The National Council of Psychotherapists
When Childhood Sexual Abuse Continues Into Adulthood
by Penny Parks
I was consulted last year by a counsellor, working within the NHS, whose client disclosed that an abuser from childhood (her father) was continuing to sexually interfere with her now as an adult, and, in fact, a married woman. The client felt that a child could be excused for not telling or stopping sexual abuse, but believed there was no excuse for an adult to let such behaviour continue. The counsellor also held that opinion and was unclear about how to help her client get past the overwhelming guilt and blame that caused her to hate herself and led her to self-harm and an eating disorder.
It is not uncommon for people to judge their choices made during childhood from the knowledge they currently hold as an adult. That is one reason you frequently hear clients claim that they can see how other people are not guilty, in regards to childhood abuse, but cannot see their own childhood innocence. They are observing other people as the children they actually were ‑ powerless and innocent ‑ while viewing their own childhood experience through their current adult knowledge. Often exclaiming, “I should have known better’ or ‘I should have been able to stop it’. The reality is that children do not have the physical or emotional power to stop abuse, nor do they have the information or sophistication to recognise the power games grown-ups play to keep children in line.
This same principle applies to those people who go into adult life continuing to be sexually abused by the same childhood abuser. These people usually have a huge block of guilt and cannot recognise their innocence. Therefore it will be useful to point out that a child who has been programmed to accept sexual abuse does not magically change into an assertive person just because they turn 18. When the abuser is their parent the person has an even more difficult time taking charge of their life and saying 'no' to the abuse. I often give the following case history to explain this point.
John was a 45-year-old managing director of a large company. He had no difficulties being the person in charge and had the respect of his employees. At home, with his wife and three children, he had no difficulties in his role as a responsible and loving husband and father ‑ and here too, he was respected. John's problem was his mother.
On the telephone, or in person, John could not be assertive with his parents. He could not say 'no' when it was inconvenient to go for a visit or receive one, he could not stop his mother from telling him how to run his life, he could not even be himself around her and he certainly did not feel respected.
He came to see me because he had developed a very uncomfortable rash whenever he spoke to his mother on the telephone or saw her in person. The relationship with his mother was literally 'getting under his skin'. He had a cream from his doctor, but it did not bring much relief and John could wisely see that he needed to deal with the cause of the rash, not just the effect.
John was very self-punishing about his inability to be assertive with his mother, especially when he could see that he was assertive in all the other areas of his life. John's mother had never sexually or physically abused him, but as John spoke about his childhood it was obvious she had been very manipulative. In the name of 'his best interests' she was able to ignore his rights and ensure that he made the choices and decisions she wanted him to make, the choices that suited her, or in reality, were actually in 'her best interests'. Her manipulative behaviour was presented in a most gentle, apparently caring manner and consequently John never recognised it as being manipulative.
Coming to that realisation was very helpful to John, but not enough to totally enable him. The words he repeatedly used to describe his feelings and dilemma were, "I can't let my mother down." When I reflected this phrase back to him as a possible limiting belief, it had substantial impact. I then asked who was the "I" that was unable to let mother down. As tears rolled down his face, he answered softly, "The little me."
I explained that sometimes parents could be saying and doing something that they think is helpful for their child, but in actuality it is not. I 'wondered' if this might be that sort of situation. John nodded affirmatively. I wondered if perhaps it was time for the child to give this limiting belief back to mother. After all, it was her belief, it was her underlying or even overt message used to keep the child co-operating with her wishes. John agreed, and we did the Mistaken Belief Visualisation (MBV – tool from PICT Advanced Practitioner Training), which changed the belief to 'I can make my own choices. I am a loving person’. Obviously, the child had also believed that he would not be a loving person if he said ‘no’ to his mother.
The main point of John's story is this: if people who are male; well into maturity (45); understand and practice the principles of assertiveness in other areas of life; have powerful positions in life; and have not experienced overt abuse, but CAN STILL BE CONTROLLED BY THEIR PARENTS, where does that leave the person who is younger; female (in particular); passive or aggressive; powerless; and abused in many ways? If John had problems standing up to his mother, with all the things he had going for him, how in the world would someone without those attributes be able to stand up to their parent abuser?
The answer is usually two fold. It is difficult to impossible to say 'no' when you have a limiting belief prohibiting you from doing so. It is difficult to impossible to say 'no' to parents, when all around us, in society, it is believed to be wrong, uncaring or disrespectful to do so. We therefore become trapped in the behaviour we learned as a child ‑ the behaviour of saying 'yes' to parents when we really mean 'no'.
The therapist’s job is to give new empowering information to the client and to assist the client to change their negative belief system, therefore enabling the client to say ‘no’ and keep his/herself safe.
My suggestion to the counsellor was to change the client’s limiting belief to enable her to say ‘no’ and to assure her client that still being influenced by our parents when we are an adult is a fairly common experience for most people,. it was just unfortunate that in her case the influence also involved sexual abuse. Equally important for her client to know is the fact that the guilt belongs to the person who started and perpetuated the abuse - the abuser.
The PICT Advanced Practitioner Training: The PICT Advanced Practitioner Training is spread over 11 two-day modules held once a month. Penny Parks teaches two PICT trainings per year, starting in April, weekends at the University of Essex, near Colchester. The second, starting in September, on weekdays at Change 4 Good in Norwich, Norfolk. Additionally, PICT Trainers from various locations in England are available. A course syllabus and application form are available upon request from:
The Penny Parks Foundation, Mount Pleasant, Debenham, Stowmarket, Suffolk, IP14 6PT