It’s incendiary, the bomb of incest or molestation.

One moment, life as you know it is sailing along; the next it has exploded before your very eyes.

In a state of shock, you wonder what just happened, or if what just happened really did happen. Surely, it’s a dream – a nightmare – and you’ll wake soon. Only it isn’t, and you won’t.

We talk with great empathy about the victim of this crime, and they deserve every moment of it.

They will need to be loved, nurtured, guided and cared for on their path to resilient survivorship.

But this horror has a ripple affect across the layers of family. There are parents and siblings and grandparents – two sets, if not more – and aunts and uncles and cousins. The list goes on.

George (not his real name) molested his brother Todd’s daughter from the time she was 8 until someone noticed something amiss six years later.

Upon learning that his little girl had been violated and by his own brother, Todd had to be physically restrained, in the moment, from hunting his brother down and – well, we don’t know because leveler heads than his helped talk him down.

But later that night as he wept with his wife, Todd berated himself for not having known.

This was his daughter, the child he would lay down his life for, and he’d missed this huge, huge fact in her life.

I hope, for everyone’s sake, this never happens to someone you love, but if it does, here are some guidelines.

Feelings a parent might have upon learning their child has been molested:

  • Shock – perhaps even disbelief this could be happening to you. No parent should have to deal with the abuse of their child.
  • Feeling out of control – the weight of this has you spinning/reeling. Your house felt safe, calm, and was humming along, and now you feel like you’ve totally lost your equilibrium.
  • Enraged – how could this have happened to YOUR child? It’s an impotent rage, because you can’t do the things you’d like to the person who harmed your child. The law has to take care of the perpetrator. It’s the kind of anger that makes you want to put a fist through a wall, or worse.
  • Guilt – for not somehow protecting them, for not seeing the signs. It’s natural to feel devastated, and even to be angry with yourself, but any of our children can be victims of things we can’t prevent.
  • Loss – the landscape of your family system will change as you cut ties with those who hurt your child, or those unwilling to acknowledge the harm to your child.
  • Grief – that your child’s innocence was stolen from them. It’s gone. Now you’ll need to heal as a family. Your child, you and your spouse/partner, your other children.

Strategies for coping, if you’re the parent or relative, when your child has been molested:

  • Take care of yourself – emotionally and physically. Your child needs you healthy and able to guide them, to make them feel safe. You, and your family will heal better and faster by staying as well and balanced as you can, and yes – it’s hard.
  • Believe your child. It’s crucial for their recovery. Tell them how sorry you are they experienced this, how happy you are it has stopped, how much you love them, how it wasn’t their fault. Tell them every time you think they need to hear it.
  • Share your experience with a trusted friend, or better yet a qualified counselor. You need to be able to be angry, frustrated, devastated with someone who can completely support you, who is not involved in the family dynamic.
  • Develop a network of support, people to encourage you, and your family.
  • Be supportive of your spouse’s feelings (provided the abuser wasn’t your spouse).
  • Be tolerant and accepting of their range of emotions. Let him/her talk – or not talk. Tell each other you love each other, often, and that your family can heal from this.
  • Be compassionate with yourself. It’s natural to be angry with yourself. It’s hard to be boundlessly compassionate with oneself but cut yourself plenty of slack. More than ever, your child needs you to lovingly help guide them to health.
  • Take time away from, and do activities that don’t revolve around, the abuse. Getting healthy as a family will take time and managing all the layers of ramifications can feel absolutely consuming, so set limits.
  • Take the right stand now for your child. By doing so you demonstrate your belief in your child. Especially now, your child needs to feel safe, surrounded by love.It will make all the difference for them.

The shrapnel thrown by the bomb will leave its scars – that can’t be helped – but those scars can be the badges of honor, marks of weathering, pathos, maturity, wisdom.

By taking such a path, both you and the child victimized so unfairly, can transcend this trauma. I’ve seen it happen. It happened to me. If I can do it, so can you.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly series by Laura Landgraf on sexual abuse. The previous articles are:

Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: Do’s and Don’ts for Busy Parents

Your Child’s Behavior Changes May Signal Sexual Abuse

How to Listen and Respond if Your Child Discloses Molestation

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