Shame is a difficult emotion to deal with any time, but nowhere is it more debilitating than in the context of child sexual abuse.
It is not uncommon for abusers to tell their victims that they - the children -- were somehow at fault for the abuse. Your child may have been led to believe that his/her "nasty" or "seductive" behaviour caused the abuse. In many cases, child victims develop negative thoughts, attributing blame to themselves, which may perpetuate symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
One survivor, in her early 30s, told me: "When I realised what was happening, that's when I wanted to kill myself. I cried a lot and prayed a lot." She had just turned 12.
So, how can you help as a parent? Here are three things you can do to help your child to recover from the cycle of self-blame and shame.
Offer unconditional support
Research has shown that support from a non-offending parent is one of the most important factors in a child's recovery post-abuse. Your child may feel guilty or ashamed because they made no attempt to stop the abuse and/or because they may have experienced physical pleasure. As a parent, you should emphasise to your child that they are not to blame. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the abuse, it is the responsibility of the adult never to abuse a child. Do not let your child think that sexual exploitation of children, in any form, is acceptable.
"Reactions to child victims' disclosures have been shown to affect whether the transient shame associated with the revelation dissipates, or persists in the years ahead."
Be attentive and show your concern
Children who are ashamed of their abuse history may view themselves as "damaged goods". They often try to make sense of what had happened via causal explanations. In the case of sexual abuse, your child may choose to internalise verbal and non-verbal messages -- for example, that their being "seductive" led to the abuse. This is especially so in the case of incest, when your child was abused by someone they trusted and even loved. It is therefore crucial that you respond attentively and lovingly to your child's disclosure of the abuse.
Should you react negatively by denying that the abuse had taken place and/or ignore it, you may exacerbate the feelings of guilt and shame in your child. Reactions to child victims' disclosures have been shown to affect whether the transient shame associated with the revelation dissipates, or persists in the years ahead. Open and loving communication with your child is therefore important. Listen to your child, and try to ensure a safe and supportive home environment for them.
Do not create a culture of secrecy
Do not cloak the abuse in silence. Address the issue. If your child wants to talk, let them. Often to protect themselves and their children, parents adopt a mantle of silence, which will likely maintain the sense of shame in the victim. If left unchecked, your child's negative thinking may become ingrained and automatic, resulting in low self-esteem and even self-hatred. Your child's shame-inducing thoughts and beliefs may result in avoidant and isolating behaviour. This may reinforce your child's belief that they are of little worth. In the long-run, your child may accept poor treatment from others, including peers and even romantic partners. Each negative experience may serve to reinforce your child's existing feeling of inferiority.
In India, where to speak up on child sexual abuse is taboo, your efforts as a parent to constantly reassure your child that they are loved, and are not to blame, will help them tremendously in the path of healing. Encourage your child to engage in positive self-talk. Healing, even from something as dire as this, is possible.
Be there for your child.