Coping with Disclosure

A mother will initially respond to the disclosure of a child's sexual abuse with shock and denial. She may have already suspected that something was wrong, and it may be a relief to know what is going on. However, mothers normally progress through a range of strong negative emotions. These include anger, guilt, depression, anxiety, fear, confusion, and ambivalence .

Non-offending mothers in homes where incest has occurred or mothers who have a child who was sexual abused by someone outside the family will both experience major changes in their lives. They will experience internal stressors related to the abuse and their process. Their common negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships are impacted. They may have external stressors caused by system demands - law enforcement, social services, and the court. The mother's ability to manage the initial crisis of disclosure will affect the victim's recovery and contribute to the functioning of the rest of the family.

Both victim and siblings require the continued ability of mothers to fulfill their roles as primary caregivers. Maternal support is the best predictor of reduced short and long-term consequences of sexual abuse in the victim's life. Mothers must provide support, security, and comfort to the victim. Social service agencies will observe the mother's mental health - her ability to cope and function - and include this in factors used to determine decisions related to family intervention and providing protective services to the victim and other children in the family.

Defense mechanisms involve a variety of responses which can change the ways a mother views the abuse, the perpetrator, the victim, and herself. These defense mechanisms can be either adaptive or maladaptive. Effective coping skills allow mothers conscious awareness of feelings, thoughts, and consequences of the sexual abuse and enable them to think through to problem solutions and healthy decisions. Ineffective coping skills distort reality and keep mothers out of touch with 1) the fact of sexual abuse, 2) the consequences to victims, 3) the mother's own feelings, 4) effects of sexual abuse on siblings and other family members, and 5) safety issues and protection of victims and other children.

The use of effective coping skills results in enhanced physical and mental health. The use of ineffective coping skills results in compromised physical and mental health. The mother's use of healthy coping skills contributes to the victim's safety and recovery, the safety and stability of other children in the family, and the family's function. Healthy coping skills enable mothers to process through the post-disclosure process without the situation becoming worse. The goal of coping skills is to survive the crisis without making it worse by choices made during the crisis. 


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