Helping a Loved One Who Was a Victim of Childhood Abuse
How do you talk to your child who’s been sexually abused by their stepfather? So this is going to be kind of a tough one today only because of the content that I’ll be sharing with you. But that question came out of one of our viewers and they said, “Hey, Jerry, can you talk a little bit about this?” So I’m really passionate about psychology and discussing difficult things that people are presented with. This one was really sad to me and it’s very unfortunate when you look at the sexual abuse of a child. You look at sexual abuse of anybody because it could be an adult as well, in terms of rape and so forth.
So this will definitely not be a one and done conversation. It’ll be one that I’m hoping that you guys will have more questions about it and maybe kind of share your thoughts and feelings about it and it can become a bigger discussion, something that we can get more clarity on. Again, the goal of these videos is for, that I can share information with you guys about psychology and therapy and so forth, de-stigmatize mental illness. So when we look at people that are struggling with emotional issues, there’s a lot of reasons why they do it or why it happens. So I don’t want to have it where people are just dismissing things, “Oh this person’s depressed, this person’s suicidal, this person’s anxious.”.
A lot of times it’s precipitated by pretty significant events. And so today we’re talking about sexual abuse of children. And really, by the end of the video, I’m hoping that you guys can have a better understanding on it’s occurrence because it’s way more common than we might think and two, how you might respond to a loved one or even, I was thinking as a child, like how you would respond to a child that has been sexually abused and you find out about it. But it could also be how do you respond to, it could be a friend, a peer or a family member, anybody, who has unfortunately been victimized. So for those of you that don’t know me, I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso, the clinical director at Nsight Psychology and Addiction in Newport Beach, California.
Let’s just kind of get into this. So I’m going to tell you, because it is such an emotional topic for people, I want to make sure that when I’m sharing this stuff with you, it’s not about, “Hey, Jerry’s 100% right or he’s totally wrong.” This is for informational purposes only. There’s a lot of information out there. There is no way I’m going to cover it all in one video and everybody’s open to their opinions and thoughts about it. This is to create more of a discussion, okay? Now there’s significant research on this topic, but there’s also a ton of confusion. So there is research out there, if you guys want to look at it.
I will share with you that because of the nature of sexual abuse, especially of children, but even as adults, people do not report this. It goes so under reported, especially in men, and I’ll comment about that in just a little bit. But as some statistics that I was reading on, 26% of girls are sexually abused and then that can continue to go on into adulthood and I’ll explain that as well. So 26% of girls, 5% of boys, and this is what is reported. As I stated earlier, it’s totally unreported. So sexual abuse is defined as the engagement in sexual behavior by a child that does not have the developmental maturity and that could be physical, emotional, right, and they’re totally unprepared to give consent for it.
So it can be someone as old 15, 16, 17 until you’re 18, you are a child. And even you can say, “Well 17 is close to 18,” I hear stupid arguments like that and I’m making the comment. I call it stupid because if someone does not have the emotional maturity to make these types of decisions, there is no way or no reason at all they should be engaging in sexual activity. So I’m not again, criticizing someone for what they do, I’m talking about it when it’s being perpetrated on somebody else, where someone’s being victimized.
This can include any physical contact that’s in a sexual nature towards a kid and it can also be non physical contact. Exposing a child to pornography is considered sexual abuse. So I just wanted to make sure that there was clarity there. It could be perpetrated by an adult, it could also be perpetrated by a peer. So child to child that goes… so there’s a normal part of where children maybe interested or intrigued by anatomy and there may be some exploration stuff. I don’t want to pathologize that and again, that could have a wide range. So understand I’m trying to provide information here.
So where they kind of explore things, they try to learn about their bodies and so forth. I’m not saying that that is abusive. It could be, it just depends if it becomes sexual in nature and it’s more towards an adult behavior as opposed to something that a child would engage in. Also, when there’s a gap, like if it occurs between kids and there’s a significant gap in age, it can vary by state. Some states say, “Well if it’s more than five years and so forth,” it could be three years.
