Q&A Dealing with Sexual Abuse

QUESTION

Last February we found out my brother-in-law had been sexually molesting two of my children this was confirmed by him. In the flurry of activity that followed including reporting the abuse to the police and his excommunication from the church, it was revealed that there has been extensive incest in my husband’s family both between siblings and by the maternal grandfather. This brother-in-law has refused to cooperate with the police and it now appears he will escape punishment.

I have two questions. One is how do I balance forgiveness with making sure this cycle of abuse stops? Second, what can I do in my own home to prevent sexual acting out in my own children who have already been highly sexualized at a young age?

ANSWER

Lili: You ask the right questions. First, it’s important to understand that forgiveness is not really a healthy option until safety has been established. If we forgive when we—or our loved ones—are still in danger, in a way, we are accepting a victim role. So the key issue becomes your unit family’s safety. Remember that your own life and immediate family are the only areas where you can exert some appropriate measure of control. You can’t take on the burden of making sure that your husband’s family of origin and/or extended family stops injurious behaviors and gets on the right path. This is not to say that where crimes have been or are committed that you should not report those activities to the proper authorities—including Church authorities—but, as you have learned first hand, that may or may not prove effective.

So, it is important for you and your husband to counsel together about the amount and type of interaction that you will have with his side of the family, given the circumstances. Some members of his family may be completely on board in taking responsibility to supervise children and make sure that they are safe. Others may be in denial to one degree or another, hoping that if all this is ignored it will eventually go away. In that case, it would not be wise to grant the same kind of access to your children without your direct supervision. Certainly, contact with your brother-in-law, given his choice to avoid responsibility through failing to cooperate with the police, should end. If he ever comes to a place where he takes responsibility and accesses appropriate, professional resources to address his issues, you can revisit that decision. But if we don’t even acknowledge that something is broken, we’re not going to waste time or effort fixing it. Until he acknowledges and takes appropriate responsibility for fixing his problems, he’s not a safe relationship for any child.

If you and your husband don’t agree about how to maintain appropriate boundaries with his side of the family, you may need to speak together with the bishop and/or with a professional counselor to come to a unified decision about how to draw those lines and how to communicate them to his extended family. THEN, when your unit family is safe, forgiveness becomes an available option.

Of course, your second question deals with another kind of safety that has been taken away and has resulted in ongoing problems that arise out of sexual abuse. Let me insert here a response from Chris.

Chris: Sexual victimization creates early sexualization or eroticization, which has to be addressed. This is something that probably needs to be done with the help of a good counselor who has experience working with young abuse victims. It’s important that the therapist and the parents normalize the problem as much as possible, but avoid blowing it out of proportion. This is done by maintaining appropriate behavioral guidelines. The age of the children involved will, of course, impact the processing of this issue and, no matter what the ages involved, this will take a while. You want to walk the balance between knowing those sexual feelings aren’t supposed to be in play yet BUT they’re normal given the circumstances although that doesn’t mean precocious sexual behaviors should be ignored or allowed. Childhood has to be reestablished, as much as possible. This will involve bringing the kids back developmentally and that is generally met with some resistance. It’s not easy, but utilizing good resources—particularly a good counselor who can help the children and help guide you in the process—healing can occur.

Lili: Just another couple of thoughts—first, be sure to talk to your children about what’s going on. It’s always important for victims of abuse to know that it’s not their fault and they didn’t do anything to provoke the abuse. It’s also important for them to know that they aren’t “bad” because they were taught to do things that are inappropriate. But it’s important for them to understand that the abuse gave them a mistaken idea of what kinds of things they should be doing, feeling, or thinking and they just need to learn to feel comfortable being kids again. So you and their dad will help them clear up the confusion of what is okay and what’s not. Then it’s really important not to get upset when you see inappropriate behaviors from the kids—this can send the message that the child is bad. You want to acknowledge that they are still confused about what behaviors are okay and it might take a while for them to get it straight but you’re reminding them and will continue to help them learn what’s best for them.

This is all going to take a while so it may be quite a while before you feel that you and your family are completely safe from the abuser. So if it takes a while before forgiveness is available to you, that’s okay. There’s a big difference between being vengeful and exercising caution. You are not an evil person but a wise one when you carefully and rationally determine what you need to do to keep your family safe, even if this involves limiting or even eliminating contact for a while or indefinitely. When you and your family are safe, forgiveness will come.

Very best wishes in your path toward healing.

FYI: A resource that can be helpful for all parents teaching children about intimacy in age-appropriate ways is The Parent’s Guide. It was put together in the 70s, so it could use some updating, but it remains a useful reference. It’s available from Church Distribution.

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©2017 Lili Anderson, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.