Family members molesting other family members is a far more common situation than anyone would like it to be. Often these situations remain unknown and/or intentionally ignored until someone in the family system hits their limit with the horror of it all and drags the whole sordid affair into the spotlight. At that point, family members are forced to respond to both the victim and the perpetrator. But how exactly should you respond to such a situation? Where do you even start? In this kind of situation, there are two main strategies that can speed up the healing process, and these strategies are best used simultaneously.
The first strategy is to humanize the perpetrator in your own mind. In cases of sexual abuse, the trauma is very intense, and when humans are hurting intensely, they tend to see their attackers as monsters. Once we dehumanize someone, we feel justified in hating them, and hate causes us to get stalled in our own recovery process. So reducing hate is critical, and to get there, we need to gain compassion. To gain compassion, we need to gain understanding. Non-pedophiles often have no understanding of what causes a pedophile to feel sexually attracted to children or to desire to molest. Ironically, while everyone is rushing to the defense of the newest victim of molestation, no one has any sympathy for the fact that the molester has undergone sexual trauma in his own life. Such one-sided compassion only complicates the matter further.
Pedophiles become pedophiles by experiencing some form of sexual violation as children (see Broken to Thrive: Help & Hope for Pedophiles). It’s a response to trauma, and understanding this can be especially helpful to the victim who is trying to make sense out of what happened. Molestation victims naturally ask, “Is there something wrong with me that caused the molester to target me?” It’s important to realize how impersonal the choice of victim is in these situations. The molester is often focused on availability, a specific age range, and sometimes a specific gender.
Understanding what causes pedophilia, and why some pedophiles resort to molestation, can really help family members gain some much needed perspective. Getting answers to “why” questions helps us sort through overwhelming emotions.
Now the second strategy is just as important as the first for healing: each family member needs to work on processing his/her own feelings with regards to what happened. For parents of a molested child, intense guilt over failing to protect is often a big issue. For help with this, see Overcoming the Guilt of Failing to Protect.
Victims of molestation are often passive in temperament–meaning that they froze and allowed the molester to violate them instead of attempting to defend themselves. Observing a passive response in yourself often results in intense confusion and guilt (“Why didn’t I stand up for myself??”). For help in resolving these questions, see Understanding Your Passive Response to Assault: A Lack of Resistance Does Not Indicate Cowardice or Enjoyment.
In cases of sexual molestation, some feeling of sexual arousal/excitement is inevitable, and this leads to intense confusion and guilt for the victim (“How sick am I to enjoy how he touched me??”). It’s critical to help the victim understand how involuntary sexual arousal can be so that many fears can be put to rest. For help with this, see Understanding Your Reaction to Sexual Assault: Triggers & Pleasure.
In family systems, individual family members often react very differently to these kinds of traumas. It is very common for family members to choose a scapegoat: one member of the family who everyone decides to dump their anger on. When the scapegoat accepts this position, intense shame and severe depression can result. In cases of someone molesting within their own family system, it is very common that certain family members were aware of what was happening, yet they were too afraid of what might happen to them if they spoke up, so they stayed silent and let the victim suffer. Some family members will even go so far as to help the molester get easy access to the victim, and some will threaten to punish the victim if the victim tries to ask for help. Playing any of these fear-driven roles can result in immense guilt and shame later on when you are forced to face the depths to which you sunk in order to protect yourself. It is a fact that humans often don’t have the courage they need to do what is right at the critical moment. Wallowing in shame over your past failures is only going to do greater harm to yourself, so despite the wrongness of your past actions, it is critical that you learn how to overcome the obstacle of shame (see Overcoming Shame).
When humans are upset with each other, they often refuse to forgive. It is rare for molesters to be forgiven by their victims. It is rare for victims to forgive those who played a role in abusing them. If you feel a need for forgiveness which you can’t obtain, see What To Do When People Won’t Forgive You.
As someone who wants to move through this trauma in a healthy way, realize that you can’t force your family members to make wise choices about how they are going to respond to this situation. Your own choices are the only ones you have control over, so ask God to help you learn what He wants to teach you through this difficult time.
The articles we’ve listed in this post can equip you with insights which will help you deal with your own role in this situation as well as learn how to better support others. We also offer free, private counseling through our service for people who would like further help with how to recover from these kinds of trauma. To encourage molesters to seek help, we make anonymous counseling available in order to remove the threat of legal action being taken. Being able to talk openly and honestly about upsetting experiences and emotions is a critical part of processing trauma, and the sooner those conversations happen, the better off everyone will be. Since God is the Source of all healing, we encourage you to ask Him for help. If you don’t understand why God allows these kinds of situations to occur, our site can help you with that as well.
It’s Personal: Understanding the Divine Perspective of Trials
Dealing with Trauma: Protecting Yourself from Bad Counselors
The Purpose of Dysfunction: Understanding Why God Messed You Up