Healthy Ways to Cope After Your Child’s Sexual Abuse
Knowing what to do if your child has been sexually abused, responding to child sexual abuse, learning how to help child abuse victims, and coping in the aftermath of sexual abuse can be a difficult experience to go through as a parent. Whether you just found out your child has been sexually abused, or it’s been a while and new information or challenges are surfacing, one of the most important influences on your child’s well-being after abuse is your ability to respond effectively and teach your child how to use healthy coping skills as big emotions come up.
Coping in The Moment
Here are a few practical things you can do to cope in the moment when you’re experiencing strong emotions:
Follow the Five-Minute Guided Breathing Meditation video (created by The Younique Foundation) to help relax your body. Paced breathing can be a great tool for bringing yourself back to the moment, and we like it for relaxation as well—especially at bedtime! Your child may find benefit from breathing exercises as well, so don’t hesitate to invite them to breathe with you.
Identify what you are feeling
All emotions are valid, and we encourage you to give yourself space and compassion to feel what you feel. Often, putting a name to the emotion that you are experiencing can help you manage your feelings more effectively. You’ll likely notice that you will cycle through a number of emotions and may even experience the same emotion more than once. Be gentle with yourself and remember that healing will be a process for you, too. As you are working on identifying your emotions, you can coach your child to do the same.
It’s easy to forget to move when you’re under emotional stress because energy and motivation is low, but pent-up emotional energy improves when it’s directed into healthy physical activity. Whether it’s going on a run, doing yoga, hiking a mountain, lifting weights, or playing a yard game with your kids, recharge your mind and body by moving.
It can be really tempting to focus only on the needs of others around you, especially your child. However, it’s very important for you to engage in things each day that will rejuvenate yourself physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Make a list of activities or practices that you’ll thank yourself for doing later and choose one thing to do each day. It can be something relaxing (like taking a bubble bath), engaging (like reading a book or developing a hobby), or connecting with nature (like looking at the stars or going for a walk). Whatever it is, make time for you.
Reaching out during these moments can help you gain perspective and support. Dr. Peter Levine, who began studying trauma in the 1970s, has said that “Trauma is not just what happens to us but what happens in the absence of an empathic person who’s there with you in that experience.” Take a moment and find that person for yourself, someone who stays with you through your own experience.
Focus on the next step
You don’t have to do all the things in this moment; just focus on the next step and do that. Then work on the next step. To help give yourself some courage, here is some great advice from Mark Schneider, a certified strength coach and conflict mediator: “Strength is a manifestation of trust in yourself. The more you believe in what you can do, the more you can access what you can do, and the more likely you can meet and exceed limits. Trust in your own ability is paramount.” This belief applies to both physical strength as well as emotional strength. Just keep believing and trusting in yourself and taking those steps.
It might be difficult to feel now, but things will get better. You and your child may have experienced heartache, betrayal, and harm, but resilience, internal strength, and recovery are very common outcomes of child sexual abuse.
Coping Long Term
Here are practical things you can do that build skills over time for coping more effectively with emotions as they come up. Each person will need different tools for coping at different moments, so find what works for you.
Practice sitting with difficult emotions and getting to know the variety of emotions you experience. Mindfulness practices such as following a Grounding Meditation video can help with this. If, instead, you push down your feelings and try to move on without acknowledging that you have them, you may have more struggles in the long run. We have feelings for a reason. We can honor them by being honest with ourselves and acknowledging they exist. Only then can we work on healing them.
Avoid either suppressing your emotions or getting stuck in repetitive and unproductive thinking patterns (sometimes called “rumination”). Everyone gets caught in these modes from time to time, but the goal is to be able to feel and acknowledge your emotions without becoming those emotions.
Reframe situations to be less emotionally charged. For example, instead of thinking, “This will ruin our family,” try, “This may be challenging, but it won’t be like this forever.” Negative self-talk propagates lies that will shape how you see yourself and your world. Fortunately, positive self-talk will help you see the inherent good within yourself and others.
Seek out activities and situations that align with your core values and enhance your well-being. Some beautiful examples of core values you may hold are compassion, determination, bravery, loyalty, optimism, spirituality, and love.
Identify your strengths and find ways to apply them to your situation. You can come up with them yourself, ask a loved one to share them with you, or take an online questionnaire that will help identify them for you.
Practice assertive communication to advocate for your child and your family. Assertive does not equal aggressive. Assertive communication is clear, firm, and direct, but also honest, kind, and respectful.
Give yourself permission to laugh or smile along the way. Some people feel guilty if they have moments of enjoyment during the course of a difficult situation, but sometimes this can help relieve tension or give a new perspective.
Take time for self-care. Water can’t be drawn from an empty well, and when you engage in things that show you care for yourself (e.g., exercising, listening to a relaxation video, accomplishing your top priorities, etc.), you are showing your child examples of how they can manage their own self-care when they need it.
Find social support. There are others who can be there for advice, comfort, and guidance as you work through this situation. This can be a great aid and comfort to you throughout your journey of healing.
Take time to grieve losses, and also to recognize your gains. You may feel loss immediately upon discovering your child’s sexual abuse, but don’t be surprised if grief hits you at different times, including far down the road when you least expect it. That’s normal, so don’t beat yourself up if that’s your experience. Recognize it, allow yourself some time to grieve, and then recognize how far you’ve come and keep on moving forward.
Set family goals and envision what the best possible outcome from this difficult situation could look like for your family. Do you want to have a weekly one-on-one check-in meeting? Do you want to decrease media time? Do you want to eat dinner together every night? Do you want to save up for a vacation at the beach? Set and work together on specific family goals, then celebrate when one’s been achieved.
Demonstrate HOPE. You are your child’s best example of how to handle big emotions. You are capable of making it through this, and so are they. Let’s go back to Dr. Peter Levine who says, “You can get help. You can get guidance to move through traumas, no matter how deep and painful they are. There are ways, there are tools. Without tools, trauma rules. With tools, we can begin to tame our traumas and restore goodness.”
Use the tools and techniques mentioned here, along with other resources from Defend Innocence, to learn what to do if your child is sexually abused, how to help a child abuse victim, and how you can put your own feet firmly on the path of healing and restoration.
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