Common Reactions

Mothers experience a range of emotions and reactions following the disclosure that their children have been sexually abused. A mother will go through emotions associated with the stages of grief: shockdenialanger, guilt, and depression. Depending on the identity of the perpetrator, she may struggle with belief and ambivalence . She will be confused and overwhelmed and angry. Some reactions may be behavioral, such as keeping the disclosure a secret or withdrawing and isolating from friends and family.  

Frequent reactions by mothers include:

  • Emotional numbness or shock - As in any life experience that is sudden, unexpected, and life-changing, numbness accompanies the shock. This inability to feel, to sense, and to feel present in their lives will vary according the internal strength, coping strategies, and support network available to the mother.
  • Denial - This is a normal response to any traumatic event. The mind needs time to accept the reality of the disclosure. This reaction can be misinterpreted as inability to parent and protect the child by social service and other professionals. However, most mothers get past this response quickly and turn their attention to the child victim. 
  • Problems believing - This reaction is closely associated to denial and dependent on a number of factors such as how the mother found out about the abuse, age of child, how long the abuse occurred, severity of abuse, and identity of the perpetrator. Most mothers believe the child. If the perpetrator was the father or partner of the mother, the ambivalence will intensify. Support is critical to these mothers as perpetrators can be convincing in their denial and know how to create confusion in the minds of both mothers and victims.
  • Anger - All mothers experience anger. If not, the numb state is still in place. The anger can be towards abuser, child victim, self, social services, family members, God, and/or life in general. It will take time and encouragement for the mother to focus the anger on the perpetrator and move through the grief stages. She needs to use her anger management skills so that anger is not misdirected.
  • Hurt and pain - Mothers experience deep pain and loss. Their lives feel chaotic and out of control. As in grief for the loss of a loved one, the hurt is physical. The chest hurts, the throat constricts, and periods of deep sadness and crying are normal. If the abuser was partner, child, or other family member, this hurt is intensified. 
  • Guilt - Mothers feel guilty. Disbelief may delay this response. However, once mothers accept the reality that a child was sexually abused, the normal response is "how did I let that happen?" and "how did I not know?" This reaction will last until the mother is able to assign all responsibility for the abuse to the abuser.
  • Shame - Guilt is the feeling that you "did" something bad. Shame is related to the belief that you "are" bad, that something is wrong with you. Mothers may also feel shame because of their concern of what others think about them. 
  • Betrayal - Her child was violated. The world is no longer a safe place. If the abuse occurred in the home, the home is not a safe place. The sense of safety, stability, and security may be lost. If the perpetrator was a family  member, the abuse is a betrayal to that relationship.
  • Isolation and loneliness - Mothers feel very alone after the disclosure and perhaps for a long time. If they know no one else who has had a child sexually abused, they may feel alone and isolated from friends, family, and community. They may feel unable to talk about the disclosure or their feelings. 
  • Rage and a desire for revenge - For many mothers, the anger turns to rage. This may be early in the process or may occur later. Some mothers have urges to harm the perpetrator. 
  • Sexual inadequacy - This reaction is more likely to occur if the offender is a husband or intimate partner. The mother wonders why he was not satisfied with her and why he sought out her child. Assigning the blame for the sexual abuse to the abuser, not herself, will help her resolve these feelings.   
  • Confusion - Confusion will exist from the point of disclosure throughout the process. Levels of confusion will be present about reporting, telling family members or friends, decision-making, problem-solving, choosing counselors, the court process, sorting through thoughts and feelings, and a myriad of related processes.


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