by Karen Stahl of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Learning that their child has been sexually abused would rank as one of the worst days in most parents’ lives. A parent’s reaction to this news can vary greatly as people respond to crises in many ways from shock, to denial, to anger and fear. While some advocates work directly with children, others may not, but supporting the parent/caregiver is necessary so that they in turn can support their child through a recovery process. Here, advocacy is guided by the notion that supporting and educating a parent can provide a lifetime of support for the child.
There can be multiple challenges an advocate may confront throughout this process. A parent’s own unresolved trauma history can make for challenging interactions with the advocate as well as support for their own child difficult. What may appear as an uncaring parent who does not believe his or her child or have the capacity to support that child may in fact be a parent struggling to avoid the pain of their own past sexual abuse. It will likely be necessary for the advocate to find a balance between supporting that parent through educating and assisting them in addressing their own trauma while also focusing on the needs of their child.
Another challenging situation is a parent(s) who may not believe that their child has been sexually abused. Here again, advocates must be willing to take a deeper look at where that resistance is coming from. If the disbelief is more akin to shock that abuse occurred, the advocate can help to process and move the parent through the disbelief. If the parent is adamant about their disbelief, the situation becomes more challenging as mandatory reporting may come into play if the child is exposed to their abuser. For those who are protecting their child from the abuser, but continuing to struggle with disbelief, the advocate needs to get to the root of the disbelief and alter that root. That may happen through education and countering distorted thinking. It may also happen through broadening a parent’s thinking, such as explaining that the grooming process often extends to the entire family, and even a community, in order to provide the perpetrator the trust that was necessary to abuse this child.
For some, believing their child may mean separating from the person who perpetrated the abuse – a step they may not be willing or feel safe to initially entertain.
NSVRC, through their Lifespan Project, is pleased to offer a guide that provides concrete strategies and approaches to these situations and others when working with non-offending parents/caregivers of children under the age of 13. This guide, written by a highly experienced, longtime program advocate, offers trauma-informed approaches and advocacy strategies for supporting parents during this difficult and confusing time.
What then are some options for the above situation? It may be useful to create or leave a space when the parent is experiencing confused and ambivalent feelings toward the person who abused. Discounting whatever positive feelings the parent may still feel toward this person can provoke resentment and resistance directed toward the advocate. It may be more productive to focus on the wrongness and harm of the abusive acts without forcing them to adopt a perspective about the abuser that they are unable or unwilling to. By focusing on the unequivocal wrongness and harm of the act(s), an advocate can move the conversation past the person who abused and focus it where it needs to be – on the victimized child and the actions that are required to stop further harm.
Additionally, the guide provides a series of Trauma Informed Parenting (TIP) sheets that advocates can offer to parents as take-homes to review and/or practice with their child such as grounding tools to help calm emotions.
Great advocacy is about serving! There are common experiences that all advocates can anticipate and prepare parents for. There will also be resources that are unique to your community and laws and processes that may be unique to your state. You can play a vital role in a parent’s journey with the understanding that everything you do for the parent is in service to that child. Putting the parent at the center of trauma-informed services recognizes the critical role they will play in helping their child recover.
For more information on providing trauma-informed approaches to unique and underserved populations, visit the Lifespan Project on the NSVRC website. VAWnet also offers a special collection to help build program capacity to provide trauma-informed services. More information and multiple resources on preventing child sexual abuse are available through NSVRC’s online collection of resources.