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Sexual Abuse and the Role of Disclosure

May 4, 2013

As is my routine when meeting people within my first counseling session, I ask a lot of questions about a person’s family life when growing up and about very personal experiences. I often ask, “Have you ever been touched in a way that made you feel uncomfortable?”

This is a question where even if one does not speak quickly, body language reveals the answer.

Very often, I am the first person to whom people have disclosed sexual abuse. It’s no mystery why I may be the first, despite their seeing a multitude of other therapists. It is because I am usually the first to ask as directly as I do; I am comfortable asking; and I think I am very sensitive in my approach.

It’s not that people are then comfortable answering, if indeed they have been touched inappropriately, but yet, they almost without exception find themselves able to do so. In many of these instances, these very same people have never even told their own parents. Curious.

Given my 31 years of working with people, I have come to see a pattern in terms of those persons who have told their parents as children, when the abuse occurred and those who did not or have never.

Those who have told their parents typically felt safe in doing so. They were not concerned with being blamed or shamed. They trusted that their parents would provide for their safety and make them feel better. They saw in their parents a loving, caring and supportive relationship that extended to them as children.

In other instances, children may have an ambivalent attachment to their parents. In other words, they may not feel totally secure or safe with their parent’s care. This can be the outcome in homes marked by domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, neglect, and serious mental health concerns. Within home marked by those issues, children may come to experience that their parents may not be able to meet their needs and while this is not necessarily spoken, it is something that is just felt or understood. These children are left to their own devices to find ways to survive life’s turmoil in secrecy and isolation.

When a child does feel safe to quickly bring the incident to the attention of the parents and when handled appropriately by the parents, I see that children tend to be less affected. They do not seem to carry a sense of shame or self-doubt or distorted view of complicity with the abusive behavior perpetrated against them. In these instances their parents are there to explain it was not their fault and the parents seek to hold the perpetrator accountable, signaling to the child the value and importance of their well-being above all else.

However, should a parent disbelieve their child or not seek to hold the perpetrator accountable, then these children come adults, seem to struggle with their own sense of self, their own self esteem, their own sense of value. Depression and/or anxiety become part of their sense of self.

Worse still is the outcome for children come adults, who felt unable to turn to their parents for support when so in need. In terms of my experience, these adults are most affected by the abusive event(s), who most feel shame, embarrassment and a misguided sense of complicity. Not only do these persons deal with depression and/or anxiety, but often to such a degree that destructive self-management strategies set in, such as eating disorders, self-harm behavior, suicidal ideation and gestures, as well as alcohol and/or drug abuse.

To these persons, I explain in detail how the events of the abuse were not the fault of the child. It may be though that some adult survivors of sexual abuse find this difficult to accept, particularly if the abuse was of an ongoing nature and if when as a child, the person felt as if they participated somewhat willingly.

Here I must explain the concept of shaping or grooming that some sexually exploitive adults take children through, to cause the child to believe they are an active participant in the sexual behavior. This is accomplished beyond the child’s cognitive ability to see or understand until too late, when the child finds him or herself in a situation without appreciating how he or she got there.

There is a tremendously important role that befalls the therapist in these circumstances. The therapist must be educative – must explain the dynamics underneath the persons shame, embarrassment and sense of complicity. The therapist must then, in a sense, absolve the person of guilt, shame, embarrassment, complicity.

Perhaps more than anything else though, I find these persons need an apology.

Therein I take on the role, not from the position of perpetrator or parent, but of a conscientious observer and person who cares. I tell these persons directly, that I am sorry for their untoward experiences; that there is nothing in the world that could have ever make them deserve this and despite those experiences, they do not define them and that they have intrinsic worth and value, whether or not felt it at present.

This is where therapy begins. I think it a huge disservice for me not to be explicit about this. God forbid we just let the person sit amidst the pain and angst of their past to figure it out on their own over the course of multiple therapy sessions.

At that point and after tears, these very same people, the people who came to me in fear and self-doubt, express gratitude and appear relieved. From there we can put the events of their life into a more reasonable or realistic perspective, come to understand the impact of formative experiences and the impact of others upon us such that we can make new and better decisions as life moves forward.

The therapist is there to unlock the impact of sexual abuse. Disclosure is key. After disclosure, a clear statement: It’s not your fault, you didn’t deserve this.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

(905) 628-4847

Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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  1. Christine Hagen MSW RSW permalink

    I have also favoured a gentle but direct approach with survivors of childhood trauma, including sexual abuse. There are times, Gary, when they just can’t take in the idea that they didn’t deserve it, that they are not to blame for subsequent acting out behaviours while still minors. It feels false to them because they have no separation between self and the abuse – they see themselves as “bad” because it happened to them, because they were complicit, because they fought back unsuccessfully. Have you run into this response and if so, how do you respond to it?

    My approach has been to explain what I just wrote here – that they are not the bad things that happened to them, and that our job together is to help him/her separate out him/herself from these tragic and horrific experiences.

    Clients have then responded with fear of the unknown – that they don’t know who they are! And my reply is that this will be the discovery as we go along.

    I’m early in my career yet so would appreciate your thoughts.

  2. Hi Christine, for someone early in her career, you demonstrate remarkable insight.

    I don’t worry about the client accepting the feedback. I concern myself with still giving these appropriate messages.

    I accept that some information may have to sit with them for a while. I refer to this as “percolating”. I think the key is to be comfortable with the client’s discomfort and allow them the space over time to develop their more realistic appraisal of their life, their experiences and their role therein. As we are comfortable with their discomfort, it gives them permission to then let our words percolate.

    • Christine Hagen MSW RSW permalink

      Thanks very much Gary. I’m early in my career and midway through life!! And yes, the percolating process is very important. I continue to display my confidence in a desirable outcome to the client; I believe that’s what you’re describing when you talk about our comfort with their discomfort.

      I appreciated your post very much as I also incorporate my apology into a first disclosure session, and had not heard of anyone else doing that.

  3. Sharon Sidders permalink

    Hi Gary, I am a child protection Social Worker and have been for many years. Over the years I have found that the absolute direct approach works very well, just like you describe, including the non-verbals. I have found it amazing that, although families may have been involved with social services for some time, no on asks these questions…either to the children or adults. You have given me a way to describe how they become entangled, the grooming process, without their knowledge or understanding and end up feeling so guilty. I also apologize to them and explain (rather passionately at times) how it has never been their fault. As a Social Worker, I may be only passing through their lives, but if I can leave one seed in their mind that ‘percolates’ I feel I have done my job.
    Sharon Sidders

  4. Hi there! I am at function browsing your weblog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love studying via your weblog and appear forward to all of your posts! Maintain up the excellent work!

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