Child sexual abuse can be traumatic not just for the child, but for the family as well.
Prevention is better than cure. As parents, teachers or caregivers, we must teach children to protect themselves from any form of abuse. But the sad reality is that despite it all, children do get abused.
Several research papers tell us that child sexual abuse (CSA) has a significant short and long-term impact on the mental health of children and adolescents. Treatment for a survivor of CSA includes individual therapy for the child, treatment for any comorbidity (depression, anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder) that might already be present or develop in the aftermath of the abuse (Browne & Finkelhor, 1986; Conte & Scheurman, 1987; Kendall-Tackett, Williams, & Finkelhor, 1993).
However, not enough attention is paid to the family, especially the non-offending parent(s)*. Research suggests that the response and support from the non-offending parent(s), especially at the time of child’s disclosure, has a significant impact on the way the child adjusts post disclosure (Adams-Tucker, 1981; Conte & Schuerman, 1987; Everson et al 1989). Particularly when the abuser is from the family, the parent is likely to go through significant grief or distress. Often, the parents are even blamed for not taking adequate care of the child and protecting the child from abuse. There may be a feeling of being an incompetent parent, loss of trust in the world, loss of trust in a partner, financial instability and a sense of helplessness.
In cases of incest, if the father is the perpetrator, mothers experience a whole gamut of emotions ranging from disbelief to anger, shock, grief and at times, even care and concern for him. In the Indian context, mothers often talk of the stigma of such an experience, and its impact on the family—especially with respect to their place and standing in society.
The financial implications are also something that mothers are often concerned about, and some may even feel that continuing in the marriage may be a safer option. This is an issue that makes children and adolescents angry with the non-offending parent, as they perceive it as mistrust and rejection of their pain from the parent’s side. In response, mothers are often over-anxious, over-solicitous, overprotective and intrusive; or they may be aloof and distant, making healing and recovery for the child difficult. Thus there is a great need for mental health professionals who are working with the child to understand and help the parents as well.
Mental health professionals need to help the mother or parents overcome their own guilt and grief, and heal in order to care for the child effectively. Apart from the child’s therapy, it’s important for the mother or parents to see a therapist so that they can assimilate the experience of abuse and its impact on them apart from the child. Parents need to understand that they are an important role model for the child, and their understanding of the abuse and its impact is likely to influence the way that the child understands and processes the abuse.
To avoid conflict of interest, it would be best if the mother or both parents consult a mental health professional different from the one treating the child. The therapist who is seeing the child can help the mother or the parents with aspects related to parenting. There is also a great need for therapists to help the parents with the legal aspects including the investigative process and procedures, as well as increase the parent’s resources so that they feel empowered.
* Non-offending parent refers to the parent who has not been involved in the sexual assault of the child.
Dr Preeti Jacob is an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NIMHANS.