Thoughts and Feelings

Mothers will experience a range of emotional responses following the disclosure of a child's sexual abuse. These feelings parallel those experienced during the initial stage of grief and include shockdenialangerguilt, and depressionCoping with these feelings is critical to your child's recovery. The mother's support is the most important factor predicting consequences of sexual abuse in a child's life. Methods of coping can be healthy or unhealthy. This site offers many effective coping strategies to help mothers survive the post-disclosure process.  
Depending on the identity of the perpetrator, mothers of sexually abused children will think and feel a range of thoughts and feelings that may be foreign to their normal ways of coping and being. You may struggle with negative thoughts which affect your mood and ability to function. It is important to identify these negative thought patterns and find ways to cope with them. Otherwise, they can affect your health suppressing your immune system, and lead to depression.

Denial is the first stage of any grief process. Getting past initial thoughts like - "this can't be happening," "this isn't real," "he couldn't have done this" - will not necessarily conclude the denial stage. Many types of denial exist: denial of events, denial of the severity of events, denial of the consequences of events, denial of responsibility for the event. These different types of denial will impact mothers at different times during the recovery process following the disclosure of a child's sexual abuse. It important for you to tell yourself the truth about the abuse.

Initial feelings may range from horror to numbness, from rage to powerlessness, from acceptance to deep depression. For many women, the initial days following the disclosure include: unstoppable sobbing, nausea, weakness, and inability to think clearly. Mothers may feel physical pain, a weight crushing the chest, a sinking, deadening heaviness. They may struggle with breathing. Anxiety may feel overwhelming. Some characterize it as "hell." Guilt, self-blame, shame, bewilderment and confusion, anger, numbing, and feelings of responsibility are all normal at this stage. You are beginning a process of grief and mourning that, depending on the perpetrator of the sexual abuse, may continue for a period of time. Give yourself time to hurt.

It is important for you to be present with your feelings, experience them, and not try to avoid them through numbing activities, such as alcohol or drugs, other addictions, or even overworking. Many mothers will judge themselves for thinking and feeling what they do. You may feel hopeless and helpless. You may wish that the perpetrator were dead, even if it is a close family member. You may want to kill the person and even plan it and see it through in your mind. A non-violent person may have violent thoughts, and this is frightening and guilt-inducing. It may be helpful to remember that a mother bear will tear in pieces anything that threatens her cubs. It is common for mothers in support group  to share feelings of rage and a desire for revenge. 

The disclosure of a child's sexual abuse by a family member may challenge the identity, sense of self, and value system of the mother. If the abuse is perpetrated by a stranger or someone outside the family, it challenges the sense of safety in the world and the ability to trust others. Thought structures and world views may be altered by this experience. It is important to be aware of these changes that are occurring in you and to nonjudgmentally observe your process. Counseling is important. Support systems are important. You will need a place to talk about thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing.You are in a mourning process, and it is important to acknowledge your losses and grieve them. 

Depression and guilt are both a combination of thought and feeling. Sadness deepens, and you think sad thoughts. You think thoughts of self-blame and attack yourself with negative self-talk. This depression and guilt process immobilizes you and increases the powerlessness and helplessness already present. Thinking thoughts of "if only" you had done something is owning responsibility for something outside of your control: another person's choices.

These thoughts and feelings do not necessarily go away with time. The sexual abuse of a child is a life-altering event for a mother, especially if the offender is a partner or family member. In those cases, you feel betrayed by that person who was supposed to love and care for both you and your child. Mothers are in a grief process, and mourning and grief processes are ongoing. Months later you may think about the abuse and be overwhelmed with grief. You may continue to struggle with anger and rage for years. Many women do.

It is important not to ask too much of yourself initially. Expect the healing process to take time. You will have to function and care for children, but crying is a normal process during grief. You may have to go to work. Do the best you can. You do not have to pretend everything is okay because that is not the truth. Facing the truth is very important to your physical and mental health, to your child's well-being, and to the prevention of further abuse.


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