When a child or teen is sexually abused, there are so many different scenarios that could have happened that there are more questions than answers in many situations. One thing is for certain: after discovering and reporting that someone is sexually abused, the whole family needs time to heal. The child or children involved are not the only ones who have been hurt in most families. Parents or siblings may experience guilt, shame, embarrassment, sadness, anger, among many other emotions. Each person may be experiencing and processing their emotional reactions differently, and it is possible for every member to react in a different way. This may cause stress or arguing amongst family members, but the important thing to remember is that this is a system that works together, no matter what each person’s role is.
So now what?
Some families find ways to heal on their own that lead to happy and healthy futures, and others find more destructive ways to cope. Other families seek out professional help. There are many valuable services in most parts of the country that work directly with survivors (the people who were sexually abused) and their families. It may take proactive work on your part to find healing, and time often helps the healing process. It is completely normal for family members, especially parents, caregivers, and older siblings, to feel somewhat responsible for what happened, regardless of their role. It is important to honor those feelings but also to work through them. Unless you were the perpetrator, it was not your fault.
Taking Care of Each Other
Some positive ways to help yourself or your family members are to engage in self-care, continue to do fun things together as a family, and continue to treat the survivor in your family as the same person they were before while remaining sensitive to their changing needs. Some families do well to talk about and process what happened together, others do better when there is a silent reverence for the abuse (that is not saying to ignore it, but to acknowledge it in ways other than directly talking about it). There can be as many positive ways to cope as there are families of survivors. Destructive ways of coping are using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, becoming highly controlling or dismissive of other family members, self-harm, aggression towards others, or completely retreating from the family. If you find yourself engaging in these, or any other, destructive behaviors, it may be helpful to seek out someone who can help you process your feelings.
It is important not to shame or stigmatize sexual abuse because the survivor may internalize those messages about something that was done to them as something that changes them. It is important to be sensitive to what your child needs, as each survivor is going to differ in what is best for them. Most of all, they need to know that they are loved, that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that you will do anything in your power to help them feel safe, happy, and healthy again. Maybe ask them how they want to move forward or what to call what happened. Kids sometimes have great ways of coping that we have a hard time thinking up ourselves. And if you have any questions, or things get complicated (which is completely normal), reach out to a professional for any additional help you need.
Below are just three of many resources that may be helpful: