrator is a family member, spiritual leader, or close friend, which is highly likely, as close to 90% of abusers are considered to be within the victim’s’ circle of trust. After the shock fades, many parents experience intense, seemingly insatiable anger.
It should be noted that such intense anger can be a gift. Consider how Scripture portrays God’s anger. While God’s wrath has often been considered as a response to offenses against him, a close look at Scripture reveals that God’s anger is usually a direct response to people mistreating one another, especially the powerful hurting the vulnerable. The first sin recorded is disobedience to God; the second is one family member murdering another. God’s anger, then, is not only for his own sake but is a protective one. As our heavenly father, he gets angry, even enraged, when people mistreat others. As parents, then, responding in anger when our children are harmed can reflect God’s protective love for his children.
A parent’s righteous anger is a gift I wish I was given. When I told my own parents about my experience of abuse, they were passive and apathetic. The only anger I eventually witnessed was toward me, because I refused to pretend that it hadn’t happened and follow the code of silence so common among families where abuse has occurred. I wish they had experienced an anger that led them to seek justice on my behalf, demonstrate emotional support, actively pursue healing for our broken family system, and take action to hold the perpetrator accountable to ensure that other children were not at risk. I wish I would’ve witnessed the sort of wrath I see in the care of our heavenly father, and that I hear from other parents.
As a parent, you may wonder if your fierce anger will consume you and leave you bitter. The truth is, we don’t choose our emotions. We can choose to suppress them, deflect them, ignore them, or hide them, but we don’t choose them. While it can be difficult to bear, anger has several helpful roles in our life, including notifying us when something is wrong, or when our boundaries have been crossed, both of which apply in the case of abuse. Anger can drive us toward compassion, justice. At times, it will feel overwhelming or crippling, at other points, it will be a soft nudge in our side. Our emotions are dynamic, and ever-changing, and often the best approach to welcome them in the moment, recognize what they are telling us, and remember they will not last forever.
Of course, it’s important to not harm others in your anger, but you also need to avoid harming yourself. Accept anger when it comes and pay attention to where it manifests in your body. My anger often resides in my chest, like a burning torch, pushing up against my lungs. When it comes, allow yourself to feel it, and also notice when it begins to recede.
Keep in mind, it may not always be appropriate to show your anger at the perpetrator in front of the child who has been victimized, as they may experience additional trauma from witnessing your anger and even blame themselves for your pain. Talking with a psychotherapist will be able to help you develop helpful ways to manage and experience your own emotions, while still supporting your children.
A deep sense of grief naturally follows when a family suffers as yours has. Parents often feel as though they’ve lost their child. During this time, parents grieve the loss of what could have been, what should have been: a safe, unified family, absent of abuse and tragedy. Instead, you are given the tremendous privilege and responsibility of walking with your children during this time of suffering and grief, as the whole family heals. During this process, it’s essential to continually emphasize their worth and dignity and to honor the courage it will require to process the trauma they have experienced.
There is a stigma around sexual abuse, which hurts those who have experienced it. One notion that contributes to this stigma is that survivors of abuse have been hopelessly broken. Trauma research shows that, when given the proper resources, such as attuned parents and psychotherapy, children are resilient. It is not necessarily the nature or severity of the trauma that determines the level of harm. It’s the resources available for healing and the narrative which develops during the healing process, that affects the level of harm. Protective actions taken, including prosecution of the abuser, tells them they are cared for, and not alone in the world, which reduces feelings of neglect and abandonment.
While it’s important to never view survivors of sexual abuse as if their personhood or worth is damaged, or as if their identity is equivalent to their abuse, another mistake often made is underestimating the impact of the abuse. Sexual abuse often includes several aspects of abuse, including physical, emotional and psychological. Without proper help, it can result in intense feelings of worthlessness, and distrust of others, even family members and close friends. It can have long-term impacts on your children’s mental health, so it’s important to ensure that they the services and care that they deserve. Furthermore, as parents, it’s important to seek counsel and education about caring for your children as they heal from trauma.
Your daughters are not irreparably broken, but they deserve care, encouragement, and attention. Healing comes through a combination of various parts of their lives, often including healthy friendships, trustworthy authority figures, working with qualified, caring professionals, the Holy Spirit’s healing power, nurturing parents and engaging in a supportive community.
This is not only the story of your child; it is your whole family’s story. I cannot encourage you enough to engage in therapy and continue to face things as they come. You also have the opportunity to interrupt and prevent abuse, not only in your own family but also in your community. You can educate your friends, family and other community members about the importance of vigilance in protecting children.
Here are some resources on prevention, interrupting abuse, and healing from abuse:
Child Refuge is a Christian site that has lots of resources about preventing, noticing and responding to abuse; they also have a workshop for churches to learn how to prevent sexual abuse within their congregations.