How to Manage Blame After Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused
“How could this happen?”
This question plagues many parents who discover their child was sexually abused. Like a flashlight is used to discover truth in the dark, our brains use this question to search for answers to our pain. Because, our brain reasons, if you know who is responsible for causing what happened, then you can feel more in control, protect yourself from pain, take steps towards justice, and prevent risk of future incidents.
In the course of searching for answers, blame frequently surfaces as a coping mechanism. You’ve had something enter your life in a way that no one wishes, and feeling the desire to blame—like instinctually feeling other strong emotions (e.g., anger, denial, grief)—is a perfectly normal and valid feeling to have in response to something that may be destabilizing in your life.
After a parent or caretaker has learned their child has been sexually abused, blame can be felt in many ways—toward the person who perpetrated, others who didn’t take action, barriers within the justice system, and even toward the child. Most often, however, parents of kids who have been abused blame themselves: “How could I let this happen?” “I’m a terrible mother.” “I should have known better than to trust that person.”
While blame has some perceived benefits, it can also lead to worse outcomes. For example, while taking blame on yourself can help you feel more in control, it can also paralyze you in taking productive action. Blaming the child may help you feel absolved of guilt, but it can lead to greater trauma for the child since it’s ultimately never the child’s fault and creates room for the perpetrator to continue acting inappropriately with others. And finally, while holding the perpetrator accountable for their actions is appropriate and helpful, encouraging excess anger and blame toward the perpetrator can create complications when the person is an important figure to the child (e.g., a close family member or their only friend).
When you learn to recognize blame as it arises, you can then choose to redirect that energy into something more effective that can help you and your child regain your power to heal. You can Redirect Blame to Appropriate Responsibility (ReBAR). ReBAR helps you see that while blame tends to be about escaping something (e.g., difficult emotions or accountability), assigning appropriate responsibility tends to be about empowering yourself by taking productive action.
Redirect Blame to Appropriate Responsibility
ReBAR can be accomplished through four steps: exploring your emotions, finding alternative perspectives, making restitution for mistakes, and applying continuing support to the child who has been abused. Like actual rebar is used for reinforcing concrete structures, using the ReBAR method to manage blame helps you reinforce a stable relationship with your child and provides the foundation on which you can begin the healing process together.
1. Explore your emotions.
There are often underlying issues beneath blame that can make it a difficult emotion to manage. Although it’s not as frequently talked about, parents and caregivers often experience major distress after a disclosure of sexual abuse and can experience symptoms of PTSD themselves. 1 They may even have trauma histories of their own that influence how they react to a disclosure of abuse.
Talking to a therapist or close friends can be helpful in exploring your experience and getting the help you need. You might consider asking yourself, “What purpose is blame serving me?” Children will model and learn from what you do and demonstrating for them how to work through emotions in a positive way can be helpful in their own healing.
2. Find alternative perspectives.
Blame can distort thinking to the point that it’s easy to get caught in a narrow perspective. This distortion can be enhanced by common myths about child sexual abuse such as:
• Sexual abuse only happens by strangers.
• It’s the parent’s fault for putting the child at risk.
• Boys can’t be sexually abused.
• Sexual abuse only happens in certain communities
Blame can make us think about things in a global, encompassing way rather than identifying specific, situational factors that may have impacted what happened. The idea of looking at situational factors isn’t to make excuses, of course, but to gain a broader perspective on what else may have contributed to the situation.
I’m a terrible mother.
He’s a monster.
My child is a liar.
Our lives are ruined.
Our family is broken.
I hired the coach because he came highly recommended. I couldn’t have known he was untrustworthy.
He never received help for his out of control sexual behavior. He is responsible for his own actions and how to change them.
My child took back her story because she didn’t want to pull our family apart.
We’ve never faced this situation and are unsure how to move forward right now.
Our family is struggling to talk about this situation.
As you look at the contributing factors to your specific situation, it may be helpful to consider how much responsibility each person can be reasonably allotted. Are you or your child taking on more responsibility than the situation warrants? For example, a child may have broken a family rule, but making a mistake like that doesn’t mean it was their fault they were abused. In that situation, the perpetrator carries more responsibility since they are the adult/older person and should know better. As another example, a mother may have forgotten to pick up her child from school, but this happens to many parents and their children aren’t sexually abused. The mother may have made a mistake, but it doesn’t mean the abuse was her fault. She can feel responsible for making sure she schedules pick-up reminders in the future, but the ultimate responsibility for the act of abuse rests on the person who perpetrated.
3. Restitution for mistakes.
What do you do if you made a mistake that increased your child’s risk of sexual abuse (e.g., unfiltered internet access, didn’t believe child at first, unsupervised time with a live-in boyfriend)? If this has been the case, the best thing you can do is to model accountability for mistakes you made and make restitution to your child as best as you can. It may take time, but through that process you can heal your relationship with your child and with yourself.
It can be easy to confuse feeling regret (from making an unforeseeable bad choice) with feeling responsibility (from choices where you made a mistake). For example, you may regret hiring a highly recommended babysitter who turned out to be untrustworthy, but you can take responsibility for making a mistake like not providing a safe environment to have open conversations within your family. There was no way you could have possibly known the babysitter was untrustworthy, but there are things you can do today to make your family environment feel safer.
No matter what mistakes have been made by you or your child, no one deserves to be abused. The ultimate responsibility for the act of abuse rests on the person who perpetrated.
4. Apply continuing support as you take action.
Children whose parents support and believe them after they disclose abuse have the potential to reach the same level of healthy adjustment as those who’ve never experienced abuse. 1,2 In other words, despite the trauma they’ve endured, the child can lead a healthy life. In fact, continuing parental support, belief, and effective action are the most important factors—even more than how severe the abuse was—in predicting whether a child will be able to heal and build resilience in the aftermath of abuse.
Being able to find ways to take action can improve your sense of control and ability to grow despite the terrible circumstances. There may be important actions you recognize that need to be addressed as you move forward. For example, you may have learned your child is lonely, and you can now take steps to address their loneliness. Maybe you learned your family didn’t communicate as well as you thought, and now you can work toward developing closer relationships. And maybe you learned your child is curious about sexuality and may need more open dialogue to stay safe in the future. Addressing these concerns can give you a greater ability to make effective changes to keep your child safe in the future.
As you continue to move forward in healing, you may at times feel overwhelmed by the situation, which may make it more difficult to continue to support and believe in your child and in yourself (e.g., court proceedings, housing difficulties, family or community disruptions). Your feelings are natural and you should continue to revisit ReBAR as many times as you need to channel your feelings into productive action.
No one wants to be abused. Should it happen to your child, you have the ability to redirect blame into appropriate responsibility (ReBAR) through exploring your emotions, finding alternative perspectives, making restitution for mistakes, and continuing support as you take action. Through your example and continuing love for your child, you are empowered to build strong foundations together on your healing journeys.
1. Elliott, A. N., & Carnes, C. N. (2001). Reactions of nonoffending parents to the sexual abuse of their child: A review of the literature. Child maltreatment, 6(4), 314-331.
2. Godbout, N., Briere, J., Sabourin, S., & Lussier, Y. (2014). Child sexual abuse and subsequent relational and personal functioning: The role of parental support. Child abuse & neglect, 38(2), 317-325.