Survivors and Parenting

Anecdotal evidence verbalised by clients since the service’s inception in 1984, has indicated that survivors often believe they won’t be good parents, they fear abuse being perpetrated on their own children and have anxieties about not being able to protect their children. Such beliefs can lead to extremes of parenting behaviour – such as overprotecting a child, leading to an over-dependent parent-child relationship, or benign parental neglect of a child’s needs by ignorance of what those needs are as a child grows. Not all parents question why they parent in a specific way, or re-evaluate if there are better ways, or if what they do is the best approach for the children, though this is to be encouraged.  Phoenix services work on breaking silence, shame, generational cycles of abuse and building on strengths.

For many years, Phoenix Support & Advocacy Service Inc. has advocated the necessity of parenting groups specific to survivors’ of child sexual abuse and family violence. Survivors’ of intrafamilial child sexual abuse and family violence are often not ‘role-modelled’ safe, positive parenting practice, nor shown appropriate methods of dealing with anger, discipline and problem solving. Some survivors of childhood sexual abuse and family violence grow up with beliefs and attitudes to children that may have been ‘projected’ onto them (Markowitz, 2001). For many victims, some of the effects of their abuse are a silent ‘time-bomb’, not detonating until the next generation when they became parents themselves and face their past experiences and fears as they deal with their own children.

Research by Finkelhor (1979, 1986), Beaulieu-Landry (1991), Gil (1996), Tomison (1996), Rossman, Hughes & Rosenburg (2000), McCloskey and Bailey (2000), Bedford (2002) and Moloney (2005) has also indicated that incest; child sexual abuse and family violence often appear to be generational problems occurring in families, each generation ‘keeping a lid on’ the secret, and by default, ignorantly or unwillingly repeating the cycle of victimisation and silence.

Some of the key problems with generational transmission of child sexual abuse are:

  • The ‘silencing’ of the victims – often for years, where the risk of speaking may make a survivor feel responsible for family problems.
  • The false shame and guilt projected by perpetrators on child victims that ‘locks’ them afraid, in silence.
  • The passage of time between offences occurring and disclosure – the more years, the more likely that the victim is pressured to ‘get-over-it’ and not report the offences.
  • The unbelief of people the victim counts on for support, especially if years have passed and contact has been maintained with the perpetrator for various reasons.
  • Pressure from the family to not press charges if years have passed and the offender is old, sick, or they believe he/she has ‘changed’.
  • Patriarchal control-based family systems where females and children are not considered as valuable as males and ‘power’ rests with males.
  • Family shame – families not seeking professional help when a victim discloses – this can ‘minimise’ the damage to the victim(s) and a perpetrator can misread this as the victim(s) not being believed and continuing to offend, sometimes over generations.
  • Sub-cultural shame – religious, ethnic or other influences that pressure a victim to stay silent.
  • ‘Masks’ over abuse – addictions, psychological problems and family violence that overshadow child sexual abuse issues.


Children depend upon their parents or primary caregivers to protect them and provide for their needs. Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1988) and Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977) hold that intergenerational transmission of problem ways of relating, can be partly attributed to the way one was parented or role-modelled ways of relating by primary caregivers. Attachment problems can be ‘carried’ into relationships, including future parenting. Thus, parenting can be thought of as a learned, observed behaviour, often role-modelled through the experience of being a child and being parented: Parenting isn’t seen as primarily instinctive.

  • Belsky’s (1984) model (below) – ‘The determinants of parenting’ includes these concepts:
    1. Personal psychological resources of the parents
    2. Characteristics of the child.
    3. Environmental sources of stress and support.
  • 2 critical parental social roles in parent-child relationships:
    1. Care role. Emotional relationship style of family, eg. warm & nurturing, cold and unresponsive or vacillating.
    2. Control role. Family rules, boundaries and social regulation, eg. Restrictive and controlling parenting or permissive parenting lacking consistency.