The bigger gap in age between the person who is the perpetrator and the victim again, it creates more significant dysfunction and emotional distress and so forth. I want to comment a little bit about children that are high risk, children that are unsupervised, children with disabilities, those that have like emotional behavioral problems. They become high risk because predators can see that these kids already have issues, they’re likely not to have a lot of support and they become easier targets, as opposed to a well adjusted kid that has a lot of supervision and so forth.
I want to at least… again, I’m not saying because a child has emotional problems or because they have behavioral problems or because they’re disabled that that means they’re going to be abused. That is not what I’m saying. I’m just saying is predators like to go after targets that are easy and so children that are assessable, that are maybe in pain and so forth, they may look at, that’s an easier target for me than a child that’s confident, self insured and so forth. I’m going to tell you why this subject’s so important to me and because people will say, “Hey, Jerry, why is this such a big deal? Or how is it involved in therapy and so forth.”.
I’m going to tell you that at Nsight and this has been throughout my career, that so many people present with depression. They can have poor self esteem, they could be suicidal, they could have a lot of anxiety, they could have eating disorders. There’s a lot of different things people present with in therapy. And as we start to talk about things and look at their past and how do they start feeling this way, sexual abuse as a minor is a big issue. It could also have to do with things as an adult as well. When people are victimized, the emotional things that start to snowball or kind of unfold from that become very significant.
Now again, I’m going to qualify that, that doesn’t mean everybody struggles with it. Some people can say, “Hey, it happened to me and I’m fine and so forth.” And that may be true for them. I’m talking about sensitivity for a very difficult subject that’s very hard for people to talk about and so forth. So if you think about like one thing that we control as humans and that is ours is our body and when it is violated by somebody else, the fear and the uncertainty that grows an individual can just be incredible because that personal safety that I have. The thing that is just mine and belongs to nobody else essentially in almost an emotional, psychological sense has been taken from me, when someone forces themself on me.
It’s a very important thing to be aware of. Again, I’m not saying everybody feels the same way, but personal safety becomes a huge factor after somebody has been sexually abused. We’ll see a lot of emotional dysregulation and emotional numbing. So you’ll say, “Okay, well what do you mean? Because those can be two different things. One, I can’t manage my emotions. I’m all over the place. I could be angry, I could be sad, I could be just overly frustrated or easily triggered by things. And on the other extreme, I could be totally emotionally numb. Like I don’t feel anything.”. People can fall anywhere on this continuum.
Sometimes I could be totally emotionally numb, like I’ve just checked out. I just, I don’t feel, and we’ll talk about it a little bit more, but almost like I’m in shock, like I’m in emotional shock and you look at it, when people are subjected to tragic events, so forth, you can see that they go into shock. But it seems like the further away from the event, that the effects of the event on them starts to shrink. Well, when it comes to sexual abuse, that’s not always true in that the longterm effects emotionally, can continue for a lifetime depending on if it’s addressed and treated and so forth.
So again, people can have a very difficult time managing their emotions and on the other part, they could become emotionally numb, which is, “I don’t feel anything.” All of it is trying to cope or it’s just the emotions coming out. Things we see a lot, depression, we see a lot of sadness, we see a lot of anxiety, we see a lot of helplessness and that’s a big factor where people become helpless. Like if I’m a child and I’m being approached or abused by somebody, I’m essentially helpless. They’re an adult or there’s somebody that has at least the way I may perceive it, physical power over me.
So I get this sense of not helplessness just in that sense, it starts to convey throughout my entire life, like I just, I feel helpless. There’s not much I can do about my situation and where I’m at on myself. We see a lot of fear in people, this part makes it really sad. You see a lot of guilt, you see a lot of self blame and hatred. It becomes very confusing, people being abused think, “There was something I could have done to prevent it. There’s something that I could have done to stop it. This is my fault and as a result, I hate myself.” So as you can see, you have this action that takes place, but then all of this other stuff that starts to unfold and that starts to infect the way someone sees themselves in their world.
