Information for fathers
- Guilt and blame
- Relatinship with your child
- Feelings about the offender
- Ways of coping
- Fathers stories
Fathers have been largely ignored as supporting people in the area of child sexual assault. Fathers are largely portrayed as, and often assumed to be, the perpetrators of child sexual assault. There are a significant number of fathers and stepfathers who do sexually children and abuse their position of power and trust. In a sample of children seen at GCASA over a 12 month period 35% were assaulted by fathers / stepfathers and 65% by friends, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins and neighbours. It is also important to recognise there are there are many 'non offending' fathers who are supporting children who have experienced sexual assault. This leaflet aims to address common feelings and concerns for those fathers.
Discovering that your child has been sexually assaulted can be an extremely traumatic experience.
Men can find it hard to talk about their emotions but that doesn't mean you do not have them. Men are expected to be able to cope in a crisis and may find it hard to ask for help. This can make men feel isolated and unsupported. The feelings discussed below are a general range of responses that occur when a child has been sexually assaulted.
These are some of the feelings you are likely to have after your child is sexually assaulted and offers some suggestions for coping with them.
Guilt and blame
Guilt is an overwhelming and universal feeling for most parents. Sometimes fathers feel guilty because society tells us it is men's job to protect women and children. There is a real sense of failure as a father when your child is assaulted. It is common to blame yourself and other people - your partner or the child. It is normal to blame when things go wrong and this is an attempt to have some control over the situation. In fact parents are often powerless to control the situation which can be more frightening than feeling guilty. Feeling powerless is often very difficult for men who are expected to always be in control.
It can be helpful to work out exactly what you feel guilty for eg not noticing behaviours or not trusting instincts or for having that particular friend or letting your child go on a camp. Whatever you come up with will be insignificant compared to what the offender did. Sometimes it can help to admit mistakes you feel you made and apologising for that specific thing. One father wrote a letter to his son to read when he was older apologising for insisting his son went to football training. The child was abused by the coach. Another father felt guilty that he had admired his own father who was responsible for assaulting his daughter "How could I have looked up to this man all my life."
Some men may feel guilty for being male when men are mainly responsible for sexual assault and violence.
"It makes me so disappointed when men continue to behave like that towards women and children."
Feeling guilty and blaming oneself encourages children to feel guilty and to blame themselves.
Shame is a powerful and painful feeling that most people experience when sexual assault touches their lives. Shame stems from the secrecy that surrounds sexual assault and shame helps to perpetuate the secrecy. Fathers often feel ashamed when their children are sexually assaulted. They fear that people will think they are the perpetrator if anyone finds out. Fathers feel people will think they were a bad parent. It is easy to tell a colleague that your child has broken a leg but can be difficult and humiliating to tell them about sexual assault.
"The people at work knew something was wrong but I just couldn't tell them what."
It can also be difficult to share with friends and family because of the shame associated with sexual assault. Shame increases guilt, self blame and isolation. Shame thrives in silence when you believe you are the only one who feels this way.
Your child will also be feeling ashamed and will feel the stigma of having been sexually assaulted. They will feel they are dirty, damaged and unloveable. You are in the best position to help them overcome those feelings. The best way to fight it is for you and your child is to talk and to challenge the silence.
Fathers are in the best position to actively provide their children with a good male role model following sexual assault where the offender is male. You can demonstrate that they are still loveable and good and help banish their feelings of shame. Many fathers feel confused about how they should behave following sexual assault of their child. They may become concerned about bath times or giving affection, tickles horseplay etc. They can withdraw physically because they are worried about further traumatising the child. When this happens children tend to think it is because of the sexual assault and this confirms their sense of shame. Children can only benefit from love and physical affection from adults they trust after sexual assault. They need to relearn good healthy touch that makes them feel loved regardless of what has happened to them.
Many parents report feeling fearful of the offender. Sometimes they think the offender will seek revenge for the child having told. Even if the offender is in jail, parents can feel threatened by them. Parents fear meeting the offender or seeing them in court. In small communities this is more pronounced. One father spoke of feeling afraid every time he saw a similar car to that of the offender.
"I felt really frightened when I saw him in the supermarket. Other people thought I was scared because of what I could do to him but I actually felt scared of what he could do to me and the boys for telling."
Parents also have other fears for themselves and their child. Fear is not an easy feeling for men to admit to and they can sometimes lash out when they are afraid. Sometimes it's easier to admit to being frightened than trying to hide it. It is ok to feel afraid as this is perfectly normal. It helps to discuss fears with someone else because once fears are aired they become more manageable.
Anger is a normal reaction to child sexual assault. It is healthy to be angry if you and those you love are hurt. Expression of that anger is not healthy if it hurts you and other people. Fathers are expected to be angry. Anger and thoughts of revenge are seen as typically male (they are also typically female).
Most parents feel like damaging the offender but most do not do so realising the further damage they could do to their child and themselves. One father lost his driving license and consequently his job when he went after the offender. Other fathers report feeling guilty if they do not personally assault the offender believing that they may have let their children down by not doing so. In fact, by remaining within the system you provide a good role model for your children.
