Family patterns of sexual abuse are passed on through one generation to the next and the next. How can we make it stop? As a psychotherapist of many years specializing in working with people who had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) I worked with many adults and children (and their families) who had been sexually abused. As survivors of trauma they had many of the same symptoms anyone with a severe trauma might portray such as severe anxiety and deep depression as well as flashbacks. But they and the families had other issues as well.

So what is sexual abuse all about? Sure sex is involved, but it is mostly about power and control.

Some years ago I met a woman who was then in her fifties. I will call her Shirley, although that is not her name.

Here is her story:

She was talented and creative and eager to help others. As I got to know her better I began to recognize similar patterns appear as many of my clients in my private practice exhibited.

One day as we sat on a bench near the lake, we began to talk about our families. Tears welled in her eyes, and at first she spoke in whispers. But she seemed to be anxious to tell her story. She told me she had been sexually abused as a child by her aunt and physically abused by her brother. As the story evolved she said that both her aunt and her mother had been sexually abused by their father, Shirley’s grandfather. Her sister, maybe her brother, had been abused by the grandfather as well. She believed that the way her grandfather’s generation acted, several had been sexually abused as well. She was deeply ashamed of her family.

The story sounded familiar. As many of you probably know, most sexual abuse occurs within the family or from someone known to the child or family.

But Shirley’s worst nightmare came true when her two young girls finally admitted that their uncle, Shirley’s brother, had sexually molested them as well. He had threatened the girls that if they told the secret, harm would come to their parents. The guilt Shirley felt about not having protected her children was intense. She could not forgive herself. Why hadn’t she seen the telltale signs she knew so well? Why had she left the kids alone with the brother?

When the girls finally told Shirley what had happened, she was horrified and removed the girls from any contact with her family. She spent years in counseling to finally break the patterns of abuse so ingrained in generation after generation of her family. Both girls went to counseling as well. One became a psychologist. The other, now in her forties, became alienated from Shirley and has only forgiven her recently.

Shirley still carries the wounds of her family. Although she is very creative and has many wonderful ideas, she rarely completes projects. She is fearful of success even though she has difficulty admitting it. To this day she has symptoms of her past – don’t tell the family secrets – trust no one – and run for your life if anyone hurts you even if they didn’t mean to. She has few people in her life she would call friends except her immediate family. She spends most of her time babysitting her grandkids wanting to make up for the past and needing to make sure the family patterns are broken. I admire that in her but she has lost herself in them.

Not long ago her niece contacted her. Both she and her brother had been sexually abused by a family member. Fortunately the niece sought help, but the brother committed suicide. Shocked, Shirley kept repeating, “Please make it stop!”

And so the pattern continues generation after generation. Why? Is it in the genes? No. The patterns are learned and then passed on to our children. The families have no generational boundaries. Although rarely spoken, the families of abuse, as do alcoholic families, have rules. Claudia Black in her book delineated the rules many years ago. Don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust. Just pretend everything is okay. People call it denial. And no, it’s not a river in Egypt.

Why do we pass on these patterns to our families? Power and control. But it is also because people as a whole do not like change. First of all we tend to select someone as a mate who is willing to play the game we have learned. To some degree each child is assigned a role in the game as he is born. When one person changes the role they have been designated to play the whole family becomes unbalanced, and crisis often results. The rest of the family becomes anxious and will work very hard to bring that person back to his/her usual role.

Many of our patterns are learned early in life and have become subconscious. We are unaware of them. They are comfortable. Change is anxiety provoking and most of us fear feeling out of control and having no power. We continue to do what we have always done so that we feel back in control. At that point the anxiety leaves unless the pain gets too big. For each person that turning point is different and for different reasons. That’s when most people become willing to face reality and make changes. Patterns don’t change unless people become consciously aware of them and decide to stop them and learn new, more healthy behaviors.

Why do children not tell? Fear. Fear of punishment and losing the love of those they care about most. Fear of abandonment and death. Children know they can’t live on their own and survive.

How can we as a society help stop the abuse?

  1. Stop the denial and break the family rules . First of all by acknowledging that sexual abuse happens, probably much more frequently than most of us want to admit – one in three or four girls/women, and one in six boys/men. Sexual abuse happens in all neighborhoods both rural and city. It happens in all classes, races and religions, and both sexes. No, being a rich or religious person or a woman does not exempt them from becoming an abuser.
  2. Learn and teach correct information to the public, wherever you are. Information is power. Often people shy away from talking about the subject openly and honestly, especially in churches and politics. It’s time we become real and protect our children.
  3. Teach children where they can come and tell the secrets and be safe. Yes, occasionally people lie about abuse but it is much better to investigate and verify than to do nothing and allow it to continue. People prefer not to use the word victim anymore but the truth is that children are victims and we need to protect them and help break the family patterns.
  4. Mental health counseling.
  5. Stop belittling the effects of sexual abuse. People, even judges and lawyers say things like “Boys will be boys” “Men will be men” and smile. An incident that occurred while I was in practice demonstrates these attitudes well. When two of the local social workers and I contacted a judge and the county attorneys and police to see whether they would like us to give a talk about the symptoms, and effects of sexual abuse, they turned us down. The judge stated that the information would make them biased against the offender. The police repeated what the judge had said.


Remember, the responsibility for breaking the patterns of sexual abuse rests as much on all of us as it does on the family.

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