Although men who abuse women are more likely than non-abusive men to violate children’s boundaries, only a small percentage of the women I have spoken with over the years have received disclosures of outright incest from their children, or have seen behaviors in the child that caused the mother to worry about violations of this severity. However, when such concerns do arise, the mother’s life gets turned upside down; few events can cause as much pain, rage, and desperation for a mother as discovering that her child appears to be an incest victim. If you find yourself in this position, I recommend above all that you acquire a copy of John Myers’ humane and wise book A Mother’s Nightmare — Incest, which will prepare you for the best chance of successfully protecting your child.
The next piece of advice I will offer is one of the most difficult: Try with all your might, from whenever your concerns first arise, to respond to your child in a calm and matter-of-fact way, hiding your own upset and fear as much as you possibly can. A measured response is important for several reasons, including:
- Your child may be responding to an innocent, appropriate interaction that was misinterpreted by him or her, or that you are misinterpreting. It is normal for children of various ages to exhibit certain degrees of sexualized behavior, such as masturbation, which are not cause for concern in themselves, and it is not uncommon for them to make ambiguous or confusing statements about their physical contact with people. If you react very strongly prematurely, you could cause your child to become distressed about an event that was not actually upsetting to the child originally.
- If your child was indeed inappropriately touched or exposed, the experience is likely to have been frightening and confusing for him or her, and you do not want your own reaction to make the child’s upset worse.
- Overly strong reactions from a parent can cause a child to be afraid to say anything further about what is happening or even to retract the disclosure, out of fear that the perpetrator will get in serious trouble, that you can’t handle the full truth, or that the child himself or herself will be deemed to have done something wrong. Children typically feel that they are complicitous in some way in the violations that have taken place; in addition, they sometimes are threatened by the perpetrator that disastrous consequences will result for the child, their siblings, the perpetrator, or the mother if the child discloses. If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing sexual abuse, it is critical for you to react in a way that keeps lines of communication open between you and your daughter or son, so that you can over time get as accurate a picture as possible of what is taking place.
If your concerns about sexual abuse are serious — for example, if your child has made an explicit disclosure — or if the issues are more subtle but are persisting over time, try to involve a professional, such as a therapist who has experience with child sexual abuse. Unless your situation is dire, however — for example, your child is disclosing penetration — don’t pressure your child to repeat his or her disclosure to the professional, because:
- Children have a hard time talking to professionals about sexual abuse, and feeling under pressure to do so quickly can lead them to clam up and say even less.
- If the child does talk to the therapist under pressure from you, the accuracy of the disclosure may be called into doubt in court even if the child simply repeats to the therapist exactly the same details he or she told to you. For example, if the therapist asks your child, “Did your Mommy tell you to tell me these things?,” and he or she answers “Yes”, the court begins to assume that the child’s statements were false, even though all actually had said to your child was, “You need to tell the evaluator what you told me.” In addition, a child who comes to see the therapist’s office as a place “where we go to talk about the bad stuff that happened,” or “where we go to talk about how Daddy hurt me,” may soon start refusing to go, especially during periods when the father is buying him or her gifts or using other tactics to silence the child about the abuse. The child needs to view the therapist’s office as a place where he or she goes to have some fun, develop a special relationship with a new adult, and talk about feelings, so that the exploration of possible boundary violations or of negative feelings about visits with Dad are just one aspect of a multi-faceted therapeutic experience.
Now comes another delicate matter: It is important to encourage the therapist to contact the father and build a relationship with him. You may feel reluctant to do this, since your experience may be that he is always able to charm everyone he talks to, so you fear that he will soon have the therapist on his side. But if the therapist has a relationship with you and not with your ex-partner, his or her letters or testimony may be discredited in court as biased in your favor. If you feel that you can’t trust your child’s therapist not to be hoodwinked by your ex-partner, the solution is not to keep them apart, but to find a therapist with better training on abuse.
If the therapist agrees to write any letters or affidavits to the court on your behalf, ask him or her to stick to describing clinical observations and carefully drawn clinical conclusions. The therapist should avoid sounding overly invested in the case, and should not tell the judge what to do. For example, a letter from a professional can appropriately say, “I have observed that the child is upset after visitation with the father, ” or, “The child has made clear statements about boundary violations by the father that do not sound rehearsed or coerced,” but should not make statements such as, “The child has clearly been sexually abused,” or “Visitation with father should be immediately suspended.” Statements that overtly advocate for one side, or that seem to draw overly strong conclusions, can give the professional’s observations less credibility and impact in court.
Depending on where you live, a number of resources may exist in your area to support you though the turmoil that sexual abuse concerns bring. Call your local program for abused women, hospitals, and mental health clinics to look for such services as support groups for non-offending parents of incest victims, therapy groups for the child, workbooks and picture books to help you in working directly with your child on processing what has occurred, and more. (Look also on the Resources section of this website, under “For Mothers of Sexually Abused Children“.)
It is important for any abused woman facing custody and visitation litigation to find good legal representation if possible, and that issue becomes even sharper where sexual abuse arises. Below I talk more about how to find and choose a good attorney — and how to represent yourself if necessary.