Other things that we see, we see suicidality, people constantly think about suicide or may attempt suicide, like the self hatred and the blame and the disgust I have for myself. I just don’t want to be living any more. That’s the severity of how bad this can get, also see self-mutilation, like people will cut, people will burn themself. We see a lot of correlation with eating disorders and when I’m saying this, I’m not saying that everybody that cuts or everyone that self mutilates or everyone that attempts suicide or thinks about it or that has an eating disorder has been sexually abused. I’m not saying that it’s a cause of, but there is a high correlation with it.
So you will see people that present with these issues may have some of this in their past. Also, lot of somatic, like physical complaints, illnesses and so forth. Identity confusion happens a lot where this is not talking necessarily in a sexual nature, but, “I don’t even know who I am any more. I start to see myself very differently than I used to.” And even this as a kid, I’ve worked with individuals that have been sexually abused at young ages and they recall it and then they talk about it like, “I was a really happy kid or my life was going really well,” and this happened to be let’s say a teacher or a coach or friend down the street or a babysitter or cousin, lot of different things.
And they start to talk about how it changed them as a person. Like, “I started to see the world very differently. I see myself differently and since that time I’ve never been able to get back to who I was.” People also say, this is an interesting thing too, especially as adults, but you’ll see it as kids too, especially as they get into teenagers. You may see a lot of sexual acting out or you may see just total sexual avoidance. Again, this becomes so confusing. You look at sex as a biological drive, like there’s this biological thing that humans have to procreate and so forth.
But it becomes confusing when it’s been pushed on me, like something that I didn’t have the knowledge or maturity to be able to engage in, yet I did it. And now the whole message, like how my body works or how I’m supposed to see the world or how I’m supposed to feel becomes extremely confusing. So think about it like this. The sexual abuse could be very disturbing for someone. So then we could think, “Well, why would they act out sexually?” Well, it may be, “I don’t like myself, I don’t like who I am as a person, so therefore you don’t like me.”.
But somehow it gets kind of miss-wired in the brain as, “The attention I got before was sexual in nature and so at least that was some validation. So if I go out and I pursue sex or I allow that to be a way to attract people to me, then somehow I get some validation as a person. I don’t like me, but if they like me, then maybe I could like me. But I’m doing it in a way that’s totally self-destructive. It’s not me as a person, it’s about sexuality, I guess at this point.” And people that typically engage in that, like if someone’s sexually acting out, the people that are typically engaging with them are predators. They can kind of see the weakness or they can see the vulnerability.
It’s not that they’ll come out and say it, but they become easy targets. I had done a lot in relationship and in marriage counseling and so forth, where it essentially becomes a sexless relationship and that becomes an issue because now there’s withdraw at the other end of the continuum. Like, I don’t want to have anything to do with sex given my experiences were so bad. The research I think shows this, I’ve also seen it a lot in my own practice, is that people that have been sexually abused talk about having less passion in their relationship and also feeling less sexual, having less of a sex drive.
So question is now, why am I sharing all this? What are we supposed to do with this? So the original question, again, I appreciate these questions. How do I help my child, who’s been sexually abused? So think about it from two frameworks. One as a parent, right? When you find out this information, think about the emotions that you would go through. One is going to probably be shock and the second, disbelief, especially if it was somebody you knew or somehow, and it’s typically someone that’s close to somebody.
So in the example I used, it was a stepfather. So this woman, she’s married to someone, who she loves and thinks going to care for her and her children. And then she finds out that they’ve abused their children. So shock, disbelief, right? Then it’s going to move into rage and anger most likely and that’s going to be super significant because how am I going to go from this point, right? Shock, disbelief, now rage and anger, “I’ve got to be able to control my own behavior.”.
