Shhh, Let’s Not Talk About It: How Families Are Haunted By Incest And Sexual Abuse

ChildAbuseArticle

Nearly every person I’ve counseled who has been sexually abused was abused by a family member, not a stranger.

In families there is an unspoken trust, one that says we will support and protect each other, especially the children. Child abuse goes against that unspoken trust.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons, on top of shame and fear, that victims of incest and child abuse often stay silent, making way for more abuse, even generational abuse, depression and addiction to flourish.

Child abuse is devastating and debilitating. It not only causes psychological and behavioral problems that can last a life time, but there is growing evidence that it also causes a number of physiological problems.

You would think that children would always be protected, but unfortunately in many families, the adults are too busy with their own issues such as financial problems and addictions to be effectively attentive to the children. Often, the adults are so happy that someone is “supervising” the kids that they are delighted when another relatively is spending time with them, not knowing that that relative may be molesting their child.

Often the victims of abuse I’ve worked with grew up in complex homes where they often weren’t paid attention to. Many of them were so hungry for attention that they mistook abuse for nurturing, which is another reason they didn’t tell anyone.

Whenever there was an opportunity for abuse and the caring adults in their lives turned away, it left opportunity for abuse to happen right under their roofs. When they were not paying attention to their child, someone else was paying too much attention to them.

Another reason victims don’t talk is because they think that they are the only one being abused and if they have younger siblings, they may not say anything as a way of protecting the younger children from the victimizer.

When there is a child molester in the family, chances are he or she is molesting more than one child and may go on to molest across generations. A lot of the child abuse victims I’ve worked with only came forward when they were either in fear that a younger relative was in danger of being molested or when they found out that their fears were true and a younger relative was being molested.

It’s rare that I talk to a victim of child sexual abuse and incest and they are the only person who has ever been abused by the victimizer. Many times this is not discovered until later in adulthood when as adults they start talking with other family members. This is when they usually realize that they weren’t the only ones being abused and the extent of the nightmare is finally revealed.

Case Example: “Catalina”

One of my adult clients, let’s call her Catalina, was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and incest. She lived under perfect conditions to be molested for years by a family member.

Her mother was an alcoholic and drug addict, her father was no where to be found. Her mother also had seven kids, all of which were eventually taken from her because she couldn’t take care of them. Catalina and her six siblings ended up with their mother’s mother, their grandmother who sounds like she was a real Mother Teresa. She had a kind heart, even took in other kids and always had a house full of relatives around including Catalina’s cousin Walter.

Walter was an adult, married with two children of his own, but he came around Catalina’s grandmother’s house often to hangout with the kids.

Walter would talk to Catalina as if she were his girlfriend, although she was his cousin and prepubescent. Catalina didn’t like it, but never told anyone. He then moved on to hugging her often, always making sure his erect penis pressed against her. Eventually he moved on to showing her his penis and rubbing it against her skin.

Again, she kept this a secret because she believed it was her fault and even thought it was somewhat normal. Thankfully, it ended there, but what Catalina didn’t know and would not know until adulthood is that while Walter was molesting and grooming her, he was already molesting and sleeping with her slightly older sister Michelle.

Michelle also didn’t tell anyone about cousin Walter, but it damaged her to the point that even when Walter stopped molesting Catalina, Michelle started molesting her.

Michelle started making Catalina touch her vagina and eventually made her perform oral sex on her. Catalina knew something wasn’t right, but didn’t tell anyone, she just did as she was told. The abuse lasted for several years, ending only when Michelle started having sex with boys.

This abuse left Catalina confused. She became hypersexual and even had thoughts of molesting her little sister on several occasions. Thankfully she never did and the molestation, at least in that house ended with her.

As a teenager she was very promiscuous and was confused about her sexuality well into adulthood. Now as an adult she is riddled with relationship and trust hangups and is terrified of having and raising children. Other than that, for the most part she has turned into a pretty well-adjusted woman.

The secrecy about the molestation allowed the initial victimizer, Walter to abuse at least two children in the same household. It is likely that he abused more and probably went on to abuse other family members for years since ’til this day no one is really talking about or confronting it.

Catalina and Michelle only recently had a heart to heart where Michelle apologized to Catalina for the abuse and explained that she was doing to her what had been done to her  (Michelle) by Walter. Only then did the two realize that Walt had victimized both of them.

