Unhealthy Coping

A mother may respond to the disclosure of her child's sexual abuse with defense mechanisms that work against both her and her child's best interest. Mothers usually experience some level of denial initially. Denial comes in many forms: denial of an event, denial of its seriousness, denial of responsibility for the event, and denial of its consequences. Denial is the first stage of the grief process, and the human psyche is hard-wired for survival. It takes time to adjust to loss, and grief is a process. Continued denial over time, however, is maladaptive in that it is a barrier to facing reality and making decisions that are protective and healthy for the victim. 

A mother's initial reaction to disclosure includes acutely painful emotions. Some mothers cope with this pain by choosing ways to reduce the pain without considering the outcome of those choices.

Examples of ineffective defense mechanisms include:
  • Acting out - dealing with emotional conflict or stressors by actions that avoid or run away from reality, for example: alcohol, drugs, gambling, overeating, cutting on self, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, compulsive shopping.
  • Help-rejecting complaining - complaining about problems and asking for help while hiding feelings and then rejecting suggestions and offers of help.
  • Intellectualization - maintaining the focus of attention on intellectual understanding of events and feelings while avoiding the feelings themselves. Using abstract thoughts and generalizations to control distressing feelings.
  • Passive aggression - being indirectly aggressive rather than directly expressing anger and other painful emotions. Putting a layer of compliance and agreeableness over the resistance and hostility.  
  • Rationalization - creating a logical justification for an action, behavior, response that was originally impulsive, motivated by emotions, or not clearly thought through. The word "because" is the key here. "I did it because ____________" assigns responsibility and blame elsewhere.
  • Minimization - making light of something like it was a small deal and not at all important. Decreasing the significance of something said, observed, or experienced. An example: "it only happened once" reduces impact of event. 
  • Escapism - uses fantasy (books, movies, computer games) to escape real-life problems or deal with difficult emotions. Keeps person in imaginary world.
  • Somatisation - physical complaints that result from stress and internalization of emotions. Chronic stress results in reduction in the immune system's capacity to protect from illness. Many mothers get sick or disease processes are initiated following disclosure of their children's sexual abuse. Multiple somatic complaints are one of the consequences of childhood sexual abuse, and many illnesses are associated with child sexual abuse with more victims having certain diseases. Possible explanations of this include: 1) stress/immune system response, 2) increased focus on body and physical response as a result of abuse, and 3) physical expression of unexpressed emotions in child. Some illnesses or child/adult victim complaints have no diagnosis or organic explanation. Emotions may be expressed through physical symptoms if not expressed directly. 
  • Splitting - dealing with emotional conflicts and stressors by compartmentalizing negative and positive. The two are not integrated and processed, and the person deals with the ambivalence by vacillating back and forth.At any time certain feelings are repressed or disconnected from consiousness, and the individual becomes fragmented.
  • Repression - preventing distressing thoughts, feelings, and experiences from entering consciousness by pushing them down into the unconscious. These may be originally conscious but then are forgotten and stored away. Many sexual abuse victims have repressed large chunks of their childhoods, sometimes periods of years of which they have no conscious memory.

The above unhealthy coping skills or maladaptive defense mechanisms are ineffective and self-defeating. Many of them offer temporary relief from painful feelings and situations; however, reality must be faced eventually. The longer that mothers avoid reality, the more damaging the results to victims and themselves. 


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