The optimal parent-child relationship is reciprocal and involves collaborative parenting between primary caregivers and consideration of the best interests of the child developmentally, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. This may include ‘safety-places’ or ‘safety-people’ in the child’s extended family or sub-culture, where responsibility for childcare and safety is shared (Tomison and Wise, 1999) and children educated in personal safety.

Belsky’s (1984) model of the determinants of parenting.

Note: Use a modern terminology for ‘Marital Relations’ – for eg. ‘Co-parent Relations’.
(There is no additional model of how the child’s determinants may flow into this model).
The interaction factors within the model influence the way that a parent relates to their child. For example:

  • If the parent has no social network support and their partner relationship is not supportive – the direct influence upon the child of the parental dissatisfaction and isolation may be more intense.
  • If a partner is violent, the other parent may find themselves a ‘buffer’ between the child and the violent parent, this can be exhausting and depressing.
  • Alternately, if the parent’s workplace is unsupportive of their worker’s parenting, this may affect the parent’s mood; parental anxiety may flow on to the child.

Effects of CSA relevant to parenting:

Psychological characteristics of child sexual abuse survivors’ or person’s who’ve grown up in violent families that challenge the ability to parent effectively include:

  • Depression / Anxiety and irrational fear / Anger & destructiveness / Problems with trust / Shame bound reasoning / Poor mutuality in relationships / Misconceptions regarding sexuality / Cognitive distortions / Self-doubt and poor boundaries / Mood swings / Fear and control issues / Emotional shutdown

Social characteristics of child sexual abuse survivors’ or person’s who’ve grown up in violent families that challenge the ability to parent effectively include:

  • Poor partner choice, often involving types of family violence / Re-enactment of family of origin issues / Family breakdown or disruption / Family re-location / Lack of family or social support / Isolation / Blended family issues / Environment conducive to revictimisation.

Persistent Effects of Child Sexual Abuse:

Identified in research by Bass and Davis (1988), Lew (1990), Gil (1988) Bedford (2002), Moloney (2005) and Courtois (1988) include:

  • Depression and mental health problems.
  • Self-destructive and self-harming behaviours.
  • Addictive coping behaviours.
  • Anxiety, stress and hypervigilance.
  • Feelings of shame, isolation & stigma.
  • Poor self-esteem and concentration problems.
  • Gynaecological problems, infertility & STD’s
  • Eating disorders.
  • Tendency to re-victimisation.
  • Disturbance in sexual functioning including unsafe sexual practices.
  • Poor relational boundaries & problem relationships.
  • Isolation and loneliness.

Breaking cycles & building support:

Given the damaging nature of child sexual abuse on individuals and families, it is imperative that interventions in cases of generational abuse focus on what victims of such abuse can do to break the cycle of abuse in their family or immediate culture without adding to the shame of the victims, their families, or their immediate culture. The assigning of responsibility for blame to the identified perpetrator(s) and building community safety networks to protect children of victims from perpetrators who may still be part of the family or community needs to be a priority.

CSA occurs within a specific context of family dysfunction, it is within a related context that the issue of breaking generational cycles needs to be addressed. A strengths-based, solution-focussed approach (O’Hanlon and Bertolino, 1998) to working with victims and related non-offending others’ in small group settings may be most useful. Interventions may include working with small groups of family members who aren’t CSA offenders, or with small community or sub-culture groups that want to stop generational abuse by building support and safety networks within their cultural environment that excludes known offenders in the community from attending, being involved or being allowed on certain premises.

This article has identified anecdotal, research and therapeutic issues that appear to be common to survivors’ of family violence and child sexual abuse, however, without seeking input from the people concerned, some of the key issues regarding survivors’ parenting attitudes, aptitudes and experiences may be overlooked. Solutions may rest with the victims. A person may not evaluate or adapt their parenting practices if they haven’t assessed their attitudes to parenting or the suitability of their parenting practices; assessing if they’re in their children’s best interest.


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