Guilt in Mothers

All mothers respond to the sexual abuse of their children with some degree of guilt. They believe that somehow they should have known and blame themselves for not knowing. They believe that they should have seen signs and feel guilty that they did not. If they did see signs, they blame themselves for not acting and for not protecting their children. Mothers will look back at events or situations and recognize signs of abuse that they had not previously acknowledged as meaningful. She will see these as clues that she missed.

Mothers will also blame themselves if they are partners with the perpetrators. They may consider themselves guilty simply because of the close relationship with the abuser. The longer the abuse occurred prior to disclosure, the more guilty the mother may feel. Many, if not most, mothers, hold themselves responsible for not knowing, not seeing, and not acting. 

Guilt is anger at self. Mothers will feel an increased amount of guilt if:
  • The child is younger.
  • The abuse went on for a long period of time. 
  • The child showed more symptoms of abuse.
  • The mother was sexually abused as a child and believes she should have known.

If the victim is an adolescent, the abuse may have occurred over a longer period of time. Adolescents tend to believe that the mother knew about the abuse and did not protect them. They may have believed this for a long time, perhaps years, and they may be very angry at their mothers - perhaps more angry than they are at perpetrators. Older children and adolescents also may blame themselves more. To complicate this further - mothers may blame older adolescents, thinking they should have known to tell. An important realization at this point is a reminder that perpetrators typically threaten and either physically or psychologically coerce victims. Perpetrators may tell victims that the mothers know and do not care. 

Mothers are not all-knowing. They are human. It is important that you acknowledge your part realistically. If you noticed something and did not act on it, that is something you can talk about with an older child. If the victim is young, you can talk to your counselor about your feelings of guilt and work through them.  

Wendy Ovaris in After the Nightmare (1991) outlines important questions that mothers can ask themselves as they process through feelings of guilt. These include mothers asking themselves about clues, responses, and protective actions.

  • When you first noticed something different in your child's behavior or emotional response, how did you respond? 
  • When the abuse was disclosed, what did you do?
  • What motivated you to respond in the way that you did?
  • Looking back, and knowing what you now know, what could you have done differently?

An important reminder is that the perpetrator is responsible for the abuse. The victim is not responsible. The mother is not responsible. The perpetrator made a choice to abuse. He is to be blamed for the harm and consequences, not the victim for not telling and not the mother for not knowing.  


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