By Lindsey Jordan, LMSW
Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, Inc. (CACTX)
Learning that their child has been abused is a crisis for parents, too. Parents may experience a range of emotions and reactions upon learning that their child has been abused, including shock, denial, anger, sadness, guilt, self-blame, and confusion.
This is especially true when the perpetrator is a spouse or romantic partner of the parent. It can be very difficult for parents to accept that a person they love and trust has done something like this to their child. They may feel guilty for not knowing the abuse was occurring, or they may blame themselves for trusting this person with their child.
Often, professionals who work these cases have very high expectations of the non-offending caregiver(s). Parents are often told they must leave the perpetrator right away, which can be especially challenging for parents who are economically dependent on the perpetrator.
Not only will the parent have to figure out a way to support the family financially, but they will have to adjust to becoming a single parent at the same time. This can be tremendously challenging, especially when you consider that they might have to take off work and find childcare for their other children in order to participate in the investigation, prosecution, and Child Protective Services process.
Parents are often expected to be “perfect” in terms of supporting their child and participating in the investigation, but these parents are dealing with huge stressors and may lack support, especially if the perpetrator is a family member. Professionals working these cases should understand the challenges they face, have realistic expectations, and regularly refer them to appropriate support services.
Parents/guardians may not believe the outcry right away, or they may be unsure of what to believe, especially if the perpetrator is a family member. This is pretty common, as most perpetrators spend months or even years building trust with families before ever committing an act of abuse on a child. Shock and denial are common initial reactions to learning that something traumatic has happened. Parents may need time to process what has happened before they are able to come to terms with the abuse and fully accept it occurred.
During this time, parents should be offered support services, including therapy, to help them sort out their feelings and come to understand the dynamics of abuse. Just because parents don’t fully believe the outcry right away does not mean they will not come to accept it over time. Parents who are initially unsure of what to believe are often still capable of being protective and supportive of their child.
Parents often do not understand the dynamics of child abuse or the multi-disciplinary team (MDT) response. They may have never heard of “grooming.” They may not be aware that 90% of child victims of sexual abuse are abused by someone they know and trust. Parents may not know that most of the time, children delay their disclosure because of shame, fear, and embarrassment. Professionals can help by educating parents about these different dynamics. Knowledge can be very empowering for families, and can go a long way toward helping them support their child. Education about the MDT response and the criminal justice and CPS systems can also help parents feel less overwhelmed.
Parents often want to support their child but do not know how. Do not assume that a parent isn’t supportive because they aren’t meeting your expectations of providing support. They may simply not know what to say or what to do. Remember, they may have never experienced anything like this before. When appropriate, educate parents about how to best meet their child’s needs in the aftermath of abuse, and offer support services to the whole family.