Response of Friends and Family

Disclosure of child sexual abuse in a family, whether perpetrated by family member or stranger, is a traumatizing and life-altering event. All family members will experience an altered view of the world as a safe place. The ability to trust will be damaged. Grief is the normal human response following loss; however, the losses here may be shrouded in confusion and guilt

When bad things happen, it is normal to reach out for help. Following distressing news, most people call friends and family members for support, advice, comfort, and assistance. However, sexual abuse, because of its encoded shame and secrecy, does not engender willingness to cry for help. In many cases, an already troubled family may now isolate more due to a range of negative emotions such as fear of a family member's response, fear of gossip, fear of rejection, shame, fear of being looked at as responsible. The contributors to silence are as different as the families involved.

If the abuse is perpetrated by a stranger or community member, extended family and friends may be generous in helping and supporting mothers and victims. They may offer more advice than mothers appreciate, but their concern is appreciated.

When incest has been perpetrated, whether by father, uncle, sibling, grandfather, responses of family and friends are less predictable. They experience a range of conflicting emotions which can result in ambivalence and the inability to provide consistent support. Some of the reasons for this response may include:
  • Denial - similar to any other traumatic event process, family members and friends may find the disclosure impossible to believe at first. The mind may first reject the news of the disclosure and only come to grasp and accept it at a later time. While mothers also experience initial denial in the stages of grief, they must almost immediately move to acceptance in order to support the child. Other family members do not have the pressure to do this and may not be available for support during the initial stage following disclosure. This denial may be present in specific family members for a variety of reasons. Grandmothers will not want to believe a son could do this to his child. Friends do not want to believe someone they know so well could have another part of his personality that well hidden. Brothers and sisters of the perpetrator experience a range of emotions associated with their relationshp with him and may second guess previous things they have observed and past events. They may judge both themselves and the perpetrator. Because of denial, many family members may exert pressure against reporting to the authorities or support keeping the secret in the family. 
  • Fear - family members fear what will happen next. They fear the consequences to the perpetrator. If he is a son, grandson, father, they want to see the consequence for the abuse mediated in a way other than the legal system. They fear that his career, profession, status will be destroyed. They fear the reputation of the family will be damaged. Friends fear that this could happen to them. They fear that their children could be abused. It brings abuse too close to their own homes. And for that reason, they may avoid the family at the time the family most needs them.
  • Grief - friends and family members experience a grief process, similar to that experienced by victim and mother. In their focus on their pain, loss, and mourning, they may be unable to emotionally reach out to the victim and mother and provide needed support.
  • Anger - family members may range in reponse from wanting to buy a gun and kill the offender to anger at the mother for turning in the perpetrator. Family responses may not be logical and well thought-out. Family relationships engender loyalty, faithfulness, and stability over time. Family and friends may know how to respond to a death in the family but may not know what to say, what to offer, or how to respond during a discussion of child sexual abuse. 
  • Beliefs about privacy and family secrets - many families hold to a code of secrecy among family members. They may have a belief system that honors privacy and keeping all family matters within the family. Children may be taught not to tell from earliest childhood.  
  • Inadequate knowledge and information about sexual abuse - many people simply do not understand the dynamics of sexual abuse and its short-term and long-term consequences. Because they have not experienced it, read about it, or studied it, sexual abuse is foreign to their thought processes. They may be unable to grasp in their imaginations the facts of the abuse. They may be embarrassed at the conversation if it arises and limit the possibility of discussion of facts or feelings surrounding the disclosure and ongoing consequences.
  • Ambivalence - family members will experience ambivalence. They may want to believe the perpetrator, if he is a family member, and also want to believe the victim. They may want to believe what the mother reports and believe the offender's denial. They may love all members of the family but be confused and irrational in demanding that the perpetrator be protected at the expense of the victim. Their support to the mother and victim may shift from day to day or they may not be available at all because of the discomfort of the ambivalence and accompanied emotions.
  • Trust in the apparent competence and presentation of the offender - the perpetrator may look and talk in a persuasive manner. His "no, I did not do it" may be very convincing. He may be a business man, a professional man, a church deacon, or a teacher - whatever the role, offenders have special skill sets for manipulation. And he will be vey motivated to maintain support for himself.
  • Perception that the victim is doing fine and not suffering consequences - victims may have been victimized for years prior to disclosure. They may have a well honed set of coping skills - including dissociation - and not evidence overwhelming distress. Victims also may be older children or adolescents whose acting out may reduce their credibility. In that case, family members or friends may choose to believe that the child has ulterior motives for telling or is lying. Communicating these doubts and concerns and judgements to the mother will reduce her ability to provide the needed maternal support to the victim. 
  • Lack of empathy and compassion - family members and friends may not possess the requisite amount of empathy and compassion needed to provide genuine support to mothers and victims. They may be unable to see and sense the strong emotions felt by mothers and victims. They may not accurately interpret the nonverbal communication. They may be unable to reach out effectively.
  • Minimizing the abuse and its consequences - due to any or all of the above responses, family members and friends may minimize the abuse itself, make light of the situation, avoid it altogether, or believe abuse does not result in long-term damage to the victim.

At a time when mothers, victims, and siblings need as much love, caring, support, and assistance as possible, family members and friends may be going through their own grief process. They may be unable to be present and helpful during the time when they are most needed. 



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