By Heather Teater, See the Triumph Contributor
Finding out that your child has suffered from any kind of abuse can be confusing and overwhelming. It is often difficult to know where to begin and how to help when you have never had any experience helping your child through such a crisis. Take a deep breath. Both you and your child can make it through the road to recovery in one piece and come out healed and healthy on the other side. Here are a few suggestions to help you get the process of recovery started.
1. Get Counseling for Both Your Child and Yourself
Your child could have a number of responses to the abuse they experienced. They may show obvious signs of trauma or other mental health concerns such as nightmares, fear, crying, etc. Your child may also show more behavioral symptoms, such as defiance, aggressiveness, disruptive behaviors, or other concerns that were not present or were less frequent prior to the abuse. However, your child may not immediately show any symptoms at all and may appear to be unaffected by the abuse. Regardless, your child would benefit from seeing a mental health professional who can help them develop new coping skills and learn healthy ways to talk about their trauma.
And, parents, even if you were not a direct victim of the abuse, you may be suffering from guilt, helplessness, depression, or other effects of secondary trauma. Counselors can help you learn how to manage your own symptoms as well as help you support your child through their own recovery. Some treatments that have been developed for treating trauma, such as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TFCBT), have a parental component built into the child’s therapy so that you and your child can learn the same skills and be on the same page throughout treatment. Whether you see the same counselor as your child or not, it is important to be involved in your child’s therapy so that you can help them practice and develop the skills that they learn each week.
2. Don’t Blame Your Child for the Abuse
Sometimes it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your child played a part in their abuse. They may have accepted gifts from the abuser, gone somewhere that they weren’t supposed to go, or seemed to provoke the abuser in some other way. No matter what your child has done, abuse is NEVER their fault. Your child is not responsible for the actions of others and had no control in the abusive situation.
It is not uncommon to feel anger towards your child for exposing the abuse. However, it is not helpful to express those feelings of anger to your child – process and talk through your anger with your therapist, away from your child. Your child may already have feelings of responsibility for their abuse – what they need from you is love, support, and someone to tell them that they are not to blame.
3. Be Understanding, but Don’t Let Your Rules and Structure at Home Become Lax
While it may seem counterintuitive, what your child needs is structure, predictability, and stability after abuse. Letting them get away with behaviors for which they would usually be disciplined is not going to help your child’s recovery. It is common for children to act out behaviorally following abuse. Sit your child down and talk to them about how you understand that they have been hurt by the abuse and that they are mad, sad, etc., but that you and their counselor are going to help them find healthier ways to cope with those feelings. It may be helpful to talk to your or your child’s counselor about the most effective ways to discipline your child without being overly harsh or too relaxed.
4. Find Balance When Talking About the Abuse
Understand that it may take a while for your child to want to talk about their abuse – and it may always be a difficult topic. On the other hand, your child may want to talk to you about the abuse at some point and they need the opportunity and space to do so. If you aren’t ready for that, it’s okay to let them know that you need more time for your own processing and that you will make sure they get to talk to their counselor about it. However, once you are ready, don’t forget to bring that opportunity back to them. Your child needs to know that they can talk to you when they are struggling through this process. That being said, you also don’t want your child to talk about their abuse 24/7. It’s not healthy for them to ruminate on the abuse every moment of every day. It is important for you and your child’s counselor to help them find an appropriate balance.
5. Create a Safety Plan
Chances are the abuse that your child has suffered has impacted their sense of safety. With the help of a mental health professional, it may be useful to help your child come up with a plan that will help them feel safer throughout the day. Include things such as being sure that doors are locked at night, checking who is at the door before letting someone inside, a code word that your child can use when they feel unsafe, who your child can call when you aren’t around, and which adults help your child feel safe.
These suggestions are just a starting point for helping your child through this recovery process. Getting the process of recovery started as soon as possible for both you and your child is essential. While this can feel overwhelming, know that you are not alone. With the help of friends, family, counselors, and/or support groups with other parents of children who have been abused, you can help your child through this ordeal and survive it yourself. While no parent wants their children to be abused, remember this – you and your child are strong enough to heal and recover.