I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but it’s taken some time for me to gather my thoughts. The subject matter is uncomfortable and since it’s something which I’ve personally experienced, I haven’t wanted to face it head on in a public manner.
What I want to talk about today is what it feels like to be the parent of a child who has been sexually assaulted. Even finishing typing that sentence, my fingers began to shake and I am feeling jittery. It’s strange that unless you’ve experienced it, you don’t understand that not only does the child have to recover from the assault, but the parent does as well. That’s something that I wasn’t prepared for. For the sake of this post, I’m not going to delve deeply into how this has affected my child. That would be a whole other blog post. I’m mainly focusing on how it has affected me.
I’m sure that every parent in this situation has a different experience, depending on many factors. Was the perpetrator a stranger or somebody you trusted? What was the extent of the assault? Was it a one-time occurrence or repeated over time? Was the perpetrator punished? Does the parent have a history of being sexually assaulted as a child themselves? All of these factors play into how a parent feels about and deals with the situation. I can only speak from my own experience, but I trust that some of the feelings and responses are the same no matter the surrounding circumstances.
I’ll start by telling you what alerted us to the issue in the first place. This child, whom we’ll call Pat (fictional name), was our sunniest child. Pat was always cheerful, a huge smile, laughing, wanted to please others–in fact, our happiest child. One day a flip seemed to switch in Pat and that sunny child was no longer there. Just poof–gone. It seemed to us that someone else was inhabiting Pat’s body. Now I’m not a superstitious-type person, but Pat’s behavior changed so drastically, that it made me think, this is what it would be like if a demon were to occupy my child. That is a scary thought.
Pat was filled with a rage which would let loose at the least provocation. Pat didn’t like what we were having for dinner? Rage. Pat didn’t want to get dressed and ready in the morning? Rage. Pat didn’t want to help clean up? Rage. Pat didn’t want to go to bed? Rage. You get the picture. All day long, day after day.
When I say rage, I don’t mean throwing a fit. I’ve seen plenty of fits thrown by ornery children in my life, and this was utterly beyond that. Pat would scream for extended periods, weep, slam doors, stomp around the house, lash out at others verbally, throw things, and even a few times got physically violent. Thankfully Pat was small enough that all of this raging didn’t cause a lot of damage to people or property, but I can assure you it was terrifying to witness and live with.
We tried regular disciplinary/guidance techniques, but none of it helped with Pat’s behavior in the least. At last, we decided that counseling was in order. We had no idea what was wrong, but we knew that we needed help.
Before we could get to counseling, a chance conversation with a relative helped put us on the right track as to what was wrong. As I described Pat’s behavior to this person, she mentioned that she had just gone through sexual abuse prevention training and said that Pat’s behaviors could possibly be due to that underlying issue.
I felt a lead weight in my belly when I heard that. No, please not that. The next day I took Pat aside and asked a few open-ended questions to try and get to the bottom of this mystery. At first Pat didn’t want to say anything, though they were close to crying. I tried to be reassuring, knowing what was coming, but wanting to maintain a calm facade so as not to add to the drama. I told Pat that it was okay to talk about it and that they could tell me anything.
Well, that’s when it came out. It had been limited to a very specific period of time, when a family member was staying at our house for a visit. Pat has an overly-developed sense of right and wrong, and felt guilty about the situation. I reassured Pat that they were not to blame and that it was the older person who had taken advantage of them as a child. My child had been carrying this weight around for months. No wonder Pat was going off the deep end emotionally–how would a child know how to cope with what had happened to them at the hands of somebody they trusted?
Even though it was a family member who assaulted Pat, we felt that it was necessary to come forward to the police. I know some people say family shouldn’t turn on one another this way. To that I would reply, who did the turning in the first place? Not only that, but a person who preys on your child has likely done it before and/or will do it again. If you don’t report it, could you forgive yourself if you found out another child and family had to go through this same experience because you felt bad about turning Uncle Fred in? Beyond all of those concerns, we provided respite care for children in foster care. We are mandatory reporters.
So…my emotional response to this new information was simply devastation. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s like somebody has simultaneously sucker-punched you in the gut, finely diced up your heart on a cutting board, and set off a bomb in the middle of your life. To know that you have failed (however unintentionally) in protecting your child in this most basic way is heartbreaking. Even if you had no way to know about or prevent it, you still feel guilty. You look at your child and you see who they were before, what the experience has done to them, and what they have become afterward. It is haunting. I’m not saying that Pat won’t recover (great strides have already been achieved), but there are some experiences which change you forever.
One unforeseen consequence to this whole debacle was the flak we caught from some very close family. They couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t try to handle it between ourselves, suggested that it was made up, and finally threatened that they could no longer talk to us unless it was through their lawyer. That’s when I crashed and burned completely. Up until that point I had been trying to stay strong for my family. Who wants to see mommy falling apart all the time? I would go in the bathroom and cry, then emerge to tend to my mommy duties. After the family member blew up at us, I wasn’t so good at faking it anymore. I started having panic attacks (something I’ve never before experienced), and decided that I needed to talk to a couple of close friends about the situation before I quietly went insane.
After trying to process the situation with them, I decided that for myself and my children, we did not need to keep those family members in our lives who had flipped out on us over our need to report the sexual assault of our child. A family member who believes that other considerations should take precedence over the protection of your child’s (and other children’s) sexual safety is not a family member who even needs to be acknowledged as such. It’s been tough because the kids are not old enough to know the truth of the situation. Some day we will tell them why we don’t see those family members anymore, but until that time, they still talk about them.
Pat and I went to counseling for several months with a wonderful counselor who specializes in working with children. She helped Pat to talk about what happened, to understand that it wasn’t their fault, to learn ways to deal with the emotions, to see that it’s okay to be completely open with mom and dad about everything, and to see that what our family member did was wrong and we had to tell the police to protect other kids. I am so thankful for that counselor–she helped my child discover that there is a road back to “normal” again. She also helped me, especially in those first months when it felt like our lives were unraveling.
It’s been some time since we first learned of our child’s assault, and I’m not in the completely raw emotional stage that I was before. My child is acting more normal and I am so grateful for that. Pat doesn’t like to talk about what happened, and I hope that Pat is figuring out how to move on and make the best of life. However, I’ve found that my own healing is somewhat late in coming. While I no longer feel the extreme anxiety, anger, and sadness all the time, there are other emotions and behaviors which have stuck around.
I am much more of a homebody now. I like to be home with my kids, not out in public. The larger the group we are in, the more my anxiety grows. I no longer leave my kids with others, except my good friend who teaches Sunday School at church, and my husband. I also see people differently. I recognize that any person could potentially be a sexual predator. That was a lesson learned through experience, and I so wish I had not had to learn it firsthand. I find that I don’t really want to get to know new people at all. I just want to stay in a little protective bubble which includes my family and a few close and trusted friends. And now I’m a mama grizzly bear. Before I may have been classified as a mama black bear, or some such animal. Now I’m all primal instinct and you had better watch out if you cross one of my kids. I’ve learned that there are some situations in life where you need to get your talons out, bare your teeth, and fight like hell for the welfare of your child.
In some ways I feel like a completely different person from who I was before this experience. Maybe I am–there are some things you can’t go back and change. I guess time will tell which of my emotional responses are permanent and which are coping mechanisms which I will discard when they have ceased to serve a purpose.
I hope that in sharing my experience, I can bring understanding to the issue for those who might not fully grasp how a child’s sexual assault affects a family. And to all the parents out there who have had to go through this awful experience, you’re not alone. Sometimes it’s comforting just to know that others who have gone through this have figured out how to go on with life. That means there’s hope for all of us.