Sometimes the most intense anger
that child victims
express is towards their mothers
. Victims believe that mothers should have protected
them, and many victims believe that mothers knew and did not stop the sexual abuse
from occurring. Not only children, but often professionals, view mothers as having the ability to know
that abuse was occurring. Historically, child abuse literature focused on the mother's collusion
with the offender
if he was the father-figure. Mother-blaming
attitudes have continued, although research has demonstrated that most mothers did not know about the abuse prior to the disclosure, and most mothers respond in a a protective manner when they find out about the abuse.
Few warning signs
may be provided by the victim, and these signs are easily misinterpreted. Jensen (2005) discusses signs of child sexual abuse
and why it is difficult to detect sexual abuse. Signs, such as words and symptoms are interpreted according to context and social interaction patterns. Mothers interpret signs according to prior situations and preexisting meanings. A child may believe she is giving a sign to the mother or she may say something to give her mother a clue. She may watch to see her mother's reaction. However, the mother interprets the sign through a lens of existing possibilities, and unless sexual abuse has already been disclosed, that possibility is not one that would normally present itself to the mother's mind.
The child makes the assumption that mother knows, mother does not stop the abuse, and mother does not protect. If the abuse continues for years, the relationship between mother and child is ruptured, perhaps irreparably. Avery, Massatt, and Lundy (1998) found that survivors harbored significant bitterness towards mothers, more severe than that felt towards perpetrators. Mothers need to understand that children often feel this way. Abusers are manipulative
and say and do what is necessary to maintain the secret
of the sexual abuse. He often has made statements that the mother knows and approves the sexual behaviors. He may have shared intimate relational information with the child, information which prejudices the child against the mother. Often abusers threaten the child, and the mother's response to the abuse is part of this threat. Thus, the child's inability to disclose, because she is protecting her mother, is tied to her ongoing relationship with her mother.
Following disclosure, the child continues to be angry at the mother. Professionals and agencies
may also assume that the mother knew and colluded. The mother is blaming herself, believing herself incompetent and a bad mother, because she did not know and did not protect. Thus, the child is angry at the mother, and the mother is angry at herself. Hooper (1992) reports that the increased anger victims feel towards mothers may be because:
- Anger at mothers breaks the victim's identification with them, reduces the sense of powerlessness, and increases the sense of deserving to be protected, and
- It is usually easier to be angry at a woman than at a man.
If the mother becomes depressed
during the post-disclosure period
, this depression predicts increased symptoms in the victim. The child's PTSD
has been shown to be related to her perception of support
and effective parenting
by the mother. This is an interactive process. Children report less depression when they feel accepted
by their mothers. Depressed mothers
report more symptoms in their children.
Sometimes the mother's protective actions
exacerbate the negative relationship mother and child. The mother will restrict access from the perpetrator
. However, the child may have a close relationship with him and desire contact. If the mother reports
the abuse and engages law enforcement
and Child Protective Services
in the post-disclosure process, actions that are necessary and protective, the child may interpret this as negative. The child victim then believes that the consequences of disclosure
that she feared are now happening. Mothers must be very supportive, very clear in communication, very warm, comforting and nurturant in order to get through this difficult time and reestablish a positive relationship with their children.
Todd and Ellis (1992) discuss the enormous complexity present in mother-daughter relationships following the disclosure of incest. Mothers feel ambivalence
towards their daughters, anger
about the abuse, a desire that the allegations not be true, fear of losing their partner, fear of losing their child. Mothers are in a state of grief
and sometimes immobilized by the intensity of the initial reactions
. Victims are attempting to survive using the coping strategies
they have at their disposal, often maladaptive. Mothers have to negotiate this process and get through the not-knowing
and not wanting to know
, to the fact of the abuse and the responsibility to make decisions
. If fathers
are removed from the home, mothers often have difficulty controlling the children. This may worsen an already tenuous relationship between mother and victim. The child may act out and perceive the mother as powerless and unable to establish and maintain structure, boundaries, and safety. Victims' attitudes towards mothers are often hostile, belligerent, critical, and angry at the same time that victims may feel guilty and needy. If victims are not receiving counseling
, their identity and self-esteem are negatively affected. Long term consequences
increase in severity.
In order to be supportive to victims and to reduce negative feelings, it is important that:
- Mothers be available to listen to the child's discussion and details of the abuse.
- Mothers demonstrate love and affection.
- The home environment feels safe and emotionally secure.
- The child's self-esteem is bolstered by the mother. The victim is supported in achievements and in setting goals.
- Mothers support the child's work with professionals and outside support systems.
- Mothers reassure victims that they are not damaged.
- Routines, such as meals, chores, special events, are maintained.
- Consistency is maintained in rules and discipline.
- Mothers communicate openly and honestly.
Hall and Lloyd (1989) identified issues for mothers and daughters:
- Acknowledging the abuse.
- Feeling guilty and incompetent as a parent.
- Feeling vulnerable.
- Having difficulty in dealing with victim's feelings.
- Discussing her feelings with the victim.
- Her own abuse by her child's abuser.
- Believing the mother must have known about the abuse.
- Not understanding why the mother did not see the problem.
- What mother did or could have done to stop the abuse.
- Not wanting mother to know details of the sexual abuse.
- Does not want to tell mother her feelings because she is trying to protect her.
- Does not want to hear about mother's difficulties.
- Not understanding why mother did not protect since she knew what he was like.
Healing the mother-victim relationship and re-establishing a sense of trust is critical to the victim's recovery. It is important to understand that, as mothers provide security, and trust is re-established, attachment increases. The mother-victim attachment bond is one of the most critical predictors of reduced consequences to sexual abuse. It is also important that mothers understand the betrayal bond that may be established between the abuser and the victim.
Child victims of sexual abuse may demonstrate a range of behavioral symptoms that include: stealing, lying, nightmares, bed-wetting, self-harm, inappropriate sexual behaviors, and eating disorders. They may demonstrate a range of emotional and psychological symptoms. It is important that mothers respond to these symptoms in supporting, caring, loving, patient ways, rather than with harshness, judgment, and punitive discipline. Mothers can respond by:
- Identifying the child's feelings and trying to understand and connect with them.
- Remaining physically close to the child.
- Providing safety.
- Reassuring the child.
- Being consistent and predictable in meeting the child's needs.