Children feel responsible for what occurs after the disclosure/discovery of sexual assault and would believe they were to blame for the repercussions of revenge. It can be helpful to share your thoughts of revenge with someone and write them down. Anger is energy and you can use it constructively to benefit you and your child.
- punching a pillow;
- destroying a picture of the offender;
- throwing things;
- screaming/smashing plates;
- writing letters to the media, writing letters to the offender (not to send);
- sharing your anger with your child.
It is positive to give permission to be angry about being hurt and together you can find ways to express that anger safely.
"We went over to the dam and spent a while throwing bigger and bigger stones into the water shouting as we did it. We ended up having fun as well as getting rid of some of the anger."
Sometimes people try to protect fathers in some way by concealing details of the assault perhaps because they fear how fathers will react. This can lead to fathers being excluded and feeling unable to contribute to supporting their children. It is essential to actively find out all the details of what has happened to your child so that you are able to demonstrate that whatever has happened to them you will still love and value them. It can be very painful to learn what has been do ne to your child but if you can hear it then they can live with it.
There is enormous sense of sadness following sexual assault. It represents a very real loss of childhood, innocence and trust for you and the child. Men are not encouraged to feel sadness and may withdraw, avoid or deny those feelings. Sadness can be seen as a sign of weakness. But those feelings are real and are part of your and your child's recovery. Bottling up grief can cause serious emotional and sometimes physical problems for fathers and their children.
"I just kept going trying not to think about it. I avoided any conversations about it. Two months after it happened I started having terrible problems sleeping and I developed serious skin problems."
Try to express it in whatever way you can. Sharing your feelings will help you to feel less isolated.
Parents often try to keep their feelings under wraps in an effort to hold it together for their children. In many ways sharing with your child how you as a person feel about what has happened gives them permission to express how they feel. Expression of feeling is a crucial means of resolving sexual assault and getting on with your future.
It is unusual for the sexual assault of a child not to have an impact on your sexuality .There are many different reactions which are normal and natural. Some parents want to avoid sex altogether; they may feel revolted by what has happened and feel unable to enjoy their sexual relationships. Others may seek comfort from sex as a powerful antidote to sadness and loss. Parents have reported intrusive thoughts of their child's abuse when they are having sex. Parents who are not in a relationship can fear new sexual partners because their ability to trust has been undermined. Sex is often seen as an acceptable way for men to show their emotions and a need for intimacy can be strong during a personal crisis.
Overnight you can become involved with police, legal and medical systems which can be inadequate and frustrating. It can feel overwhelming to suddenly have to deal with unfamiliar people and procedures. There are frequently difficulties with the systems you find yourself in that may seem to have little regard for you or your child as victims. People often feel ignored and marginalised as police and legal procedures get under way. Things often take a long time and can be difficult to understand. All this can happen while you are in emotional turmoil and making decisions can be hard.
Specific difficulties for fathers can be that they feel excluded from the system due to work commitments and because it is often mothers who are assumed to have the responsibility of dealing with professionals. Systems can make you feel powerless and lacking control about what is happening to you and your family.
The systems are the only ones we have, good, bad or indifferent. We can only do what we can within them. It can be helpful to hear other parents' experiences and to direct energy in to changing the system.
"It felt like we were invisible in the court process .Every time I tried to get information I felt that I was being a nuisance. I just had to keep asking questions until someone listened to me."
Relationship with your child
Sexual assault affects parents' relationships with their child as it does with each other. All the feelings outlined can become part of how you relate to your child. On the positive side it can mean that you communicate more with them and become more aware of their thoughts and feelings. Less positive can be dealing with a range of behaviours that challenge even the most devoted of parents. Constant bedwetting; lack of sleep; aggression and clinginess can make you feel angry with your child and then guilty for being angry. The child's behaviours are reflections of their feelings. If the feelings can be talked about the behaviour will become more manageable.
Above all remember that this crisis will pass and it will become easier to live with as time goes by. Sharing your experiences with other parents can help as well as finding supportive people to talk to.
Feelings about the offender
It the person who assaulted your child was a stranger or acquaintance it is easier to express anger and hurt. If the person was a close relative or friend you may experience shock and denial. There can be a strong sense of having been betrayed. You can feel resentment of being put in the position of having to choose between the offender and child. There are fears that people will blame you . You may have feelings about the offender being jailed or be frightened at your anger towards someone you have previously loved.
"I just can't believe it . He was my best friend for twenty years. How come I didn't realise he was an offender. I keep remembering all the good times we had and then I feel guilty when I think of what he did to her."
Ways of coping
- acknowledge your own painful feelings and difficult thoughts, share them with friends, partners, family or counsellors. Try writing a journal.
- talk to your child as much as possible about every aspect of what's happening to them and you, expressing your feelings gives them permission to express theirs eg; "I needed to talk, not once but 5,000 times."
- do every thing that you can to assist your child e.g. statements, crimes comp., medicals, counselling, education.
