If a mother is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse
, the abuse of her child may bring back memories and emotions relating to her abuse. She may reexperience symptoms
previously in remission such as anxiety
attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive memories, anger
, and avoidance. The level of the mother's distress will depend on many factors and possibly include:
- Did she disclose sexual abuse at the time of the abuse or later?
- If she disclosed, was she believed?
- Did she receive support and counseling after her disclosure?
- Did she experience immediate negative consequences to her disclosure, such as family dissolution, separation from family, or anger and criticism from siblings or other family members?
- If she did not disclose, what coping skills did she utilize to survive?
- What have been the consequences of her abuse during adulthood?
- Have belief systems been corrected since the time of abuse regarding responsibility for the abuse?
Child sexual abuse affects a victim's self-esteem, world view, relationship function, and overall expectations of life, self, and others. Many adult survivors continue to use unhealthy coping strategies learned as children and may dissociate or engage in addictive behaviors. Mothers may have unhealed sexual abuse in their histories and unprocessed feelings related to that abuse. Their children's sexual abuse may initiate a psychological crisis.
Residual problems of sexual abuse may impact the mother's ability to provide consistent initial and ongoing support to the victim. Much research has been done to determine the effect of the mother's abuse on her ability to care for her child following disclosure. Calder, Peake, and Rose (2001) report that, although differences occur between mothers, childhood sexual abuse has significant ongoing effects and, without counseling intervention, can compromise the recovery of the child victim.
Leifer, Kilbane, and Kalick (2004) compared vulnerability or resilience to intergenerational sexual abuse. This study investigated characteristics that differed in mothers: 1) who were sexually abused and whose child was sexually abused, 2) who were sexually abused and whose child was not sexually abused, 3) who were not sexually abused and whose child was sexually abused, and 4) who were not sexually abused and whose child was not sexually abused. The study found that mothers who had been sexually abused and whose child had not been abused functioned as well as the women who had not been abused. If a woman had been abused, and her child was abused, she was more likely to have had poor attachment with her mother as a child; have experienced continued abuse in her adulthood; to have a more serious substance abuse history; to have more negative relationships with intimate partners; and to have increased dissociation, anxiety, depression, and sleep and sexual problems. Secure attachment to the mother was shown to be a significant variable predicting resilience in victims and reduced long-term consequences.
It is important that professionals not use the mother's sexual abuse history as a rationale for assessing her ability to protect her child. These mothers will benefit from additional counseling services and compassion and support as they process grief regarding their child's abuse and residual pain associated with their own.