STAGES OF GRIEF FOR PARENTS OF SEXUALLY ABUSED CHILDREN

SHOCK

A state of shock produces chemical reactions in the brain which have two functions:-

1. To provide the energy we need to attend to the business aspects of the tragedy.

2. To cushion us from the succession of blows that follow any major loss.

DENIAL

To counteract the awfulness of sexual abuse, most people go through a denial stage. They struggle to find innocent explanations for what has been reported. They refuse to believe that trusted friends - relatives or even strangers could do such a thing to their child. Parents are usually slow to accept they have mistakenly trusted someone who was trustworthy, for acceptance implies that they cannot rely on their own judgement.

ANGER

Anger is another survival mechanism that helps us to tolerate the intolerable. It is probably the strongest emotion associated with the grief process, and it can be directed towards anyone who has some connection with the abuse, i.e. the child, social workers, police, the justice system, as well as the abuser and his/her supporters.

GUILT AND SELF-BLAME

Parents who face the violation of their children analyse every aspect of their relationships with the victim and offender. They ask themselves, "Why did this happen?", "Why didn't I suspect?", "Why did I trust him/her?", "Why was I so easily deceived?". The answers are usually self-blaming: "I must have been blind or stupid to have been fooled so easily". "I must be a useless parent to have been taken in like that". This is not so. Most parents trust other adults and think that their families are safe. Parents do their best to protect their children given their experiences, upbringing and the knowledge available to them at the time. The fact is that most abusers go to great lengths to gain the parents trust.

INAPPROPRIATE BLAME

When we feel badly about ourselves, another defence mechanism is to find a scapegoat. Sometimes, as a way of coping with the stress of the event, parents blame the other partner or the child for letting the abuse happen. Blame is futile, the important thing is to help each other to be strong for the sake of the child. There is only one blameworthy person, and that is the abuser.

SHAME AND ANXIETY

Parents often want to hide away to avoid stares and questions. They may find themselves crossing the road to avoid contact with neighbours, and sometimes neighbours tell their children not to play with the abused child for fear of contamination. The family's social life can be greatly affected. They may feel quite isolated and that life will never return to normal.

DEPRESSION AND SADNESS

Depression and sadness are associated with any major loss and are part of the normal grief process. The disclosure of child sexual abuse changes the lives, outlooks and attitudes of all family members. Fathers in particular may find it difficult to express their feelings of sadness. In our society, men are supposed to be strong and able to look after themselves and their family. They therefore feel that they have to support everyone else and that to weep is to let everyone down. These sad feelings need to be dealt with because when parents try to pretend all is well the problem merely goes underground and waits for an opportunity to explode. This often occurs when victims reach adolescence.

Although mothers may be better able to express sadness, they sometimes become convinced that they are totally responsible for the family chaos.

They may embark upon a range of self-destructive behaviours such as smoking heavily, abusing alcohol, neglecting their distressed child, their homes and themselves. They may lack energy and drive but cannot sleep. When parents are depressed children become fretful, unhappy and difficult to manage, exacerbating the problem.

HEALING AND ADJUSTMENT

Most parents feel that what their child and family have gone through is so traumatic that they will never get over it. However, although it will be difficult for them and they will always have unhappy memories about the event, healing and adjustment will begin to take place when they have successfully dealt with the above stages. It is usually helpful to parents if they have someone they can talk to who is aware of the above stages, or who has successfully been through them themselves.

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