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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Parenting the sexually abused (Part # 8)

What Do Parents Need to Know when Adopting a Child Who Has Experienced Sexual Abuse?

Parents who adopt children who have experienced sexual abuse need the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules and the patience of Mother Theresa. If you fall short in any of these areas, do not despair. You are in good company. Perhaps, more important is your desire to help a young person grow into a healthy, trusting adult. This is a privilege and one which brings real satisfaction to those who have adopted.

What Do Parents Need to be Aware of About Themselves?

It is very important for you as prospective adoptive parents to be honest with yourselves and with your adoption worker about a number of things:

Is there a history of sexual abuse in either the mother or father's past? If there is, how were those experiences resolved? Did you decide to "just forget about it" and chalk it up as one of those things that just happened? Or did you get help, from your parents, a teacher, a minister, a therapist or someone who could help you work through your feelings about having been abused? Parents with unresolved abuse experiences in their history may be at greater risk for either abusing the child again, or for keeping too much physical and emotional distance, for fear of abusing the child. Parent/Survivors in local support groups regularly address these phenomena.

How comfortable are you as prospective parents, with your own sexuality and with your sexual relationship(s)? Can you talk comfortably about sex? Do you give yourselves permission to acknowledge your own sexual feelings, thoughts, fantasies and fears? Do you have a well-established relationship which allows for direct and open communication? A child who has been sexually abused may need to talk about what happened to him or her. The child's behavior may be seductive or blatantly sexual at times. A parent must be able to deal with this.

In addition, there are some other issues that are important for adoptive parents to consider. They are:

A willingness to "be different," or experience embarrassing situations, at least for a while. Children who have been sexually abused may behave toward their adoptive parents in ways which are different than non-abused children. For example, Lisa, age 8, began shouting loudly, in public places like the supermarket, that her father had abused her. In fact, it was her biological father and not her adoptive father who had abused her, but the strangers in the supermarket obviously did not make the distinction.

An ability to wait for the child's commitment while not putting off making your own. An abused child is often untrusting and tied to the past. A child may repeatedly test your commitment to him or her. She or he may feel that if you really and truly saw her or him as they are, with all the scars, that you would not really want him or her.

Many parents have the hope that their love will immediately ease the mistrust their child has of the world and all its adults. What one adoptive parent learned was "love has a different meaning for my daughter. To her, it's simply a deal: You do this for me and I'll do that for you. What a shock to discover that love is not enough." A true, trusting love based on more than just bargaining can come to pass with a sexually abused child, but it will take time, consistency and patience.

A sense of humor. As with most situations in life, a good hearty laugh helps.

What Do Parents Need to be Aware of About Their Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused

Children who have experienced sexual abuse will probably need help in learning new behaviors and ways of relating. Some of the behaviors and emotions you may see expressed by your child are:

Withdrawal: Overwhelmed by the feelings she or he has experienced, the child may retreat physically or emotionally. As a parent, you may feel confused or resentful. It can be very isolating to have someone close to you tune you out. Unless you think there is danger of physical harm to the child or others, the best course of action is to reassure the child that you care and that you will provide the limits and boundaries that your child needs.

Mood Swings: A moment's tenderness can quickly explode into anger. The child may be full of confidence one day, only to sink into despair the next. It is difficult to see someone you care about in pain, but you cannot control the feelings of someone else. Point out that these mood swings are occurring. Do not allow yourself to be unfairly blamed. Try to stay calm and accepting that sometimes the child does not even know when or why his/her mood swings are occurring. Crying jags can be part of these mood swings. Accept that it is beyond your power to make it all better. Sometimes when a parent tries to rescue a child from his or her pain, he or she ends up feeling guilty, resentful and frustrated when it does not work. When a caterpillar is emerging from the cocoon, it must have a period of time to build strength in its wings. If the butterfly is released from its cocoon before its time, its strength will be diminished and it will not be able to survive on its own.

Anger: The first target for the child's angry feelings may be the person he or she has come to feel the safest with -- you. When a person's angry feelings are completely out of proportion to what is going on, it probably has nothing to do with the present situation. Something in the present is triggering and re-stimulating old memories and feelings. The safety of the current situation allows these feelings to be expressed. Recognize that this is actually a sign of health, but do not accept unacceptable behavior; and never expose yourself to physical violence.