- keep a notebook/diary with photos, details of counselling names of relevant people to record the things you and your child did and the details of dates and events, copies of statements. This can be helpful to give to children when they are older and need to make sense of what happened.
- find out as much as possible about child sexual assault. It really helps to have information. It can make you feel as if you have some control back. Talk to other parents and professionals, get books and videos from the library and welfare agencies.
- seek out professional help through counsellors and support groups or start your own! If you have experienced sexual assault yourself it is a good idea to see a counsellor on your own.
- try to spend some individual 'special' time with your child doing something you both enjoy away from other demands. This benefits your relationship and gives your child a real sense of being loved. It can help you to have pleasurable experiences with your child and know how you are contributing to both your own and your childs' recovery.
My girls were assaulted by their mother's boyfriend when they went on access to their mother. We were in the middle of a custody battle. I knew something was wrong with them but I could not get anyone to listen and the girls were too frightened to say anything. I found out later that he had said he would kill me if they told. They were only six and eight.
I suspected sexual assault because they were having nightmares and bedwetting but it was easier to put it down to the separation. I spoke to child protection and the police and they said that allegations like this were common in custody battles. I took the girls to the doctor who said they could have been interfered with but they could also be doing things to themselves. I thought I was going mad because no one listened to me. I felt that everyone was suspicious of me as a single father and thought that if the girls had been assaulted that it was me who had done it. Eventually, my ex-wife walked in on her boyfriend assaulting my daughter and took her straight to the police. In a way it was a relief to know what had happened because I'd felt so frustrated that no one took what I was saying seriously. He went to jail because there was a witness which does not happen very often.
I felt such a failure as a father. I should have protected my girls and I couldn't. I wanted to kill him and spent lots of time planning my revenge. The court process took so long and was so much in his favour. It is all so unfair. The girls have had so many problems. For ages they were really scared and I felt I could not reassure them because I'd already let them down. It broke my heart because I just wanted to hide and never let them out of my sight. I wanted to cuddle them all the time then I'd get frightened that I should not touch them. My youngest often comes into my bed after a nightmare and I was confused about what I should do about that.
I really worry about the future. How are they going to enjoy sex when they have been assaulted. How will I ever enjoy sex again. I can't even think about a relationship at the moment.
Things are getting better over time. The girls seem more secure and outgoing. They are doing alright at school and have friends. I'm trying not to be too protective. We are much closer emotionally and talk about everything now. I went to a parents group and it was reassuring to talk to other fathers who had the same feelings.
My son was sexually assaulted by my brother from the age of eight until twelve when he told us what had happened. I was physically sick when I found out and then I put my hand through a door. I feel really bad that was my first reaction because I should have comforted my boy but I couldn't. I did not want to believe him. I loved my brother. He's younger than me and after our father died I became a sort of second father to him. We did lots of things together and he was part of our family. It felt doubly my fault for raising my son and my brother.
I didn't know what to do and I couldn't talk to anyone. My wife and I kept blueing because I did not want to tell the police. Prison would kill my brother but I knew I had to protect my boy. I was so angry and I was drinking all the time. I knew I was letting everyone down but I couldn't help it. Eventually my wife went to the police without telling me. It was terrible. I felt everyone blamed me. I couldn't tell any of my mates so I just retreated into myself I got really sick then and my body sort of gave up. The doctor made me an appointment with a counsellor. I didn't want to go and talk to a stranger about something personal but my wife put pressure on me so I went. I cried almost the whole first session. I couldn't believe it, I haven't cried since I was a kid. It was such a relief to know that it was ok to feel sad for my brother and my son at the same time. The counsellor helped me see that I was not responsible for my brother any more but that I was still responsible for my boy. I came out of there feeling much clearer about stuff. I went home and took my boy for a walk. I still don't know what to say to him but at least I have stopped trying to avoid him.
I felt it was all my fault because I was not there. We divorced two years ago and I moved out of the area. It was hard for all of us but I saw the children regularly and my ex-wife and I tried to keep things friendly for the kids who are a boy of eleven and a girl of ten. Then I found out that the neighbour had been abusing the children. It was disgusting what he did to them and I felt so angry and I blamed the kids and my ex-wife and myself. How was it allowed to happen? Why didn't they say something? Why didn't she notice? It was the person next door. I knew him and had a few beers with him. Why didn't I know he was a child molester. I should have known. I know if I'd been there it wouldn't have happened. My kids tell me I don't understand and that I've been too angry to support them. What they don't know, no one does, is that it happened to me too. I know exactly how it feels but I feel I can't help my kids. I never thought it would happen to them. I thought it was just me.
My current partner made me read some books on child sexual assault. She knew something was wrong. I wanted sex all the time because I thought it would make me feel better but it never did, it made me feel even more empty and I didn't know why. I started to read some books and it all began to fall into place, all my behaviours, all my feelings and why my relationships always faded.
Once I had begun to understand how being sexually assaulted had affected me I was able to think about what I could do to help my kids. I never feel that I can really do a lot because I'm not with them all the time but I'm not so frightened to talk to them about it. Maybe one day I'll tell them what happened to me too.