Possible Reactions of Non-Offending Parents and Caring Adults
For protective adults, a wide range of emotional reactions are possible
Following a disclosure, reactions can vary greatly for non-offending parents and other protective adults. You may feel surprised by some of your thoughts and feelings and might find it difficult to share them with others. Below are some of the feelings that many parents and caring adults experience after receiving a disclosure of sexual abuse from a child.
Fear & Denial
- Hope that it would just stop.
- Denial that it could have ever happened. Doubting the child.
- Fear for the child’s ability to recover.
- Fear for the future and consequences for the person who has abused the child.
- Feelings of reluctance to involve CPS or Police.
Betrayal & Resentment
- Rage towards the person who has abused this child.
- Anger towards the child for not telling sooner.
- Strong feelings of being betrayed by the person who has abused.
- Sense of being deceived or manipulated (especially if abuse is within the family).
- Resentment towards the person who brought this all to light.
Sadness & Loss
- Disappointment in oneself for not seeing it sooner.
- Insecure feelings about who can be trusted now. Sense of loss.
- Feeling of bewilderment: “Who is this person I thought I knew?”
- Feeling obligated to choose sides -- between the victim and the person abusing.
- Feelings of inadequacy if you are the parent or guardian of this child.
- Sense of extreme isolation and that nobody could ever understand.
- Questioning whether the child is telling the truth.
- General feeling of not being able to trust others.
- Doubting your own perceptions of what is safe and what is not.
Healing can include feelings of grief
Often parents or caretakers of a child who has been sexually abused or a child who has sexually harmed others, experience a period of grief and mourning. For many in this position, the conditions of their lives may change fundamentally. How they see themselves and others is now different. Relationships may have been lost or changed. The sense of security that comes from believing that we can protect our children feels eroded or in question. Some may have had to move from old neighborhoods or face different financial circumstances.
Commonly, the stages of recovery from losses of any kind, including those that stem from child sexual abuse, include denial, anger, sadness and, finally, acceptance. There are no set time frames. Everyone’s recovery experience is different. The deepest healing can begin once you have reached the stage of accepting the reality of the abuse and recognize the effects the abuse has had on each person. At this stage the family begins to see that they are capable of recovering from their losses, and that healing can take place.
What should I do next?
Upon hearing a disclosure, adults need an opportunity to share their feelings and reactions with a professional who understands child sexual abuse. Some adults may also need strong support and validation in order to effectively protect the abused child as well as find help for the person who is harming that child. This is all the more crucial if those around the adult don’t believe there is a problem in the first place. Resources that support the necessary changes to keep everybody safe are available in most communities.