*Trigger warning: Possible triggers contained in the article below for victims of sexual abuse.
Research shows that the key indicator for someone being able to recover from a traumatic event is their support system. Can they talk about it without being invalidated, teased, or blamed? Does the support system allow for open talking about the event and the development of healthy beliefs in the wake of a painful and difficult life event?
Let’s take childhood sexual abuse for instance, a tough topic for most everyone, but a topic that is better not left to being taboo. Say there’s a young girl whose father has touched her inappropriately and perhaps worse, taken advantage of her body for his own selfish purposes. I am not aware of what may be going through the mind of such men or women that abuse children in this way, but I highly doubt they comprehend the lasting negative impact of their actions on someone who is far more helpless than the abuser.
Given that scenario, let’s say this young girl musters up enough courage to confide in someone what has happened to her. Imagine the differences that can stem from these two contrasting scenarios:
Scenario 1: (the little girl tells her mother, the wife of the alleged perpetrator, that “Daddy’s hurt me.”)
Mom: Oh, honey, what do you mean?
Daughter: stumbling to find the words to articulate her experience, let alone speak through tears
Mom: It’s okay honey, tell me what happened. Did something hurt?
Daughter: nods tearfully
Mom: Where were you? In your in the playroom? In your bedroom? What happened? (in soft, gentle and inquisitive voice)
Daughter: points to the back of the house, toward her bedroom
Mom: gets daughter’s dolly and just holds her for a few minutes, soothing her until she can talk again
Daughter: sniffling, but calming down
Mom: Can you show me on Dolly what happened?
Daughter: points to private areas, reenacting with Dolly what happened to her, and begins again to cry
Mom has now been presented with information that would be nightmarish for any parent to learn. As she holds her daughter, she wonders what to do next, worrying, protective, scared, even angry at whoever did this, or even herself for not being able to prevent it. Mother decides to seek the help of a therapist for her daughter, hoping that the therapist will help make sense of what has happened and provide instructions and insights about how to proceed for both mother and daughter.
Often, the child victim has been threatened in some way by the perpetrator with punishment of some kind if the child tells anyone. This doesn’t even have to be an aggressive threat to be effective. Something as sly as, “let’s keep this our little secret, sweetie, you’re such a good girl.” A step for anyone who suspects or wants to open that door in the event of, can be to reassure the child that it is okay to talk about what has happened and that you’re there to help keep them safe no matter what the other person said. Doing so may help them confide in you, but it also may be hindered by the child’s efforts to “obey adults” or “not snitch”.
Scenario 2: (the little girl tells her mother, the wife of the alleged perpetrator, that “Daddy’s hurt me.”)
Mom: Are you sure?
Daughter: nods with downcast eyes
Mom: I don’t think Daddy would hurt you, stop making up stories. Go play.
Daughter: loses hope that those she turns to for safety and protection cannot or will not protect her; she is left to her own limited and undeveloped ability to keep herself safe
Similar variations of a caregiver’s response in scenario two could also be: “Boys will be boys, they’re just playing.” or “Next time don’t wear such short shorts; wearing that you practically invited something like that to happen.”
The example in scenario one outlines a more supportive approach, one where healing is more likely to begin prior to the full onset of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Proactive care is the next best thing when prevention isn’t enough (because sometimes harmful choices of others cannot be prevented fully).
Although this article is intended for the now-adult victim of childhood sexual abuse, there are therapists available who can also assist children for whom the event was more recent.
If you, as an adult, have read this and have been triggered in any way because of something that has happened to you, please practice some self-care and when you can, call our office to schedule your first appointment.