Thursday, June 27, 2013

Letter for Parents with a Sexually Abused Child

Dear Fellow Parent,

If you've just found out that your child has been sexually abused by someone you know, life is suddenly very stressful. What should you do? Who can you trust? How can you help your child? How can you cope with your own feelings of anger and betrayal?

I've been in your shoes, twice (three kids one time and one kid another time). I don't have pat answers for you, but I feel lots of compassion for you and your child/children.  Most likely you feel like you're in the middle of a nightmare that simply cannot be true. You knew children are abused, but not your child. Not like this. Not by this trusted person.

Chances are, you feel like you've failed your child. How did you not notice sooner? How could you have trusted the perpetrator? We all struggle with these thoughts when our precious child is harmed so seriously by someone we trusted. People who get pleasure out of sexually abusing children are good at what they do. They gain our trust and take advantage of that trust. It's what they do. They seem nice to you and your children. They are often helpful in some way. They often do fun things with the children, as they slowly but methodically prepare the way for future abuse. They are experts at fooling good people.

You will be more able to help your child if you let go of guilt.  No one can protect their child from all harm all the time. No one can function well if they refuse to trust anyone. Admitting to your child that the offender was sneaky and had you totally fooled, will help your child accept his own experience of being tricked. You can reassure your child that if you had known you wouldn't have let this offender get close to the family. It will enable your child to begin feeling safer again.

Helping your child while your own feelings are in a major upheaval isn't easy. I found it helped to get psychotherapy for myself, as well as for the child. It helped me to have a safe place to process my emotions. Taking care of myself helped me to do a better job of taking care of my hurting child. The more I'd dealt with my own anguish, the better I was able to listen to my child and to be present with them whenever they needed me to be there for them. The more I learned about sexual abuse and recovery, the more I was able to validate my child's feelings and thoughts.

When our family went through this time of trauma, I learned many things by experience. I learned that I didn't feel like disciplining my child or holding them accountable to our routines. All I really wanted was to shower my child with love and reassurance. But, my kid still needed a parent and needed both rules and routines upheld. My child felt safer with the normalness.

I also found that some new, temporary rules were needed to deal with my child's coping behaviors. It was no longer a good idea for my child to have a sleepover with anyone until he was far enough along in recovery he wasn't likely to offend another in the same way that he were offended. Instead of sleepovers at a buddy's--we had some living room sleepovers with one or both parents and siblings (since no parent or sibling had been the abuser). Like many sexually abused children, a couple of my kids began cutting themselves. I made a new rule that they weren't to close and lock their bedroom door--and if they did, they knew I would check them for new cut marks. When two of the children reverted to stormy tantrums--we agreed that I would not touch them unless they asked me for a hug, it helped the child to feel safer and more control of his body. We did not allow anyone in the family to keep tickling a family member who said no, because tickling is one grooming behavior that abusers can use to step over a child's boundaries and condition them to feel less powerful.

Marriages are sometimes destroyed when a child is abused. Mine held together. How? I believe God helped us and we each learned big lessons in honoring our differences. We expressed grief, anger, sorrow, fear, and hope in different ways because of our different genders and personalities. We both learned that their isn't only one right way to deal with tragedy. We learned to be honest, painfully honest about ourselves and to be gentle and compassionate with one another. We learned to trust, respect, and love each other on an even deeper level than before.

Your beliefs about God will be put to the test by this experience. You and your child will wonder where God was during the abuse. Why didn't God protect? Your feelings and questions are normal. I can share with you, that even though I felt tempted to quit believing in a good God, the whole experience actually brought me closer to God in the end. I was less niave about sin and more attached to God. I actually became more aware of God's goodness than I was prior to the abuse. God was there for my children and I while we walked through the valley of darkness.

You have ahead of you several very rough years. It's going to take awhile to settle into a new normal. But I want to reassure you that you and your children can not only survive this time but you have a good future ahead. You and your child will grow. Strength comes from having a realistic understanding that the abuser cannot rob you of the opportunity to grow and change for the better. You will find that your child has a great capacity to heal and so do you. Both you and your child may find that your compassion for others grows bigger.

I wish you all the best on your difficult journey. When you feel like quitting, I urge you to focus on making it through the next minute, hour, or day. When you feel like yelling at God, go ahead and let God know that. God can handle your anger and fear. When you feel like a horrible parent, give yourself the same care you'd give to a friend if they were going through what you're going through. When you don't know what to try next, pray, talk to a good psychologist and read about sexual abuse recovery. At first things may seem to get worse before they get better...but be assured things really will get better for your child and for you.  Hang in there--you and your children really will return to smiling and laughing after you walk through your grief and recovery.

A mom who has been there

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