Child sexual abuse is defined as forced or persuaded sexual activity with a minor. This includes non contact abuses, sexual molestation, and rape (American Psychological, 2012). It is estimated that approximately 135,000 children are sexually abused each year (Sedlack et al, 2010). As referenced, the most frequently associated disorder with child sexual abuse is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (McLean et al, 2014). Research has demonstrated that those who survived child sexual abuse are more vulnerable to becoming depressed and suicidal during adolescence relative to adulthood (Brown, Cohen, Johnson, & Smailes, 1999). The well-being of the survivor is critical after this traumatic experience and it is something that requires more awareness. The distress of child sexual abuse is a systemic trauma that affects the family and can come in various ways. With such high numbers of child sexual abuse families find themselves under a systematic trauma. This calls for urgent awareness as the stress and mental health challenges that both children and families face are underseen.
The Ecological Systems Theory
The theory used to analyze child sexual abuse and family distress among Latino families in the US is the ecological system theory. The ecological system theory argues that to understand a person or family one must look at the different interacting systems around the person (Brofenbrenner, 1977). The ecological system theory is composed of different systems that all interconnect and have an effect on the person. The five systems are microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, macrosystem, and chronosystem. The microsystem looks at the close relationships such a parents, friends, and peers. Followed by the microsystem which is how the interactions between those relationships affect the person. The exosystem includes the forces that indirectly affect the person. The macrosystem consist of looking at culture. The outer system looks at the chronology of time. Understanding the ecological system theory can lead to a better understanding of the systemic trauma children and families find themselves in when experiencing a child sexual abuse event.
Impact of Child Sexual Abuse
Impact on child:
After effects of child sexual abuse on victims affect the chrono system as it includes short-term and long-term effects. These effects vary from between individuals from no visible effects to debilitating psychological and behavioral effects (Putman, 2003). Effects of child sexual abuse differ from static to dynamic stress levels, ultimately affecting the family system (Barker-Collo & Read 2003). Those who experienced child sexual abuse within a family member are at a higher risk of experiencing higher levels of secrecy, coercion, and distortions of relationships, which are inherent in intrafamilial abuse (O’Leary et al., 2010).
Family context creates an impact on the after effect of child sexual abuse. When families hold higher resilience families tend to have higher levels of family cohesion, adaptability, and low levels of conflict (Patterson, 2002). When looking at disclosure about the abuse the disclosure is typically delayed and only 33% of victims disclose at all during childhood (London, Bruck, Ceci, & Schuman, 2005). Following the disclosure the children are in most need of support from their caregiver, which may be difficult because of the personal impact of the disclosure. The response to the disclosure plays an important role in the outcome of the child who has experience the abuse (O’Leary et al., 2010). These responses can include belief or disbelief, affective response, an behavioral response. Examples include removing the perpetrator from the home in order to stop the perpetrator from having access to the child.
When no action is taken against the perpetrator the child is more likely to experience negative outcomes ( O’Leary et al., 2010). More positive outcomes are related when caregivers have supportive responses such as beliefs, acknowledgment, and action taken against the perpetrator. For some caregivers who hold a relationship with the perpetrator, it can be challenging for caregivers to hold the belief. Initial reactions may include shock, shame, and/or self-blame (Bolen & Lamb, 2004). For Latinx families this can be challenging keeping in mind their strong value of shame
Impact on Parents:
In analyzing the impact of child sexual abuse on the parent there are eight major categories that emerge: family context, abuse characteristics, emotional impact, cognition, support systems, impact on daily life, coping, and family dynamics (Kilroy, Egan, Maliszewska & Sarma, 2014). When experiencing the disclosure of child sexual abuse there was already family background factors that contributed to the distress of the family. These stressors ranged from marital difficulties such as violence, emotional abuse, unfaithfulness, substance abuse, marital breakdown, impending divorce, and stalking/intimidation (Kilroy et al., 2014). Otherstressors included the child taken into state care for a period of time and/or relying financially on the perpetrator. The micro system plays an important role as it helps define how families will react to the experience.
