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Sexual Abuse in the Family: Help a Loved One Overcome a Traumatic Experience

By Arny Alberts

Families gather at different times throughout each year to celebrate holidays and special occasions. Imagine if during a recent party in your parents’ house, you notice something is not right when everyone sits down to eat. One family member is silent, almost idle as others engage in conversations. They break in suddenly and request an adult meeting after the meal. The awkward demand sets a tense tone around the table as this family member avoids any eye contact. After the table is cleared, everyone sits back down quietly waiting. Tears begin to stream down their cheeks as they remain speechless far too long. What is going on? What could have placed your loved one into such a troubled state? They take a deep breath and inform everyone they have something very difficult to talk about.

They tell a story that reveals a traumatic experience in their personal life. In disbelief, you hear the victim side of a sexual abuse account. Their emotions pour out, displaying the damage from the past, reaching into the souls of all present. Sexual abuse has changed the loved one in your family, they are hurt and upset. You want to reach out and help, but find it difficult to empathize with them. Thoughts and questions run through your mind without end. At some point, you ask the hardest question. What should I do?  

Every person experiences, witnesses or hears about trauma in their everyday life. Trauma typically results from a shocking experience such as a death in the family, fire that destroys a home, natural disasters or serious injury from a traffic accident. But, trauma can also impact someone in a series of mental, physical or emotional experiences that span over time. When these experiences are brought into the family, there are dealt with in a variety of different ways. Just because you experience or witness trauma, it does not make you an expert in dealing with a family member going through a complicated or emotional time.

Here are some suggestions to follow:

Communicate: When your loved one attends a family related function, communication becomes a simple choice of right versus wrong. The right decision is to communicate in any way or option available to you at the time. Communicate in a way that you can emotionally handle – but communicate. The effected family member will acknowledge the attempt even though their own emotions may inhibit any sustainable response. The fearful emotions mounting from their return to social interactions can quickly escalate into isolation if some form of communication is not attempted. The KISS (Keep It Short and Simple) method might work best here, not attempting too much at once. The short list below provides a few types of communication media:

  • Verbal: Whenever you first meet up with this family member, start a simple conversation about anything generic or non-specific. Let them know that you are approachable and listen to them if they decide to talk. Remember, they have taken a large step engaging with your family, and an even larger one speaking to an individual member. The initial conversations will most likely not deal with their recent trauma, but the success and honesty will open them up for future, deeper conversations with you or other members in your family.   

  • Card/E-card/E-mail/Written Letter: A personalized note with some honest, truthful words shows this person you are thinking of them and their recent struggles. Let them know you are available if they want to talk and you have their best interests in mind.   

  • Phone Call: Let this individual know you really care about them. The sound of a person’s voice goes a long way when someone feels insecure or upset. If they choose to talk and open up, listen and let them share their experience.

  • Warm smile: If you can’t communicate anything other than a simple smile at the time, do so. One warm smile could make a huge difference for a suffering member in your family. You could give provide them some strength to get out of bed the next day or attend another family function – you just never know.

Follow Your Heart: No matter what form of communication you decide to choose, follow your heart as you proceed. Remember this individual is the same person you knew before their trauma was disclosed. Be honest and sincere. You may not be able to empathize, but listening and being yourself will help bring their life back to normal. If fear prevents you from taking action, imagine what this individual is going through each day now that they have entered back into family and social functions.

Find Facts: Search the Internet or library for information about the type of trauma your family member has endured. Gaining knowledge and understanding of what they went through, what they are currently going through and what could happen to them in the future will help to eliminate the fear of initiating communication.

Share an Experience: Relaying a similar traumatic experience with a family member will not relieve their problems. But it will provide some sense of hope for their future. When you show your human, vulnerable side you send a clear message to them that they are not alone. They are not alone in what they experienced, and they are not alone in your family. A single display of confidence from another person who has suffered will provide them with the belief they will eventually recover.  

Listen /Don’t Try Fixing: During a situation when this person decides to open up and discuss some of their personal, traumatic experiences with you, just listen. Let them talk and get any part of the story off their chest. This person is not looking for suggestions to cope with what happened or ideas to help them resolve any lingering issues. They desperately need human contact; they want to trust someone and they are attempting to make an earnest connection with you. A conversation with this family member could easily make you feel uncomfortable or uneasy; you might want to end it just as quickly as it began. As you listen to them, realize you are a friend and a valued family member; be there for them in their time of need.     

Sexual abuse is becoming a highly visible topic in our world today. Each day new cases are reported through local television stations and in newspaper articles. Doctors, therapists, well- known and first time authors write books about their individual sexual abuse experiences throughout our country. It is disheartening to see how widespread this problem stretches. So many families across the United States are affected by sexual abuse in one way or another. Not only are the victims struggling to deal with the effects of sexual abuse, so are their families and friends. A victim of sexual abuse assumes that nobody wants to talk them. It may be difficult to create a suitable environment to discuss items of this nature. If you can reach out in some way, they will know you are approachable when they are ready to talk.

Read other articles and learn more about Arny Alberts.

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