Parenting through Sexual Trauma

Early on in treatment, it’s not unusual for adolescents to disclose things that are very difficult for a parent to hear.  Often the behaviors that initiated parental concern and intervention were only the tip of the iceberg.  For parents of young women in treatment, disclosures of sexual promiscuity and/or sexual trauma can be especially wrenching.

The tendency in this situations is often for parents to react–either attempting to sweep things under the rug or “fix” the situation by, for instance, confronting or reporting perpetrators.   Highly emotional reactivity is understandable, but it can actually have the effect of re-traumatizing the young woman.  Well-meaning efforts “fix” the problem can have the effect of dis-empowering the young woman, which is the opposite of the goal of treatment.

The key contribution parents can make when their child is in treatment is to provide understanding and support, even as they work through their own painful emotions.  This is a challenge, of course, and means that parents must engage their own therapeutic work in order to be able to help their daughter.

To help parents move effectively through disclosures of sexual promiscuity or trauma, Prior therapists suggest working on the following points with professional support:

  • Engage in your own therapy, individually and as a couple, to process your own feelings.  These feelings may include rage, guilt, fear, and even disgust.  Engaging these feelings in a safe and supportive setting will help equip you emotionally to better support your daughter.
  • Let go of your need to “fix” the problem.
  • Work with the treatment team to empower your daughter by:
    • Making her the central decision maker in terms of resolving her situation
    • Giving her the opportunity to report legally reportable incidents (sexual abuse, rape, etc.) herself
    • Only intervening on her behalf (e.g. reporting for her) if she is not ready to do so herself
  • Remember that your daughter, not the perpetrator, is the real point

With parental understanding and support, we can help our daughters turn a situation of pain and shame into one of healing and empowerment.  Parents can have tremendous therapeutic influence in these difficult situations.