Healing the Family After Child Sexual Abuse

by Laura Markham, PhD

When one child in a family is traumatized by sexual abuse, it is quite likely that the other kids are also completely traumatized. They are also at risk from their own sibling who could act out sexually with them, or at the very least act out his rage against them.

One way to keep your home safe and secure for all the children is to consciously build relationships that encourage sharing and openness. Use this trauma as the impetus to create this very open, honest and supportive family life. What do I mean?

Well, let's pretend that your child had been injured in some other way -- for instance, had run in the street and been hit by a car. I am sure that you would lose no time in educating your other kids about streets and cars. And, because there is no substitute for supervision with young kids, I am sure you would be 100% on top of any exposure your kids had to streets or cars.

So I am suggesting that you use this opportunity to educate yourself and your kids about sexual abuse so that they understand it is nothing to be ashamed of and is not anyone's fault, and that they aren't powerless to prevent it -- in fact, they CAN prevent it happening to them. I recommend the book, My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky, an Assistant District Attorney in New York City.

Here are some tips parents can use to educate their kids so they can avoid sexual abuse.

  1. Use a story as a tool to begin a conversation with your child. Address the topic periodically to reinforce the message.
  2. Teach children the correct terms for their body parts. Enable them to use language that will make them comfortable talking to you.
  3. Ask the child: What would you do if someone touched you on your _______? Who would you tell? Why is it important to tell? What would you do if the person said it was "our secret?" Encourage the child to say
    they would tell a parent or a teacher right away because it's their body.
  4. Discuss the importance of the rule "no secrets." Put this rule into practice: If someone, even a grandparent, says something to your child like, "I'll get you an ice cream later, but it will be our secret," firmly but politely say, "We don't do secrets in our family." Then turn to your child and repeat, "We don't do secrets. We can tell each other everything."
  5. Keep in mind, especially when reading the book in a group setting, that you may be reading to a child who has already been touched in some way and is keeping it a secret. Be sensitive and avoid making the child feel guilty for not having told right away. Convey that it is OK for the child to tell someone even if he or she has been keeping it a secret for a long time.
  6. Encourage your children to tell you about things that happen to them that make them feel scared, sad or uncomfortable. If children have an open line of communication, they will be more inclined to alert you to
    something inappropriate early on.
  7. Encourage your children to trust their feelings -- if something doesn't feel right, they should get away as soon as possible and tell you about it.

I want to close by saying that as with any other trauma, this kind of tragedy can destroy a family, or it can make it stronger. You will definitely need help and courage, but your child, and the rest of your family, can recover and lead a happy life. I wish you every blessing.

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones. Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.YourParentingSolutions.com and www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with "the toughest, most rewarding job on earth."

On Pregnancy.org, Dr. Markham fields questions from our community members on her Expert Forum and hosts a regular Online Chat on Wednesdays. Click here to check out her Parenting Tips.

Dr. Markham is the author of the Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, with editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great. Dr. Markham lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, 13 year-old daughter, and 17 year-old son.

Copyright © Laura Markham. Permission to publish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.

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