You can assure your child that you are willing to work out the problem at hand, but in a safe and supportive manner. For example, a child may be offered a pillow to beat on in order to vent his or her anger.

Unreasonable Demands: Some children learn the survival skills of manipulation and control. They may feel entitled to make unreasonable demands for time, money or material goods. It is important not to play into or get trapped by these demands. You need to maintain a healthy relationship with your child. This will help the child reduce these demands.

Sexual Behaviors: Since the abuse was acted out sexually, the child needs help in sorting out the meaning of abuse, sex, love, caring and intimacy. Some children may try to demand sexual activity, while others may lose interest in any form of closeness. Think of all the needs that are met through sex: intimacy, touch, validation, companionship, affection, love, release, nurturance. Children need to be re-taught ways that these needs can be met that are not sexual.

A child who has been sexually abused may feel:

  • I am worthless and bad
  • No person could care for me without a sexual relationship
  • I am "damaged goods" (no one will want me again)
  • I must have been responsible for the sexual abuse because (it sometimes felt good physically, it went on so long, I never said "no", I reallly wasn't foreced into it, I never told anyone)
  • I hate my body
  • I am uncomfortable with being touched because it reminds me of the abuse
  • I think I was abused but sometimes I think I must have imagined it
  • I blame my (biological) mother or father for not protecting me but I can't talk about it; I don't want to hurt him/her

A child who has been sexually abused will benefit from clear guidelines that set the rules both in the home and outside. These kinds of rules will help provide the structure, comfort and security which all children need to grow into healthy adults. Experts in the field of adoption and child sexual abuse believe these guidelines are particularly important during the first year after placement, when the child is working hard to establish new relationships with his/her adoptive family and to build trust.

The following guidelines address topics with specific reference to children who have been sexually abused.

Privacy: Everyone has a right to privacy. Children should be taught to knock when a door is closed and adults need to role model the same behavior.

Bedrooms and Bathrooms: These two locations are often prime stimuli for children who have been sexually abused, since abuse commonly occurs in these rooms.

By the time children enter first grade, caution should be used about children of the opposite sex sharing bedrooms or bath times.

It is not advisable to bring a child who has been sexually abused into your bed. Cuddling may be overstimulating and misinterpreted. A safer place to cuddle may be the living room couch.

Touching: No one should touch another person without permission. A person's private parts (the area covered by a bathing suit) should not be touched except during a medical examination or, in the case of young children, if they need help with bathing or toileting.

Clothing: It is a good idea for family members to be conscious of what they wear outside of the bedroom. Seeing others in their underclothes or pajamas may be overstimulating to a child who has been sexually abused.

Saying "No": Children need to learn that it is their right to assertively say "no" when someone touches them in a way they do not like. Help them to practice this.

Sex Education: All children, including the child who has been sexually abused, need basic information about how they develop sexually. They also will benefit from an atmosphere in which it is OK to talk about sex. Appropriate words for body parts, such as penis, vagina, breasts and buttocks, will give the child the words to describe what happened to him or her. Suggestive or obscene language is sometimes a trigger for old feelings for a child who was sexually abused, and should not be allowed.


No "Secrets": Make it clear that no secret games, particularly with adults, are allowed. Tell children if an adult suggests such a game, they should tell you immediately.

Being Alone With One Other Person: If your child is behaving seductively, aggressively or in a sexually acting out manner, these are high risk situations. During those times, it is advisable not to put yourself in the vulnerable position of being accused of abuse. In addition, other children may be in jeopardy of being abused. Therefore, whenever possible during these high risk situations, try not to be alone with your child or allow him/her to be alone with only one other child.

Wrestling and Tickling: As common and normal as these childhood behaviors are, they are often tinged with sexual overtones. They can put the weaker child in an overpowered and uncomfortable or humiliating position. Keep tickling and wrestling to a minimum.

Behaviors and Feelings: Help children differentiate between feelings and behaviors. It is normal to have all kinds of feelings, including sexual feelings. However, everyone does not always act on all the feelings he or she has. Everyone has choices about which feelings he or she acts on, and everyone (except very young children) must take responsibility for his or her own behavior.

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