Episode 70: Parenting a Sexual Abuse Survivor

In this episode of The Family Couch, we talk with Jessica Lang about parenting a sexual abuse survivor.

We dive right in and discuss what the term “complex trauma” means.  Lang defines this as repeated traumatic events that have happened over the course of someone’s lifespan.  This usually starts in early childhood and is not usually just sexual abuse.  There is often physical abuse, neglect, environmental stresses, or parents with health issues.  This leads the body’s stress response system to be sensitized. This gives you a short window of tolerance for anything that is stressful.  When you are triggered, you either shut down or become ready to fight. Lang gives an example of telling your mom you’ve been sexually abused.  She comforts you, there’s action that’s taken, the perpetrator is taken away, and you can share your story and get it out. If the trauma repeatedly happens, or the child gets in trouble for it, then the child holds the secret inside and often blames themselves  Lang has noticed that if there is one singular traumatic experience or something that continues to happen, like abuse in the home that goes unchecked, it makes them more susceptible to bullying, which also contributes to the complex trauma.

We next discuss what happens if your child does experience sexual trauma.  Lang says parents experience a lot of guilt related to this. They ask, “How could I have let this happen?” or, “How did I not know?”.  They may have felt something was off but couldn’t quite figure it out, so they let it go. The guilt is normal, but all you can do is move on.  You have to take the time to listen to your child’s story. The child needs to feel in control, empowered and nurtured. As a parent, you need to be present and listen.  If your child loves hugs, you hug them. If your child needs space, you can give them an area to decompress. Letting them make small decisions like what they want to eat or if they want to do something in particular lets them know that they can make choices and can say no.  There are lots of small things you can do to reconnect. If it gets overwhelming, you can seek professional help.

Kids don’t always know exactly what has happened to them, but if they feel connected to their parent, they can easily share it with a parent.  If your child does share and you react by asking tons of questions and saying, “Oh my God!”, etc, you can tell your child that you are sorry if you scared them with your big reaction and explain to your child that this is upsetting to Mommy and she wants to help you. If you start off asking tons of questions and being crazy, it can cause your child to shut down and not be able to even access the memories.  You let them know that you know it is a big deal and it hurts you, too, but you can help them make it better. Let them know that they can give details as they want to. If they are done talking about it, you just tell them that’s okay. As a parent, you want to know the whole story but you have to give your child time.

We next discuss what to do if your child can’t talk about it but it is showing up in other spaces, like schoolwork, their attitude toward families, or their behavior in general.  Lang recommends looking for little things that may be red flags. If your child seems like they know a little too much about body parts and sex, this is concerning. Another common thing is when younger kids kiss their peers or exhibit seductive behavior, usually around adult males.  Crawling into a strangers lap is also concerning. If the child is doing these things and you are questioning things, Lang recommends talking with a professional.

With older children that may already have information from sexual education, Lang recommends seeing the professional.  This age group will feel very uncomfortable talking with their parents about sex, especially if it’s a pre-teen or teenager who is on the internet chatting with someone they shouldn’t be.  The teen then feels a double secrecy–the secrecy of the abuse and of feeling like they did something bad by chatting in the first place. Lang tells parents that when they start noticing complete opposite behaviors that are very drastic.  As an example, a girl who usually wears shorts and a tank top is suddenly covered up in jeans and long sleeves, or just the opposite. Major changes in eating, sleeping patterns, or grades can also be indicative.

If a parent were to notice these things and needed to take a next step, Lang recommends finding a time when it is just you and your child.  You can take a walk and let them know that you’ve noticed the changes but you want to let them know you are here to talk with them. They may tell you some things or they may keep quiet.  Lang advises to keep asking and letting them know specific things you are noticing. Your tone of voice is also important. If you feel like something is really off, you can share something about yourself, like how you may not eat as much if you’ve had a bad day.  When going in the direction of seeing a professional, you can be honest and let them know that as a parent it is heavy for you and that you need support. Many times children will not want to share things with their parents because they are so worried about how the parent will handle it.

We finally discuss how religion and beliefs make talking about these things even more difficult.  Since there are many religions where sex is just a means to have babies, people wonder how to talk about the abuse because they don’t usually have to discuss these things with their children.  The adults may have their own experience that they don’t want to discuss, like being in an arranged marriage, where they were not able to make a choice. It is important to have a therapist who is culturally competent in this type of situation especially.  If the therapist you find is not familiar with your intricacies, you may need to seek a new one. This can also be very helpful if, as an example, the father figure in the family needs to talk with someone. He may feel much more comfortable talking with a male therapist.



Jessica Lang is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has her own private practice, Jlang Therapy & Consulting, where she serves as an online trauma therapist.  She received her Masters in 2011 and jumped into agency work, working with complex trauma cases, primarily sexual abuse survivors. Often, the children had parents with own trauma history.  Lang wanted to help children become more aware to stop the cycle of abuse.



WEBSITE: https://jessicalangtherapy.com/

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/jlangtherapy/


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Show transcripts by Amy Lockrin | Online Business Manager & Systems Strategist | www.amylockrin.com

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