Anger at Parents
Blame and anger tend to fall on whoever is closest, not necessarily who caused them or deserves them. Stephen Stosney, PhD, Love Without Hurt
It is very common for survivors of sibling sexual trauma to go through a period of anger at their parents, particularly their mother. This is true even if the mother had no way of knowing that the sexually abusive behavior was happening. It can be true even if the parent believed and supported the survivor as soon as they found out about the violation. It feels unfair–and it is unfair. No parent expects one of their children to sexually violate another. Parents can’t stop what they don’t know is happening. Even moms can’t read their children’s minds.
Still, from the survivor’s standpoint, anger at parents is at least partly justified. From a child’s perspective, it may have seemed that the sexually abusive behavior was obvious and mom should have spotted it. The survivor may have attempted to send signals or even tell a parent what was happening, but the parent did not decipher the clues. It’s even possible that the child did clearly tell what was happening, but the parent did not believe it, or minimized it, or repressed the memory of being told. After time has gone by, it’s impossible to impartially know how much of a survivor’s anger is justified.
If nothing else, most parents agree that their most basic job is to keep their child safe. If that child was sexually violated, however it happened, the parent failed at their most important task. Most mothers feel this failure deeply and instinctively, whether or not their child expresses anger.
There are few things more painful than having your own child blame you for their greatest suffering. You may feel like an awful parent. But in a roundabout way, this is an opportunity to reveal your true colors as a good parent. If you can survive being a target, you can give your child a gift that perhaps no one else can give them. This is a gift that comes at great cost to you, one you will not accomplish perfectly every time. Each time you can absorb your child’s anger without retaliating, you are putting your child’s welfare over your own. And that is the very definition of love.
There is a fine line between choosing to absorb the anger that your child needs to express in order to heal, and allowing your child to behave abusively toward you. It can be incredibly hard for you to discern which side of the line your child is on at any given time. There may be nothing you can do to change your child’s anger and attitude. But recognizing the important benefit you are providing for your child can help you regain the dignity and meaning that you deserve. It can help you stay the course, stay more calm, and avoid reacting in a way that adds to the hurt. It can help you see yourself more accurately as a good, loving parent. Hopefully, in time, your child will heal and your relationship will heal.
A note to other helpers: The aftermath of disclosure of sibling sexual trauma is an extremely hard time for parents, particularly mothers, to function as a punching bag. Most moms already feel extreme guilt, shame, isolation, and humiliation. Their self-esteem is likely the lowest it has ever been. Authorities may question or criticize her competence as a parent. Being the target of her child’s anger is another set of blows to the spot where she is most vulnerable emotionally. It is important for therapists, spouses, and other adults to provide support for moms in this situation.
Moms, don’t be surprised when the anger of a survivor is directed at you rather than the offender. The anger has to go somewhere. You are probably closer at hand, and probably feel like a safer target than the offender or even Dad. And it’s better to have the anger land on you than simmer inside or be directed back at themselves…Anger is uncomfortable, possibly frightening, and often not socially acceptable to express. But it is a necessary stage of healing.
Ellen Bass & Laura Davis, Courage to Heal