Physical Illness in Mothers

The disclosure of child sexual abuse initiates a period of great stress in a mother's life. Stress affects brain and neurochemical processes, body, and immune system function. Stress can have an immediate impact on emotional and physical health, mediated by the use of effective coping strategies. However, chronic stress results in a predictable series of physical consequences due to the stress effects on body and brain. 

Following disclosure  that a child has been sexually abusedmothers experience both acute and ongoing stress. The initial disclosure evokes shock, followed by denial, anger, and guilt. They experience grief similar to that of mothers discovering a child's diagnosis with cancer or chronic illness, understanding that abuse will have a life-long effect on their child. Mothers of sexually abused children report ongoing paindepression, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusive memories and nightmares. While experiencing her own response to the disclosure, the mother must provide consistent support to the victim. She must manage stress related to the legal systemsocial services, court experiences, therapy, responsibilities for other children, and grief if if partnered with the offender. She must manage employment, finances, and home. 

When stress is chronic, a mother lives in a state of anxiety, resulting in additional changes in biochemical processes. Chronic stress affects memory, mood, and the ability to be attentive. As a result of chronic stress, the immune system is dysregulated, resulting in increased risk of physical illness. Many mothers report increased illness  following disclosure, experiencing more colds, viruses, and other infectious illnesses. They also report increases in chronic illnesses following disclosure of a child's sexual abuse. Minor and major surgeries and hospitalizations may increase. 

This increase in the mother's vulnerability to illness is predictable in the light of the stress response she experiences following disclosure. However, this occurs at a time that it is crucial for her to be available to the victim and other children in the family. A mother's belief in her child's disclosure of sexual abuse and her empathy and support result in reduced stress in the victim. Maternal support is related to the child's emotional distress, self-esteem, behaviors, and the number of PTSD symptoms.

Following disclosure victims experience many fears such as fear of not being believed, fear of consequences of telling (e.g., breakup of family), and fear of re-abuse (i.e., lack of safety and protection). Mothers are the primary point of intervention for the victim as their support is critical to the child's ability to cope with the trauma of abuse.

The body and mind function as one system and the state of mind affects the emotions. Negative emotions result in alterations in the immune system and initiate a process associated with infection and disease. Short term stress results in temporary changes to the immune system; however, chronic stress results in continued negative changes in the immune system and in health. It is critical that mothers use effective coping strategies to reduce their stress, stabilize internal biochemical processes, and maintain healthy functioning of the immune system. A mother in bed or in the hospital will create increased stress for her, the victim, and the rest of the family. 

See Counteracting Stress for activities to reduce stress and maintain health. 
See Coping With Thoughts  for strategies to maintain a positive attitude while dealing with the stress of your child's sexual abuse and resulting consequences.  


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