Early on in treatment, it’s not unusual for adolescents to disclose things that are very difficult for a parent to hear. Often the behaviors that initiated parental concern and intervention were only the tip of the iceberg. For parents of young women in treatment, disclosures of sexual promiscuity and/or sexual trauma can be especially wrenching.
According to David Prior, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the director of Sunrise RTC, revelations of sexual activity or trauma are so distressing to parents that parents tend to react. “We see a lot of moms reacting by trying to sweep the issue under the rug,” says Prior. “This comes from an understandable desire to protect their daughters from social censure and reputation damage.”
Fathers, he says, often attempt to intervene directly and “fix” the problem by going to the police or even confronting partners or perpetrators directly. “As a father,” says Prior, “I can certainly understand that reaction. But once a girl is in treatment, a reactive response to sensitive disclosures is likely to be counterproductive.”
Highly emotional reactivity can actually have the effect of re-traumatizing the young woman, and well-meaning efforts trying to “fix” the problem can have the effect of dis-empowering the young woman, which is the opposite of the goal of treatment. Prior says that the key contribution parents can make is to provide understanding and support, even as they are working through their own painful emotions. This is a challenge, Prior acknowledges, and means that parents must engage their own therapeutic work in order to help their daughter.
To help parents move effectively through disclosures of sexual promiscuity or trauma, Prior suggests working on the following points with the support of a family therapist:
- Engage in your own therapy, individually and as a couple, to process your own feelings. These feelings may include rage, guilt, fear, and even disgust. Engaging these feelings in a safe and supportive setting will help equip you emotionally to better support your daughter.
- Let go of your need to “fix” the problem.
- Work with the treatment team to empower your daughter by:
- Making her the central decision maker in terms of resolving her situation
- Giving her the opportunity to report legally reportable incidents (sexual abuse, rape, etc.) herself
- Only intervening on her behalf (e.g. reporting for her) if she is not ready to do so herself
- Remember that your daughter, not the perpetrator, is the real point
With parental understanding and support, says Prior, our daughters can turn a situation of pain and shame into one of healing and empowerment. Parents can have tremendous therapeutic influence in these difficult situations.