Some of the factors that allowed this abuse to happen besides the secrets and silence include:

  • they both believed that it was there fault
  • both Catalina and Michelle had been raised to believe that children were to be seen and not heard
  • they both believed there were too many problems going on in the home and there was no time for another one
  • they had never been talked to about sex in any capacity so the victimizer taught them what he wanted to
  • as girls they were taught that they were supposed to be passive, peaceful and not cause trouble
  • they were taught directly or indirectly that women are submissive
  • they were also taught that what happens inside of their home stays private
  • their mom always neglected them most when she had a boyfriend and they learned from her many relationships that women existed for pleasure
  • they also unfortunately believed it was normal to be victimized

Catalina’s story unfortunately echoes dozens of stories I could have told from personal experience. For more information on child sexual abuse there are many great books, but I can personally recommend No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse by Robin D. Stone.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact:

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

1 (800) 656-4673 / www.rainn.org

If you are in immediate danger please call 911

Childhood Abuse Linked To Asthma And Obesity In African American Women

Screenshot_2013-03-22-01-52-10-1According to research done at the University School of Medicine and Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center, Black women who have been physically and/or sexually abused during childhood and adolescence are more likely to become obese in adulthood as well as are more likely to later go on to develop asthma.

The study appeared in the journal Pediatrics and was based on a longitudinal Black Women’s Health Study which followed a large number of African American women since 1995.

What the study suggests is what many of us already know and that is that experiences during childhood may have long-term affects on our emotional and physical health.

“Abuse during childhood may adversely shape health behaviors and coping strategies, which could lead to greater weight gain in later life,”  says Renee Boynton-Jarrett, MD, who is the lead investigator in the study as well as a pediatric primary care physician at Boston Medical Center.

She goes on to say that metabolic and hormonal disruptions can result from abuse and that childhood abuse could cause other health problems like asthma. “Ultimately, greater understanding of pathways between early life abuse and adult weight status may inform obesity prevention and treatment approaches.” Boynton-Jarrett continued.

The same study found that physical and/or sexual abuse could more than double the chances of African American women developing asthma later in life. According to the study, African American women who suffered abuse in childhood had an increase of about 20 percent of developing asthma.

What’s also interesting is that the link between physical abuse and asthma seems to be stronger than the link between sexual abuse and asthma.

According to Patricia Coogan, the lead author in the study stated,  “The results suggests that chronic stress contributed to asthma onset , even years later.”
I had a professor in graduate school who always said, “Whatever you don’t deal with mentally, you will deal with physically” and this seems to be a prime example.

Stress in childhood experienced from abuse causes physiological consequences. Imagine the amount of stress one experiences living in an abusive situation. That type of stress can have an impact on the body, especially the immune and respiratory system and development.

There are unfortunately high incidents of childhood abuse as well as an increase in the prevalence of asthma with an increase from 7.3 to 8.2 percent, or approximately from 20.3 million to 25.6 million people from 2001 to 2009. The populations that saw the greatest increase in asthma were children from low-income families and African-American children.

I find this study to be very interesting because as a counselor, before I ever read this study, I recognized a link between obesity and sexual abuse in African American teenage girls.

I noticed that a large portion of the obese African American teenage girls I worked with, reported being sexually abused in childhood and early adolescence. I found this to be astounding and the more obese African American teens I worked with, the more it continued to be true.

It got to a point where I could look at an obese African American teen, the way they carry themselves and predict with about a ninety percent  certainty that they had been sexually abused before they ever felt comfortable enough to divulge that information.

I started thinking that maybe obesity and overeating became a unconscious defense  mechanism they used to become less attractive to not only the person who had sexually abused them, but possibly potential abusers in the future. And of course, overeating in itself could have been a coping mechanism used to help self-sooth themselves from the pain of sexual abuse.

I found it fascinating and yet sad, but this new research appears to back up some of what I had been suspecting although they seem to take it from more of a physiological than psychological approach.

What’s also interesting is that in her book Young, Poor and Pregnant, Judith Musick saw a link between sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy, meaning that some young girls who were being sexually abused, consciously or unconsciously sought out to get pregnant in hopes that their pregnancy and having a baby would make them less appealing to their abuser.

It’s obvious that physical and sexual abuse in childhood can have devastating affects on a child’s mental and emotional health well into adulthood, but new research is pointing to physical and sexual abuse also having long lasting physiological affects, making it that much more important that we not only fight to put a end of child abuse, but that we also provide help to those who have been abused.

Many adults I’ve spoken to who have been abused as children think of themselves as being resilient, and to a certain degree they are, but they don’t see the potential ongoing damage the abuse they experienced ten, twenty, or thirty years ago still has on their lives today. They don’t see that their relationship problems stem from lack of trusting or being able to relate well to men, that their depression comes from years of childhood neglect or that their overeating could be a result of past sexual abuse.

So much so that many of them don’t even initially mention being abused early on, although it is one of the first questions I ask. They go on for session after session, week after week, talking about issues that have roots in their childhood abuse, but they don’t recognize that and it’s only when they bring up the abuse and we address it, that they can truly start to heal.