Characteristics of abuse such as context, details, and impact on child have been central factors in contributing to the parentals distress (Kilroy et al., 2014). One of the biggest distress that parents felt during the abuse disclosure was how close they were to the perpetrator(Kilroy et al., 2014). The proximity of the perpetrator to the family often lead parents to issues of initial disbelief, practical difficulty in leaving the perpetrator, ongoing contact with the perpetrators family, and frustration. Disclosure on child sexual abuse has a strong impact on the microsystem as parents and child come into conflict with the perpetrator. In learning about the details in the child’s abuse parents can often feel powerless and distress at witnessing their children worsen (Kilroy et al., 2014). These problems often came accompanied by excessive crying, self-harming, suicide attempts, anxiety, social withdrawal, school dropout, deterioration in hygiene and self-care, substance abuse, refusal to eat, significant weight change, escalating temper, nightmares, sexual acts on another child, separation from parent, and difficulty sleeping.
Parents also experienced powerlessness in not feeling capable of leaving the micro relationship and the emotional manipulation within that system (Kilroy et al., 2014). Along with emotional impact came grieving (Kilroy et al., 2014). Parents also experience a sense of shock as their initial reaction to the disclosure (Kilroy et al., 2014). Some parents also develop a feeling of sympathy for their child and the experience they have lived through (Kilroy et al., 2014). Parents felt for the experience of having their children’s childhood stolen from them and assuming that that is something that will follow them for the rest of their life. Other emotional impacts on parents were anxiety, shame/guilt, and anger (Kilroy et al., 2014). On the other hand most experienced guilt about actions they took in the microsystem. Parents are challenged within their microsystem by feeling guilty because they were the ones who brought the perpetrator into the life of the child.
A critical emotions that parents often encounter is anger towards a variety of issues and people (Kilroy et al., 2014). Parents experience anger towards those in their micro relationship such as family, friends, services, and schools. This anger is derived from the feeling that their child was not protected, they failed to detect the problem, nor did they provide the appropriate support (Kilroy et al., 2014). Literature does not discuss how parents can help process this anger.
This is critical for researchers to take in mind on what is the best way parents can learn to work with that anger. Parents also found themselves being angry with themselves as they doubted their children, not picking up on signs, nor creating an open space for their children to communicate the incident (Kilroy et al., 2014). Along with this came sadness/depression on the thought that their child had their innocence taken away and that the child had lost their confidence. In addition to that there was empathy towards their children feeling that they were not loved or that parents themselves could not completely understand what their children was attempting to communicate to them (Kilroy et al., 2014).
Cognition impacts greatly affected the parents in various ways. Parents find themselves trying to rationalize with how the abuse took place for instnce how did the peretrator presented the opportunity and how they gained thier childs trust (Kilroy et al., 2014). For many parents there is a ot of thinking that comes with the process. They may spend to much thinking about the impact of the abuse on their child and themselves in the past, present, and into the future (Kilroy et al., 2014). For fathers this can be particularly difficult to process as they may describe it as a “male reaction” feeling that he should of protected his child as a father and had a desire to “fix things” (Kilroy et al., 2014). For Latinx families, specifically males, these emotions can be difficult to process as they may feel like their manhood is put to question. Father can encounter a battle with their machismo value and the feeling of not protecting enough.
Support system in the terms of child sexual abuse consist of family, friends, school, work and governmental departments including social work, the police, courts, and the child sexual abuse unit (Kilroy et al., 2014). These systems are not always as supportive as families would want them to be. Parents experiencing child sexual abuse stressors can oftentimes encounter family members blaming, dimissing, or avoiding the issue. Other times friends have distanced themselves. Parents are not only struggling with the abuse with their children but also the lost of the relationships in their microsystem. Parents also find that government services have been perceived as unsupportive as they lack responsibility, resources, behaving non empathetically, and unprofessional (Kilroy et al., 2014). Exploring this area on why it is that support systems react this way is critical to the families experiencing this distress. More specifically this is a huge flaw in the human service field as they are intended to support and strengthen families instead of pushing them away.
