Why do some women do not support their sexually-abused children?
In my work as a counselor to abused children and adolescents, these questions have always been asked of me: by the other parent, by the community, and by the children themselves.
I wrote this article for the now-defunct Suite101 back in 2010, based on materials I’ve gotten from my work at Women’s Crisis Center in Manila. I believe this is still relevant until now. Note that while I’m referring to the victim as a female in this article, a boy can also be a victim of incest.
Please read and let me hear your thoughts in the comment box below.
Incest is the most horrifying thing that can happen to a child. The sexual abuse shatters the child’s basic need to trust her family to care for her. Depending on her level of resilience and the presence of support system, the abuse may leave lasting marks on her. If the child’s mother chooses to side with the perpetrator, she becomes doubly traumatized.
Indeed, why do some mothers choose the abusers over their victimized daughters? Society often judges them harshly, but the following factors could shed some light.
Some Women are Financially Dependent
One of the basic reasons for the mother’s choice to stay with her partner is financial dependence. As is common in developing countries, some mothers stay at home to care for the children. Usually she would not have any money or property in her name.
When her daughter discloses of abuse by the father, the woman has to struggle not only with the reality of incest, but with the financial implication as well of sending her partner to jail. If she has other children, it would not be easy to choose between them and her victimized daughter.
If there is outside intervention, the victim ends up in a residential center. The mother would often prefers this, as it keeps her daughter safe and she and the other children can stay at home (often with the abuser). If the abuse is not reported to authorities however, and the mother remains in denial, the child is repeatedly abused until she is old enough to leave.
There is a Perceived Lack of Support
Another reason could be the woman’s perception that she would not be able to get support once she takes action against her partner. Some countries have no provision for supporting both the mother and all her children should they decide to leave.
As studies have shown, most perpetrators of incest are also batterers, and battered wives are made to believe that nobody outside the home can help them. Through his psychological manipulation, she is made to believe that her partner will find her and their children wherever they go and hurt them.
Her Emotional Attachment to the Abuser is Stronger
Another reason for the mother’s non-support to her daughter is her emotional attachment to her partner. She could feel that she would never find another man who could love her as much as he did, and could feel that the sexual abuse was fabricated by her daughter and thus, not worth destroying her marriage for.
Her denial may persist even when provided with strong evidence. She may even blame her daughter for initiating or encouraging the abuse, and will use it to justify her decision to stay with the perpetrator. In my years of experience as a counselor, I have seen this several times.
A Mother’s Internal Struggles
The disclosure of child sexual abuse throws a mother’s world upside down. She has to deal with the following issues, among other things:
- Self-blame. Was she in some way responsible? Could she have prevented it? Is she a bad mother for being unable to protect her daughter?
- Her own victimization. She could have been sexually abused in the past and forced herself to “forget” it. She may demand the same thing from her daughter.
- Family unity. She may feel that everything must be done to preserve the family. Hence, even battering and sexual abuse could be forgiven and forgotten for the sake of keeping the family intact.
The Role of the Community
With all that is going on inside her, a woman’s decision to stay with the abuser, while doubly traumatic for the child, could be understandable if seen from her perspective. The community as a whole could help prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place, so that no mother would have to choose between her daughter and her partner.
For mothers who are struggling with their daughter’s disclosure of sexual abuse, the online resource Healing Hearts and Souls could help. For survivors of incest, Survivors Anonymous may also be able to help.
This was previously published as Child Sexual Abuse Victims: Why Some Mothers Do Not Support Incest Survivors in Suite101.com on 12 February 2010.
Echo T says
Aleah, I won’t bore you by going point for point. I know (and respect!) so many different therapeutic approaches. I will say that I find this article offensive to me, as a daughter of a mother who didn’t protect me from sexual abuse. A lot of survivors have already thought about what you said in order to make sense of their experiences. I can say from my own experience that if a person lingers in this “understand where they’re coming from” stage, it arrests the radical acceptance needed to face the truth.
Hi. I do understand where you’re coming from. I have worked with so many victims/survivors of incest and I’ve met a lot of mothers who are unsupportive. It makes so many counselors mad (it affected me personally, too) to see them and hear them justify themselves. This article is NOT to excuse them from their accountability but to give a different perspective. Because we/people/victims always ask why? And maybe giving a different perspective like this, while not justifying their inaction, could help with the victims/survivors’ recovery.
My sister was abused by my father at a very early age until her late teens. She finally decided
to share the story with the rest of us as we were unaware of the situation. My mom divorced my father. Without getting the authoroties involved of course. (That would ruin the family’s reputation). Long story short. She remarried him with my sisters permission. She told us that she really loved him. So we didnt wanted to hold her back. My father did however change a lot and we all can see the regret in him. I still dont trust him ofc. But the one im mad at is my mother somehow. I cant believe how she can lay in the same bed with him today. How she can manage to live with him. She also tries to justify herself sometimes. Even coming with stories about the incident might be fake or something. That my sister made it all up even though my father did not deny any of it. I know for a fact that she also felt some jealousy towards my sister. I know she is as sick as my father. Even we might be a bit dysfunctional aswell. We all look like one big happy family.
I’m sorry to hear that. One reason I took a break from counseling is I got disgusted by some mothers I’ve met in the course of my work. Even though, cognitively, I acknowledged their own issues, it’s still hard to understand how they could disregard their children in favor of their partner. Yes, some are also jealous of their kids; one girl was 10 when the father started molesting her. The mother saw her daughter as her “rival” like a mistress. Its really upsetting.