As the Executive Director at the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center, I have had the privilege of seeing firsthand just how true – and powerful – this quotation is, particularly within families impacted by sexual abuse and sexual assault. In seven years as a counselor at ZCenter, I’ve seen a wide spectrum of
While the crimes themselves are sexual in nature, sexual abuse and sexual assault are crimes of power and control. In this country, we know that 1 in 3
Though most victims are abused by a male, far more females – including mothers – perpetrate sexual abuse than are thought to. In fact, this assumption that only men perpetrate sexual abuse adds to the manipulative power and control exerted by abusive mothers. On average, a child will have to disclose that they have been abused to seven adults before they are believed. I worked with one family where the mother severely abused her young children sexually and physically for several years before they were school-aged. During this time, the relationship with her was all that these children knew. They were too young to have friends, and their father was active in the military and subsequently out of the home for long periods of time. It wasn’t until they were old enough to go to school and start having play dates in other homes that these children realized that their mother was abusive. However, even after coming to this realization, it took multiple investigations before she was removed from their home. Throughout each investigation, this mother manipulated the system by blaming her children’s abuse on their father – an active military member deployed overseas. This manipulation worked for several
We are taught from a very young age that all human beings need water, food, and oxygen in order to survive. However, we now know that an additional human need exists, and that is the need for connection in human relationships. Without a secure attachment relationship, children are unable to effectively develop social and emotional skills such as the ability to self-regulate their feelings. When such emotional regulation isn’t possible, then the child – just like human beings of all ages – reacts to trauma with the survival instinct of fight, flight, or freeze. This automatic reaction kicks in to keep the child alive. The most effective way for a child to retract back from this survival state is to be engaged in a safe and loving attachment relationship.
In the wake of sexual trauma, children instinctively seek out a “safe base” for comfort. When a child’s mother is physically and emotionally available to be this “safe base,” then the child can navigate the stress of trauma from within a regulating attachment relationship. The children aren’t made to feel guilty for the abuse, and can instead focus their energy on healing. However, when a secure attachment does not exist, or even worse, when this “safe base” is actually the SOURCE of the fear and stress, then the child’s survival instinct kicks in and pushes others away. Often times the behaviors that are triggered in these instances help the child regain a sense of power, but these behaviors (e.g., stealing, lying, aggression, dissociation, etc.) are easily misunderstood by those around them. The common response by well-meaning adults can be to try to ‘control’ the child when they act out in these ways. However, typical disciplinary approaches only add further stress and fear to the children’s experience, keeping them in survival mode rather than helping them regain a sense of control.
Understanding these key components of human need, development, and survival highlights just how powerful a mother’s influence is on her child – particularly within the healing process after sexual trauma. A healthy attachment with a mother can enable the child survivor to receive this necessary comfort and care in the wake of such terrifying trauma. A nurturing relationship can provide the child with the necessary space to experience, process, understand, and heal their emotional wounds.
However, this is much easier said than accomplished. The emotional needs and subsequent behaviors of child survivors can be overwhelming – not only for them, but also for their mothers and other family members. Again, the vast majority of perpetrators are known, not only to the child but to the mother as well. In these situations, the mother’s own emotional needs become incredibly complex. A core part of her is hard-wired to “fix” her child’s emotional wounds, but she also carries immense guilt and shame for failing to prevent the trauma from happening in the first place. In cases where the perpetrator is a family member, the mother then has another set of intense emotions to deal with. She may in the same moment find herself the mother of the survivor AND the spouse, sister, daughter, or even mother of the perpetrator. In such cases, the intense and conflicting emotions that result require significant time and energy to navigate and heal. However, telling a mother to focus on herself, when her own child has just experienced trauma, is completely counterintuitive. At the same time, if she doesn’t work on her own pain and instead remains overwhelmed, then she will remain in her own survival state and thus be unable to provide the safe, secure attachment relationship that her child needs. In explaining this to mothers that I have the privilege to work with, I often refer to the safety warnings delivered by flight attendants before every flight… “If the cabin loses pressure and oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, please secure the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting anyone else…” Why? Because if our own needs are unmet, then we will remain stuck in our own fight/flight/freeze response. In such a survival state, our natural abilities to think logically and effectively form attachment with others become faulty. We are simply not going to be any good to anyone else – no matter how big our heart or how noble our intentions.
I have had the opportunity to see a great many amazing mothers who believed their children the very first time they disclosed that they were being abused – even when the perpetrator was someone the mother also knew. I’ve seen countless mothers who effectively utilized their own support systems – even inventing one if it didn’t already exist, or reinventing one if it had been destroyed by the impact of sexual abuse on family dynamics. These mothers could then provide the safe, empowering relationship that their children needed as they worked to heal and thrive. Many mothers spend months – even years – in therapy
This brings me back to the opening quotation: “A mother is she who can take the place of all others, but whose place no one else can take.” When mothers are able to believe just how powerful they are, then there are no limits to the healing influence that their love can have with their children…absolutely no limit at all.