The overall distress of child sexual abuse on families creates an impact on the daily life. Families find themselves being affected by the emotional impact, child symptomatology, attendance at appointments, and child care difficulties (Kilroy et al., 2014). Other impacts families experienced was relocation to different parts of the country, which include changes in schooling and moving away from the perpetrator who provided financial stability. External factors in the exosystem such as financial needs can indirectly affect the family. Parents can encounter being more cautious in general when meeting new people and can push away their partner away emotionally (Kilroy et al., 2014). For parents finding time for themselves was challenging as they find it difficult to find time for themselves due to their child’s dependency, fearfulness, or parents desire to not leave them alone (Kilroy et al., 2014). This is huge impact on the different systems of the family. From micro relationships to not being able to fully participate at work either physically or mentally.
Understanding Child Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse brings different stressors to the family as reviewed in the literature. Understanding child sexul abuse is understanding that it is not just an abuse but also a sexual seduction as referred by Oprah Winfrey (Blake, 2019). Child sexual abuse is a grooming process as described by Winfrey (Blake, 2019). It is an abuse that takes time and dedication into grooming the child making it more challenging to identify child sexual abuse. Winfrey argues that this is a social corruption as it is happening in families, churches, schools, and sports teams everywhere (Blake, 2019). In her claim Winfrey argues that child sexual abuse is bigger than what it seems and it needs more awareness to it.
In her interview Oprah Winfrey went on to discuss the lack of accuracy in defining abuse (Yahr, 2019). Winfrey discusses that in the disclosure of child sexual abuse it is challenging for children to disclose to their parents as they do not have the language to explain what happened (Yahr, 2019). Children have been seduced and entrapped that a child understanding of abuse is not clear to them. A critical argument that Winfrey brough to the table is that the emphasis should not be on the penetration but on the aftermath (Yahr, 2019). Winfrey claimed that the picture is much bigger and that it is about the pattern of distress that is happening in our culture and that we refuse to see (Yahr, 2019)
Systemic Trauma and Prevention
In understanding child sexual abuse it is understanding that the child who experienced abuse can be conceptualized as a systemic trauma (Kilroy et al., 2014). This concept helps to explain the impact of mental health on parents and how that impact and well-being affects how they support their children. As explained in the above literature review the impact of child sexual abuse affects all of the systems. Child sexual abuse is an experience that affects relationships and affects the lifestyle and the chronology that follows. A critical hole in research is the lack of cultural inclusivity.
Studies suggest that Latino children are more likely to experience childhood sexual abuse than those who are not Latinx (Dettlaff, Earner, & Phillips, 2009). In testing a personal safety program with Latinx preschoolers, it was revealed that there was no negative report in side effects nor did any parent express dissatisfaction with the program (Kenny, Wurtele, & Alonso, 2012). One of the strengths of this program was the availability of the program being bilingual. This is a huge advancement in the field of prevention as because most of the prevention programs are not culturally competent. As a result, preschool children were able to enhance their reporting skills. Children were able to identify body parts with proper names instead of vulgar terms.
In reviewing child sexual abuse it becomes evident that it is a systemic trauma. It is a event that affect the family bringing different stressors. Repeated patterns such as an affect on relationships, shame/guilt, and lack of cultural inclusivity need more awareness in the experience of child sexual abuse. A major flaw in the literature was the lack of ethical and cultural diversity. Implementing prevention programs that are not just open to different cultures but that understand and empathize diverse cultures is critical in the field. Considerations on families of low income who struggle with accessing resources is important. Other consideration include families with no legal documentations and how they can access resources while not having documentation or financial aid to assist. It is clear that the research on child sexual abuse has a long way to go.
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