Parenting can be an incredibly overwhelming and confusing experience for anyone, let alone if you are the survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). A past history of CSA does not mean that an individual shouldn’t be a future parent, nor does it mean that they are destined to abuse their children. Many individuals with a history of CSA have healthy, loving families of their own, with children who are thriving. However, some of the long-term effects of CSA may make some aspects of parenting difficult to handle. Post-traumatic stress disorder, and some of its symptoms, including flashbacks or triggers, may interfere with parenting.1,2 Healthy parenting may also be impacted by any mental health issues (like anxiety or depression) or physical health conditions (such as chronic pain or fatigue) related to the abuse.
There is a lot of research that exists into the effect of childhood physical abuse on parenting, however, parenting effects as a result of childhood sexual abuse are not as well understood.
Themes that can affect parenting after a personal history of abuse
Common themes that can affect men and women when parenting after a personal history abuse may include, but are not limited to:
- Attachment difficulties between parent and child
- Permissive parenting
- Fear of their own child getting abused, which may lead to being significantly overprotective
- Experiencing higher levels of parenting stress
- Role reversal with their child, where they are looking for validation and support from their child as more of an equal than as a parent
- Having children at an earlier age or having more children than their non-abused counterparts. This could potentially lead to being overwhelmed or parenting before ready to do so
- A potential decrease in parenting abilities due to lack of confidence, depression, or anxiety
- Fear of becoming an abuser
- Difficulty appropriately addressing issues of sexuality with children
- Experiencing triggers or flashbacks of the abuse during common intimate parenting tasks, such as changing diapers, breastfeeding, or showing children affection1-6
Professional support may help lead to healthier relationships
Although there is evidence that suggests that a significant proportion of individuals who commit CSA were abused themselves as a child, the reverse it not true. Just because an individual may have been abused, does not mean they will also become an abuser. The vast majority of individuals who have experienced CSA will not go on to abuse someone else.7
Learning to be a strong parent and have a healthy relationship between you and your child (or children) may start with addressing any long-term effects of your own abuse. It has been suggested that seeking professional support for lasting ramifications of CSA may help lead to healthier interpersonal or familial relationships in the future. Some of these sources of support may include seeing a therapist, joining a support group, attending counseling, talking with your healthcare provider about your past abuse, and taking medication.4-6 A survivor of CSA is just as capable of being a strong parent as anyone else, but may need a little extra support at times.
- Zvara, B. J., Mills-Koonce, W. R., Carmody, K. A., Cox, M., & Family Life Project Key Investigators. (2015). Childhood sexual trauma and subsequent parenting beliefs and behaviors. Child abuse & neglect, 44, 87-97. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0145213415000368
- Zvara, B. J., Mills-Koonce, R., & Cox, M. (2017). Maternal childhood sexual trauma, child directed aggression, parenting behavior, and the moderating role of child sex. Journal of family violence, 32(2), 219- 229. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10896-016-9839-6
- Hugill M, Berry K, Fletcher I. The association between historical childhood sexual abuse and later parenting stress: A systematic review. Arch Womens Ment Health. 4 Jan 2017; 20(2), 257-71.
- O’Dougherty WM, Fopma-Loy J, Oberle K. In their own words: The experience of mothering as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Dev Psychopathol. May 2012; 24(2), 537-52.
- Duncan KA. The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Parenting: A Female Perspective. Counseling.org. https://www.counseling.org/docs/disaster-and-trauma_sexual-abuse/impact-of-child-abuse_parenting_female.pdf?sfvrsn=49adb3ed_2/. Published 2005. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- Price-Robertson R. Fathers with a History of Child Sexual Abuse: New Findings for Policy and Practice. Australian Government: Australian Institute of Family Studies. https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/fathers-history-child-sexual-abuse-new-findings-policy-and-practi. Published July 2012. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- Glasser M, Kolvin I, et al. Cycle of child sexual abuse: Links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. The British Journal of Psychiatry. Dec 2001; 179(6), 482-494.