Complexities in Mothers

Mothers begin a grief process following the disclosure of a child's sexual abuse. This includes a range of confusing and painful emotions. Simultaneously, mothers must present as capable and competent to external agencies and professionals who may evaluate the mother's ability to parent the victim and other children in the home. Some professionals will judge the mother as partially responsible for the abuse. Mothers may not be offered supportive services or resources.

The abuser may be in the home or out of the home. The victim may be taken into protective custody. (See If your Child is Removed from your Care.) Law enforcement may be involved. The mother may not feel she has a voice in the system. Family members may criticize her for responding and reporting the abuse. Whatever the scenario, the mother's internal response will be chaotic following disclosure. Depending on her past coping abilities and resilience, she may develop disabling symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic.

Other dynamics and issues will also affect mothers during this time. These are both internal and external and include:
  • Mother Blame - Professionals have tended to blame mothers who are the nonoffending spouses of offenders. For many years they were viewed as passive, weak, dependent, silent partners, inadequate, immature, and silent partners. Research has not confirmed these assumptions. Most mothers did not know about the sexual abuse, and most mothers respond effectively following disclosure.   
  • Betrayal Bond - Victims often develop trauma bonds with perpetrators. Mothers may be caught in the internal conflict of loyalty to a family member, particularly partners. Trauma involves risk, threat, fear, and powerful chemicals in the body released in the stress response. A combination of psychological, emotional, and physical factors may combine to create trauma bonds in relationships with partners engaged in domestic violence and sexual abuse. See Stockholm Syndrome
  • Learned Helplessness - Victims of domestic violence and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse experience a pervasive sense of helplessness. Nothing they do prevents the event from occurring again. Research studies showed that animals can be taught to be helpless. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to escape, when provided opportunity the animals did not try to leave and passively received the abuse. Human beings respond in a similar way to repeated abuse.
  • Responsibility Continuum - Professionals created a scale to assign mothers a measure of responsibility regarding sexual abuse (Calder, Peake, & Rose, 2001). This process may reinforce guilt and self-blame already present in the normal grief process. In assigning responsibility to mothers, this scale appears to demonstrate an ongoing dynamic of mother blame. However, some mothers are aware of abuse and do not protect the child, and some mothers are co-offenders. Investigators must assess responsibility and involvement in the sexual abuse.   
  • Codependency - Codependency is the tendency that some individuals have to caretaker and rescue those people they care for. They may take over responsibility for other person's consequences and attempt to control their behaviors. Mothers are sometimes seen as codependent with offenders who are family members. Mothers may attend support groups for codependents and be told that they are powerless and have the disease of codependency. This thought process may be less than helpful in empowering mothers and teaching resilience.
  • Financial Issues - Financial concerns are added stressors to mothers following disclosure. If the offender is a partner or child, mothers will be faced with financial problems. Court, attorney, and counselor fees will be incurred. If the partner is the offender and must leave the family, income may be radically decreased. Mothers may find it difficult to maintain homes, car payments, and other financial responsibilities. They may have to find child care and go to work.  
  • Mother was Sexually Abused - If mothers were themselves abused as children, the abuse of their child may awaken strong emotional reactions related to the prior abuse. Whether the mother disclosed or did not disclose and the response following disclosure will affect her thoughts and feelings following this disclosure. If her prior sexual abuse is unhealed, a mother may experience anxiety, flashbacks, depression, nightmares, and dissociation. Early intervention and support is necessary because the mother's support of the victim is critical to the child's recovery. 
  • Future Relationships - Whether the offender is husband, partner, family member, community member, or stranger, a mother's trust in others may be negatively impacted by the disclosure of her child's abuse. If she later considers or engages in intimate relationships or remarries, this reduced ability to trust may create difficulty in intimacy. If she has children in her care, she may have difficulty sharing the responsibility of child care and decision-making. She will view the world as a less safe place, a normal response to trauma.


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