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Section 19
The Role of the Non-Offending Family Members

Question 19 | Test | Table of Contents

Another context issue is the role of important non-offending family members in the abuse. While survivors often struggle with their feelings toward the offender, a potentially potent issue is their feelings toward other family members who were present when the abuse occurred. As the most frequently described incidents of abuse involve adult male offenders, often fathers or stepfathers, and female child victims, the non-offending family member most often addressed in the literature is the mother.

Historically, mothers have often been 'blamed' for the abuse that occurs in the family. In both popular and clinical literature it has been suggested that the cold, sexually unavailable wife drove her husband to her daughter and at times colluded in the abuse to avoid her own marital, sexual 'responsibilities.' The offender is therefore thought to hold no responsibility for the abuse. In reaction to this sexist attitude, some counselors have discouraged survivors from exploring their feelings toward their mothers. Herman for example, critiqued a treatment program that prohibits 'mother-blaming' by survivors:

Inevitably, survivors will explore the role of non-offending parents in the abuse and the counselor may facilitate this exploration. There are several possibilities regarding the role of non-offending parents: they had no knowledge of the abuse; they suspected but did not acknowledge the abuse; they knew of the abuse but did not intervene; or they knew of the abuse and condoned it (Hall and Lloyd, 1989). Although survivors may never definitely know which role a non-offending parent played, many survivors, after exploring the possibilities and confronting their own denial and minimization, usually come to some conclusion about this issue.

Determining the role of a non-offending parent can be a difficult process. Some survivors state that it is easier to hate the offender than to be angry at their mother, whom they may still love and with whom they may have close, current contact. As one survivor in the incest healing study (Draucker, 1992) stated:

But my stepfather, I don't care about. I was more hurt by my mom staying with him. I couldn't care less. I don't care if I ever see him again. I just don't like him as a person. .. . but my mom hurt me more because I care about her more. Do you see that?

Therefore, it is important for counselors to encourage survivors to express their feelings about non-offending parents. These feelings may range from disappointment that a parent was not strong enough to recognize the abuse to intense rage because a parent knew of the abuse and either ignored it or condoned it.

Hall and Lloyd (1989) have also suggested that it can be helpful if survivors explore the reasons for the actions of the non-offending parents and place their behavior in the larger context of the dynamics of the family. Encouraging such an exploration should not imply that survivors are not entitled to their angry feelings or that they should forgive the non-offending parent for their actions. Rather, this process may assist survivors to make sense of their own experience. For example, it could be helpful for a 'survivor to understand her non-offending mother's family history, which may have included childhood abuse, and to recognize her mother's conviction that she could not survive independently from her abusive husband. These factors provide some explanation for the mother's inactivity and inability to protect her child.

In some cases, survivors may choose to be seen in counseling with a non-offending parent. This is usually most successful when survivors have worked through some basic issues (e.g. denial, minimization) and now desire a better understanding of the family's issues at the time of the abuse. As with a confrontation with the offender, joint work with a survivor and a non-offending parent takes preparation by both parties (exploration of motivations for the joint sessions, risks involved, and so on). For example, each party needs to reflect whether the goal of the joint session is confrontation, providing an explanation of the abuse context, or actually repairing the current relationship between survivor and non-offending parent. In some instances it is helpful if a non-offending parent is assigned his or her own counselor, either to deal with the personal issues that might arise from the joint sessions or to provide support within the joint sessions themselves. In some cases, non-offending parents may experience a crisis when confronted about their role in the abuse, as they may well have denied or minimized the event in much the same way as the survivor did. They therefore may need additional therapeutic services.
- Draucker, Claire, Counselling Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Sage Publications: London, 1992.

Personal Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained information about role of the non-offending family members in the treatment of sexual abuse. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Historically, what non-offending family member is often blamed for the abuse? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 20
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