Then after kind of those more amplified feelings, sadness, loss, there’s a lot of things where then I would start to question myself as a parent or someone that could have protected my child like, “How did I miss it? How did I not see it? I’m responsible.” So does it become the same thing where I start to feel guilt, I start to feel inadequate. I feel self blame and maybe self-hatred. So it’s understanding as a person that hasn’t been abused, let’s say or that I’m working with someone that’s been abused, the feelings that I would have and I’m going to just share with you as a therapist, I kind of go through those same feelings. Like I’m working with somebody and they start to share their story.
We’ll my natural response when I’m hearing the story and not that I convey it to them, but it’s just shocking that people would violate the rights of others in this way, but it happens. Disbelief, anger and rage, like the extreme frustration that people don’t understand the impact that they’re having on other people’s lives. Then the sadness, you feel for people, it’s very difficult to have to experience that. So as I was saying, if I’m trying to help a child, a family member, somebody that has been through that, they just disclosed it. I’ve got to be aware of my own feelings. The second thing I’ve got to do, I got to be sensitive to what their feelings are.
So think about their feelings. Probably total confusion, like first of all, as a child, I don’t even know why this is happening, I know it feels wrong. I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I can’t say no. I can’t say no because I could get hurt, fear, they could be holding some type of emotional blackmail over me and so forth. So confusion is number one. The next thing can be sadness because I know this doesn’t feel right. I start to feel really sad about my situation and what’s going on, but I don’t know how to stop.
I don’t know how to tell somebody because I’m afraid of how they might react and my fear is, is that they may get mad at me and I don’t want that to happen, I don’t want to get in trouble for what’s happened. And then a lot of self blame and hatred as I mentioned earlier. I start to feel guilty that somehow I’ve allowed this to happen or maybe I’ve done something that made this happen. So the victim goes through a lot of different feelings. I’m not saying these are the only feelings, I’m just saying that these are common feelings that we need to be sensitive of.
So I’ve got to keep my own feelings in check, I’ve got to be aware about how I feel and how if someone sees me react, then it’s going to impact how they feel and I want to be very sensitive to how they feel. So I’ve got to know this stuff in advance, so what to do? I’ve got to have empathy and understanding and I’m going to say for both. I’ve got to have it for me, the difficult position for me to be in this and hear this and then very much so for the victim, okay? So I’ve got to be very empathic. I’ve got to show a lot of empathy for them and understanding and I need them to feel comfortable and reassure them that this is not their fault and we’ve got to get into a discussion about it.
And this is where I want to provide a lot of education and direction, okay? And so you don’t have to be a psychologist or a therapist or a mental health professional to be able to help someone through this. Now my recommendation, which I’ll comment at the end, is that therapy is extremely important in these situations. But if I’m a parent or a sibling, a family member, whatever, I’m trying to provide support, I really need to separate the difference between sexuality, someone’s body and so forth and the victimization. They are two separate things, but they often blur together and that really comes out in treatment.
But what happened to me, let’s say sexual abuse, is not me. That was an event that took place, but that’s not me. People that are abused often feel like it’s all the same. That happened to me, I was there, I could have stopped it, when in fact they couldn’t have, and it becomes this one thing. Then the next thing I want to do is encourage you guys to be very protective and I should have left the word very, I should have left that out. Being protective, understanding, caring. But I don’t want to be restrictive because if I’m overly restrictive, like now I can’t let my child be with anybody or I can’t let him be out of my sight and so forth.
Now that child’s essentially being punished and this whole issue is being… it grows into this bigger thing. I was victimized, which was bad, I told you and now I’m being restricted in so much that all the emphasis comes back to this one topic or this one incident or this period of time. So again, be aware of the emotions that you’re going to feel, be aware of the emotions that the victim is going to feel, and then be able to provide empathy and understanding. You want to be able to provide some education and direction. There’s a lot of information out there that you can get on this.
Again, I’ll try to provide more videos and get into more detail about that and I want to be protective and caring, but at the same time, I don’t want to be overly restrictive. I want to be able to normalize sexuality, normalize body, like who I am as a person and so forth and everything outside of the abuse. So one of the things and I’ll kind of wrap up with this stuff, but therapy is extremely important, okay? And the reason why is, just talking about it is not going to be enough and I’m going to tell you like, “Oh, I can just talk about it with my mom or my dad or my sister or brother or my friend and everything will be okay.”.
