When You Love Them Both

Feeling caught in a loyalty bind

If you’re the non-offending parent of a child who has been abused by a sibling or by the other parent, you can find yourself caught in a painful bind. As a loving parent, you want to do everything in your power to protect the abused child, keep them safe, comfort them, and help them to heal. At the same time, especially if you’ve had a warm or loving relationship with the person who abused before the abuse was exposed, you may find that your feelings of affection and concern don’t simply vanish. It’s not at all uncommon for protective parents to find themselves engulfed by conflicting emotions toward the abuser – alternating between intense anger and hurt, and feelings of empathy and love.

Feelings of guilt are common

Often it’s confusing or disturbing to a protective parent when the mix of emotions they feel towards an abuser includes empathy or love. They may worry that their empathy for the abuser will prevent them from protecting the child effectively. They may feel guilty because they think they’re betraying the child by having caring feelings towards the person who was abusive. They may also worry that other people will think badly about them and not understand how they can care for both.

Your love can help them both

There are many protective parents who continue to love or care about the spouse or child who committed the abuse. There is no reason to feel guilt or shame about such feelings. In fact, by caring about both the person who abused and the abused child, you may be in a better position to improve things. But you can do so if, and only if, you are clear what your priority is – to protect the child who has been abused.

When the abuser is your spouse or partner

If you’re a parent whose child was abused by your spouse or partner, your greatest priority is always to love, comfort and protect your child, keep them safe, and help them through the process of healing. It’s important that there is no confusion or doubt about this in anyone’s mind, especially for the child who has been harmed. Your child will feel deeply betrayed if they believe that you are placing the interests of the person who abused them over their own wellbeing. Such a belief can cause immeasurable emotional damage to the child. Let your actions and words express to the child that they come first, while encouraging the adult to be accountable for their actions and get the professional help they need.

The loving thing to do – acknowledge the truth

One of the most loving things you can do is to face the truth about the abuse and help others do the same. Keeping the abuse hidden or denying it, because you care about the abuser or depend on them, hurts everyone. Standing by the truth isn’t easy; it takes a lot of courage – but it is crucial in stopping the abuse. Asserting the truth can be very tough, especially when the people you care about choose denial as their way of coping. If you can, find allies (friends, other family members, professionals) who share your beliefs and who can help you feel that you are not alone.

How your love can help them both

It’s critical to do everything in your power to protect, love and comfort the abused child. At the same time, your care for the person who abused, put you in a unique position to help that person along the difficult path that follows disclosure. It’s been shown that when an abuser has someone to support and encourage them to accept responsibility, face consequences and commit themselves to treatment, there’s a greater likelihood that they will succeed in changing their lives and ending their abusive behaviors. Most abused children are greatly helped when they see that the family member who abused them acknowledges the wrongfulness of their actions, accepts full responsibility for it, and is committed to change.

When one sibling abuses another sibling, both need support

For a parent, it can be heart wrenching to realize that your child has sexually harmed a sibling. If you are in this position, it’s important to know that both children desperately need your love and support. Both need to know that you’re in their corner, and that you will do whatever you can to make sure that each of them gets the help they need to stay safe and heal. When a child who has abused receives specialized, timely treatment combined with the love and support of a caring adult, the likelihood is very good that they will be able to stop abusive behaviors. Your love and encouragement, along with appropriate treatment will make it easier for both children to stay safe and to recover successfully.