Parenting a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused
One of the scariest needs for prospective adoptive or foster parents to consider when starting their process is the possibility the child has experienced sexual abuse. While it is true that parenting a child who has experienced sexual abuse requires focused preparation, it’s essential to also remember that children can and do heal from the trauma of sexual abuse.
Preparing parents to raise strong, healthy families, including kids who have suffered complex trauma such as sexual abuse, is what drives us here at Creating a Family. We recognize that not every prospective parent feels ready to tackle this level of need… at least not at the beginning. But we are confident that parents absolutely can become prepared for the needs of a child who has experienced sexual abuse.
On a recent Creating a Family radio show/podcast, Dr. Jennifer Shaw of the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery talked about the issues families face when parenting a child who has experienced sexual abuse. She has observed that there are a few traits of parents who are able to guide a child toward healing from sexual abuse.
Willing to Be Informed
Becoming educated on the issues of sexual abuse and the impacts that it has on a child’s development can be heard on your heart. However, you must be willing to learn in order to help your child. Informing yourself gives you tools to intentionally frame and re-frame what is typical and what is possible when seeking help and healing.
1. Seek out reputable, evidence-based resources – Evidence-based research will help you understand and dispel any myths you might, even unknowingly, believe about sexual abuse, victims, the potential for healing, and also about the perpetrators. Several reputable resources where you can start learning include:
- Creating a Family’s resource page on Helping a Child Heal from Sexual Abuse and Books on Understanding Sexual Abuse
- Child Welfare Information Gateway’s downloadable resource called, “Parenting a Child or Youth Who Has Been Sexually Abused: A Guide for Foster and Adoptive Parents”
- The National Child Trauma Stress Network’s resource page on Sexual Abuse
2. Understand the basics of typical child development – Once you have a working knowledge of what behaviors, skills, and milestones are within the range of typical development, you can then better understand actions that might be a result of sexual abuse or sexual trauma.
Look for a text that includes psycho-sexual development. You want to read up on this to get a firm grasp on how the child’s brain is processing issues of gender, physical growth, identity, and so on. Your pediatrician should be able to recommend a few resources if you are overwhelmed by the number of choices in the bookstore or online.
3. Network with the professionals – Reach out to your doctor’s office, reputable local counselors, or your local children’s hospital and ask for recommendations of professionals who specialize in childhood trauma and sexual abuse treatment.
If you are already involved with an adoption agency or foster care agency, ask your caseworker for local seminars or webinars where you can learn more. Check out Creating a Family’s online courses for parenting kids who’ve experienced sexual abuse or complex trauma.
Willing to Be An Anchor
Children who have been through sexual abuse need parents who will be anchors for them. In addition to anchoring your home with predictability, structured routine, and consistency, your child will need to know that you are a safe place for them to share their anxiety and pain. She needs to know that her internal chaos will not throw you. Dr. Shaw called it being a “confident caregiver” – responding to the trauma behaviors that are part of her healing with an “I’ve got you, I’m with you in this.”
When a parent conveys uncertainty or anxiety in response to a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse, the child can feel as if her parents are afraid of her and her story. If a parent is somehow communicating fear about the damage or its impacts, the child can also feel further othered or take on a more profound sense of shame.
The Power of One to impact a child's healing is enormous.
For many prospective parents, preparing for a child who has experienced sexual abuse will require some honest self-examination before she joins your family. It’s imperative to address your own mental and emotional health and any issues from your history so that you can confidently meet the child’s needs and not feel triggered by your pain.
Willing to Be an Ally
Every child needs an ally – someone who has an unshakeable belief in him, in his character, and his potential. No child needs it more than one who comes to you after suffering sexual abuse.
An Ally Believes that Healing Can Happen
Once you’ve educated yourself about parenting a child who has experienced sexual abuse, you will see that the research is clear: healing from sexual abuse can and does happen. But knowing the facts in your head and believing them – getting them down that 18 inches from your head into your heart can feel like an impassable distance.
However, if you are willing to be an ally for a child who was sexually abused, you need to dig deep and believe that healing is possible. For some, that will be an emotional or even spiritual connection to the information you’ve learned. For others, it will be a logical conclusion and trust in the integrity of science. It might be a combination of things – it matters very little how you come to that unshakeable belief, but you do have to believe in the possibility of healing, to lead that child to heal. That is the ally she needs.
For all parents, that belief in the potential for healing must also translate to action. Act like you believe your child will heal. Implement parenting practices in your home that will usher your child toward wholeness. Speak out loud of healing. Tell your child your big dreams for her. Please talk about the hopefulness of her bright future.
An Ally Believes the Child
That’s as simple and as complicated as it sounds. When your child feels safe enough to act out in your home, or when he bravely discloses that he was sexually abused, believe him. Yes, it will be painful. Yes, it might be ugly. But if your child trusts you enough to invite you into his pain and shame, he needs you to carry the weight of it with him. Believe him when he tells you. Believe what he tells you. Trust that he wants to find healing, and telling you is a huge step toward that.
An Ally Does the Hard Work
Being an ally for this child means some hard work in advance by you and your partner. It’s become a cliché, but “deal with your stuff” is a true-ism for those who wish to parent a child that has experienced sexual abuse. Face your history and take care of any issues that might impact your ability to believe a child’s disclosure. Consider what unresolved issues could be an obstacle in your ability to convey that belief to the child. A counselor or therapist can help you through this process and is worth the time to build the skills you need.
There’s no way around it – if you are preparing to foster or adopt and considering a child who has been sexually abused, you’ve got to prepare yourself. If you are willing to learn, to be an anchor, and be that child’s greatest ally, you make an excellent candidate for the path ahead. You won’t be alone – Creating a Family is honored to be with you on the journey.
Image Credit: Paul Siarkowski; Jake Guild; Farhad Sadykov