There’s a small sense of relief someone might get with sharing it, but that’s not going to resolve the issues because there’s so much confusion about what took place and why it took place, what my role was, or what my role wasn’t, why did it happen and so forth. It needs a skilled professional to be able to work through this stuff, okay. Now again, I’m going to put this qualifier on. I’m not saying that everybody needs treatment or everybody needs therapy for it. I’m just saying when you look at the severity of something like this, it’s like having a badly damaged bone. I could say, “I don’t need to go get the bone reset. I don’t need surgery. I don’t need a cast and I’ll be fine.”.
Yeah, maybe, but that’s not an ideal way to live. So no different than I would get treatment physically, emotionally, I would want to get treatment. There’s a lot of things that need to be straightened out and in clarity on this. Then I will qualify or I want to emphasize this point as far as therapists, there are some therapists that are very astute in dealing with trauma and there’s some that are better served treating other disorders. So you want to make sure that if you are recommending that someone goes to treatment or you’re referring someone to treatment and so forth, that they are with or if you’re a person going to treatment, that you are seeing somebody that is a trauma specialist.
And that not just called themself that, but that there’s an orderly way of how they conceptualize what’s gone on, how they see emotional health and how they’re going to help you work your way through it. Just talking about it’s not enough, just using textbooks’ ways of doing therapy will not necessarily be enough. There’s a lot of things that need to… someone needs to be able to conceptualize and understand as they work through trauma. Now, I will tell you the good part is, people can successfully work through trauma. They can get into relationships, they can have good sexual relationships, good intimate relationships, and this could be a thing of their past. It does not have to stay in their present, okay?
So think about it like this. Let’s say I have a really deep splinter, okay? It’s extremely painful. I don’t want to touch it, so I don’t and every time I bump it, it hurts and over time it starts to become infected and it starts to cause all these other problems. That’s what happens like with abuse, if I don’t go to somebody and try to work through it, okay? So if I do go to get some help, it’s painful while I’m digging the splinter out. But once I have the splinter out, I have an opportunity to heal.
And with that opportunity to heal at the end, I’m never going to forget what took place, but it’ll be more like a scar as opposed to an open wound that continues to impact the way I function every day. Again, it’s very important to understand that the abuse is not me, okay. That was an event in my past, okay. Not me, I was fine before that and I will be fine after that, but this is unfortunately, was stuff that I had to… I didn’t have to, but that I ended up experiencing. So I’m hoping this makes sense to you guys, again, I’m always wanting your guys’ feedback and questions.
If you guys liked this video, give us a like, share it with somebody else. If you know somebody needs help, please help provide guidance. Again, we want to be away from judgment on this. This is a very big, big issue. It happens way more often than people think it happens and it’ll be a topic that we’ll probably do some more videos on as well. So again, I’m Dr Jerry Grosso from Nsight Psychology & Addiction in Newport Beach, California. If you have questions, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and that’s spelled N-S-I-G-H-T,recovery.com.
You guys can also post your comments and questions below. We do read them and try to respond to as many people as possible. I want to take your input. I hope this creates a bigger discussion. It’s not made about judgment, please be aware of that. It’s be objective, understand that this is a very negative topic. But on the positive side, people can heal from it and they can live happy, healthy lives, have great relationships, feel really good about themself and recover from this. So I just wanted to at least share that with you guys. So until next time, you guys have a terrific day.
Dr. Gerald “Jerry” Grosso is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience assisting individuals and families struggling with addiction, depression and trauma. He obtained his Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology from San Diego State University before enrolling in Chapman University where he acquired a Master of Arts degree in Psychology. Dr. Grosso continued his education and received a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology with a Specialty in treating Chemical Dependency. He holds a professional membership with the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).