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How to Respond when Childhood Sexual Abuse is Disclosed

Last week’s blog referred to the process known as grooming in childhood sexual abuse (CSA). The perpetrator grooms not only the victim but also the community. Having groomed the community, it is possible for the perpetrator to be respected before ever being suspected. Sadly, when the victim discloses CSA, the victim is too often suspected of lying or blamed for having done something that prompted the abuse. The threatening nature of disclosure for the victim of CSA is like climbing a spiral staircase – it is impossible to see what is ahead. This brings us to an important principle.

Disclosure is always risky for a victim of CSA

If someone has disclosed their CSA to you, the good news is that they probably felt safe enough with you to disclose the trauma to you. Sense of safety is a prerequisite for disclosure. Your response to the disclosure(s) plays a key role to their future health. But remember, it is not your responsibility to make sure that the survivor begins the healing process or to determine the rate at which the process will go. There are no guarantees. As a friend or husband, we cannot cause the healing. But we must be alert to the fact that we can sabotage healing.

Here are 3 realities about disclosure and 5 responses to a disclosure that can prevent us from re-victimizing a survivor of CSA.

Three Realities about CSA Disclosures

  1. Disclosures are typically delayed.

The average age of a woman’s disclosure of her CSA is age 26. It is not unusual for a woman to be in her 40’s or 50’s when making disclosure.

A variety of events can trigger memories of CSA years after the abuse occurred. Here’s a short list of the seemingly endless possibilities of triggers:

  • The content of a news report
  • A comment on social media
  • A survivor’s daughter reaches the age they were when the abuse occurred
  • Individuals in addiction recovery can have memories triggered when the drug or alcohol is no longer suppressing their memoires
  • Visiting a location from childhood
  • The death of the perpetrator
  • A change in body chemistry

When the disclosure is shared, a spouse or close friend might innocently but ill-advisedly ask, “Why didn’t you tell me before?” or “Why am I just hearing about this now for the first time?” But this kind of a question conveys to the victim that you have some doubt that the abuse happened, even when you are not in doubt. The victim hears, “If this really happened you would have told me sooner.”

The truth is that the victim of CSA probably would have disclosed earlier if they could have. But perhaps the memory had not yet resurfaced, or there was no sense of safety, or the energy it took to suppress the memory is now gone.

  1. Disclosures often occur in stages.

Disclosures are sometimes difficult to receive and understand because of the unfolding detail and increased awfulness with each new disclosure. A victim might say, “I felt anxious when he would touch me.” Months later, the victim’s account may expand to “it was really painful when he forced his penis into me.”

When the original version of disclosure becomes intensified, a husband or friend might wonder if the account is being exaggerated. A wounding response would be, “If that’s what happened, why didn’t you say so earlier?” The answer to that question is that the victim did not feel safe enough earlier. Disclosures progress with the victim’s increased sense of safety and the readiness to deal with further awareness. Remember that the victim is ascending a spiral staircase to the unknown.

  1. Initial disclosures may not identify the perpetrator.

A victim’s disclosure may even identify someone other than the actual perpetrator, especially when the perpetrator was someone very close to the child such as a father, uncle, or a family friend. It is especially difficult for children to identify a family member as the perpetrator. A child’s mind cannot accept that someone who is supposed to love and care for them would be capable of doing the unthinkable to them.

Five Responses to Disclosure of CSA

  1. Listen patiently and do not end the conversation prematurely.

Victims of CSA do not find it easy to trust others. How can they when a trusted person has sexually abused them? Therefore, disclosures are times of great risk for the victim. They will carefully measure your response, verbally and nonverbally, in order to gauge the level of safety. Your patience will facilitate trust building. If you appear hurried or end the conversation prematurely, the victim may likely feel abandoned or rejected.

  1. Keep your opinions to yourself.

From last week’s blog, you know the destructiveness of saying, “I don’t see how [perpetrator’s name] could do that?” But it is also counterproductive to say, “Yeah! I always thought he was a pervert!” This is not about you or how you see things. Disclosure belongs to the victim alone.

  1. Let them be angry.

The victim’s anger has been there all along though they may have tried to stuff it. Self blame and shame has held the victim in bondage for too long. If anger comes out at the perpetrator in the disclosure, allow them to express it because it is finally being aimed in the right direction.

Eventual forgiveness of the perpetrator can never occur unless there is first the angry awareness of the violation.

Your expression of acceptance and care will generate safety and trust. Don’t say that you understand. Instead, let your spouse or friend know that it is appropriate to be angry. God is angry at what was done.

  1. Know your limitations.

Robert Cardwell has stated, “Your intentions to help are wonderful but when you are dealing with problems such as [CSA] you need to incorporate referral for professional help in your goals” (p. 17).

  1. Encourage the CSA survivor to get professional counseling.

Pray for wisdom in this. Don’t say, “You need counseling.” In the ears of the victim, that well-intended statement might sound more like a judgment; as though you said, “You’re really messed up!” There’s already been enough self-condemnation for the victim. But do express hope and that you believe there are people who know how to help others who have faced such trauma.

The focus of this blog is the disclosure of a legal adult. If the disclosure is from a minor, local and State laws for notifying authorities must also be carefully followed.

Share the insights you’ve gained from your experience with disclosure. I welcome your comments and interaction.

Key sources for this blog include:

Cardwell, R. (1998). Through it together: Help and advice for partners of survivors of child abuse. London: Minerva.

Cheston, S. E. (1994). As you and the abused person journey together. Mahwah, N.J.: Illumination Books.

 

2 Responses on “How to Respond when Childhood Sexual Abuse is Disclosed

  1. sonny says:

    There are as many triggers as there are memories and associations. Triggers can be seasonal change, places, objects, spousal nudity, spousal physical touch, spousal body parts, etc… Every victim is a unique case. Our thinking has to be conformed to how God wants us to think. Our views are skewed by the world and our sinful flesh which must be subjugated to God’s Will. God instructs husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way, and there are times when only the Holy Spirit has brought me through. Learning to love our wives as Christ loves the Church is a life-long class. Most men underestimate the level of commitment God calls us to, but when we begin to really commit to God and our wives, our wives will know that they are loved by God and their husband. Women who are abused sometimes doubt whether God really loves them and they may doubt whether their husband loves them. If she doesn’t trust God, should we be surprised if she doesn’t trust her husband or doubts her husbands love for her? How can a wife feel cherished by her husband if she doesn’t feel cherished by God? God loves her through the husband by empowering him to love her patiently and consistently. Husbands are stewards of one of the King’s daughters, and she is our first priority. Do not grow weary in doing good brothers

    1. I like your reference to our wives being among the King’s daughters. That’s a great reference and truth. They are cherished by God and we radiate His character as we cherish our wives.

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