Sexual abuse is deeply traumatic for any child or adolescent. But sometimes, even the most nurturing families with all the best intentions can make the trauma even worse.
Dr. Stefan Pasternack, a Washington psychoanalyst who treats victims of abuse and their families, has identified some stumbling blocks along a family's painful path to recovery when one of its members has been victimized. Don't blame the victim. "Victims rarely want to be molested," says Pasternack. A youngster may have used bad judgment, may not have been able to run away, or, through shame or fear or guilt, been unable to tell about it. A family that tries to put some share of the blame on the victim compounds the victimization. Don't try to deny that it happened. "Until recently," says Pasternack, "a conspiracy of silence has insulated adult society against facing the terrible realization that large numbers of children are being molested, exploited and raped by entrusted caretakers." A better response, Pasternack says, is for the family to try to see the experience through the eyes of the victim. Don't try to make the victim tell in detail what happened. "It is hard enough to admit something happened," Pasternack says. "It isn't useful to put them through a humiliating expose' of the details." People often seek details in hopes that they will show the encounter to have been just an innocent hug; usually, they show just the opposite. This area is best left to a professional therapist who is accustomed to helping children and can elicit information without adding pain. Don't prevent the victim from making choices. "Sometimes, when a person has been traumatically overstimulated sexually, there may be a compulsive need to repeat the experience. A teen-ager may appear to be dressing provocatively and succeed in provoking a hostile response from her family. But what she is saying is, "Hey, look folks, I've been through a tough time and this is my defense." Don't try to rush the victim. "Sadly, these things take a long time. Sadly painful, and sadly costly, and sadly time-consuming."