One of the hardest experiences a family endures is hearing the news of sexual abuse suffered by a family member, neighbor or friend. Here’s help from Dr. Katrina Wood:
Upon first hearing the news
The autonomic sympathetic nervous system produces various ways of coping with arousal, extreme stressors and traumatic experiences. Families and family systems all are different in their reactions to stressful times.
It’s important to be aware of emotional reactions once incidents of sexual abuse are revealed, whether by the victim or another source. Anger may be a powerful and understandable emotion in response to the perpetrator. But it’s vital to remember that compassion, tolerance and understanding of both the victim and of one’s self are essential aspects of the healing process.
Reactions and “double trauma”
An awareness of the dynamics of the early stages of shock is helpful for all involved. These are extraordinary circumstances, challenging times. Everyone, in his or her own way, most likely will feel vulnerable or powerless. Some family members will be moved to take immediate action; others may become disorientated or simply shut down. Some will be full of rage and vengeful thoughts. Additional emotions quickly will follow, such as grief, fear, guilt and shame.
Specifically, the autonomic nervous system reactions may include:
- A “fight” response: “I’m going to destroy the person who hurt my child.”
- A “flight” response: “We have to get away, away from everyone, from the perpetrator, from life.” “We must run and hide — as far away as possible.”
- A “dissociation” or dissociative response: Causes the nervous system to shut down all forms of emotion as a way of coping with pain. This reaction often is misunderstood as a lack of feeling, or described as a person’s “having his head in the clouds.” This, however, is a common way the human copes with unbearable pain and loss. The dissociative person will produce thoughts such as, “This cannot be happening to anyone in our family,” or, “I don’t believe it. It must be someone else’s child.”
These are not only reactions to shock and danger, but also attempts to cope with overwhelming, world-shattering experiences that cause deep pain, fear, anger and loss.
Be mindful, however, of harmful reactions or responses. They may include:
- Denying or minimizing the victim’s reality.
- Telling the victim that he or she “will get over it.”
- Telling the victim that worse things have happened to other people in life.
Often, a victim finds the courage to speak out and share these traumatic experiences. This could be immediately after the abusive event or years later. To react with disbelief that such a thing is happening or to ask too many questions upon hearing the news could be perceived as doubting the victim.
Responses to the revelations must not create what is called double trauma. First, there is the trauma of being sexually abused. Then, the trauma of being minimized and invalidated. While hearing such information from a victim is shocking, denying that the abuse happened (as a way of coping) is far from helpful. In fact, it can be devastating for the victim. Many survivors report that being invalidated is a more damaging and traumatic experience than the abuse itself — with far greater long-term negative effects.
Remember, many victims of abuse maintain silence within their families for years, even decades. Until recent decades, most children were not encouraged to speak openly about violations. Too many families failed to offer their members the emotional freedom to share painful, scary and/or damaging events in their lives.
The important piece to remember is that more and more victims are speaking out these days. While this is encouraging, there also is much pain in confronting these devastating experiences.
The path of healing
The act of sexual abuse can never be undone. The violation has occurred. But healing is possible, by degrees and over time.
A path of healing will be determined in part by others’ reactions and responses, which will vary depending on the type of relational environment to which a person has been exposed. In a home in which a wider range of feelings and thoughts are permitted and validated, a healthier outcome for family members in the wake of such a trauma is more likely. Conversely, in a family environment in which feelings and thoughts are minimized or suppressed, profound feelings of shame and anger are likely to be more dominant.
Most helpful in these critical moments is a steady and receptive listener’s ear. And an open heart, one without judgment. These build an emotionally secure environment for the victim to share more of the dangerous experience, at his or her own pace. Remember, victims must be allowed to reveal any details to family members or friends in their own time. (Police reporting is addressed in following paragraphs.)
10 tips for coping with sexual abuse
- You are experiencing a massive violation and disruption within your family or social setting. Any emotions you may feel are understandable.
- Beware of acting on emotional reactivity. During these times, it is often best to take a beat. Process feelings with trusted individuals first.
- Don’t blame yourself for not knowing, or for not seeing, how this violation could have happened. Perpetrators often are manipulative, cunning, disarming individuals. They often gain the trust of family members, or may even be a family member, and therefore their presence is rarely viewed outwardly as odd or strange.
- Go slow and steady within the days and weeks. Waves of various emotions frequently are experienced — particularly anger, pain, grief and loss. Sexual abuse is a catastrophic loss for the victim but also for the “world” that the family has known. An illusion of safety has been shattered. Loss is embedded within this experience. Share your loss; talk about it. Cry and grieve with others who care and understand what has happened. Express your anger in a healthful way, using “I” statements. For example: “I am very angry that his has happened. I am furious that this was done to our family, to my child.”
- Seek out community help. Many mental-health clinics deal with the ranges of emotions that sexual violation brings to bear. Most work with victims and families of victims alike. (See the resources listed at the end of the article.)
- Filing a police report likely will be an important aspect of the healing process. This usually must be done immediately, as a moral responsibility to the victim, the family of the victim and the community. This is painful and difficult. Support for the victim before and after the phone call is key. When the victim is a minor, the case typically is referred to a child-abuse reporter such as a social worker. A list of mandated community reporters is cited the end of this page.
- If the victim is an adult who was sexually abused as a child, and the abuse is just now surfacing, a report usually is not mandated. A report still may be made to the authorities, however, and is recommended whenever there may be other children in the community who are or were exposed to the perpetrator.
- There is no statute of limitations in filing a report in the U.S. or the UK. (Other countries may have limitations.) Even 50 years after an event, a report should be treated seriously and investigated.
- If the perpetrator is an immediate family member, filing a police report may be considerably more challenging and painful. Reporting anyone well-known — a relative or neighbor or friend — likely will elicit feelings of guilt, fear and sadness. These feelings must not obscure the impact the behavior has had on the family and the victims.
- Remember that time and treatment — love, kindness and patience — are key to a slow and steady overall recovery. There is no place for blame, shame, or questions that even hint of the victim’s culpability. These times require sensitivity and consideration for all associated with an assault. Sexual abuse frequently feels life-threatening, for good and understandable reasons. Deep understanding is required for a victim and his or her family to recover.
Remember that every family member or friend associated with the child/victim is now also a victim in his or her own way. They’ve all been violated to various painful extents.
Everyone who has suffered the impact of such a violent and shattering act deserves to have his or her voice heard, with compassion and understanding — and given as much time as necessary. There is no cookie-cutter solution.
Sexual abuse resources:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1.800.656.HOPE
- RAINN: “The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. ”
- Safe Horizon: 24/7 hotlines with multilingual support for victims of rape, sexual assault and incest.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Child abuse reporting (Los Angeles County)
- Who is a “mandated reporter”?
© 2015 Dr. Katrina Wood