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What Not to Say When Someone Tells You About Their Childhood Abuse

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

It saddens and frustrates me that I had to write this, but it boggles the mind how people who proclaim to love you and care about you can react when you finally disclose to them that you were sexually and emotionally abused. I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience, so here are a few things that are not appropriate to say to a survivor who discloses their experience. 

• What is PTSD?

“You didn’t tell anyone so we didn’t know.”

“We thought it only happened once so it wasn’t a big deal.”

“He paid us to do his laundry and cook for him and we needed the money so we couldn’t completely cut him out of our lives.”

“Sexual abuse is common in the ‘old country’ and pretty normal.”

“I know X number of people who have been abused and they are just fine.”

“He was such an asshole already; how could he also be a pedophile?!”

“Yours wasn’t as bad as X, Y or Z.”

“If it isn’t penetration, it doesn’t count.”

“You always seemed overly serious and mature but we thought it was just how you were.”

“We thought your anorexia was just because of ballet.”

“Your mother couldn’t help it because she was depressed and mentally ill so it’s not really abuse.”

Comparing my trauma to growing up Jewish during the Holocaust in Hungary.

“Your mom had a tough life so she couldn’t help how she behaved.”

“Your dad was a sociopath, asshole, jerk, etc. You didn’t miss out on having him in your life.”

“All religions say to forgive and that’s the only way to heal.”

“Don’t be angry because it’s poison.”

“Just let it go. I had plenty of trauma of my own and I’m not mad at anyone.”

“My trauma was abandonment so not like yours, but I’m OK.” (Last time I checked, losing a dad to divorce is also abandonment and neglectful mothering is abandonment.)

“All the books I’ve read say X, Y, Z about healing but I’m not a psychologist, so what do I know?”

“Your trauma is from a past life and you are an old sensitive soul so you shouldn’t blame things that happened in this lifetime.”

“God only gives you what you can handle.”

“Go see a fortune teller to get in touch with the dead.”

“You don’t need to tell everyone about our family problems.”

“You’re too much.”

“You are the problem.”

“You asked for it.”

Why didn’t you fight them?”

“Don’t text/call/email me unless I message you.”

“It’s not abuse if they didn’t touch you.”

“There’s no such thing as covert incest.”

“Being your parent’s best friend is normal, even when they talk to you about adult things.”

“You and your mom were like the same person.”

“You are stronger than everyone else so it’s up to you to bring the family together.”

“You’re ripping the family apart.”

“You are responsible for making your parent unhappy.”

“You’ve been brainwashed by your therapists and aren’t remembering all the good things.”

“Your therapists are awful people and here are made-up reviews of them that don’t exist to prove it.”

“You don’t need therapy; you just need to exercise, pray, do yoga, etc.”

“Your husband is an asshole for protecting you.”

“Does talking about it really help?”

“It couldn’t have been that bad.”

Need I go on? Please, stop.

If you feel guilty, that’s not my problem. If you feel ashamed, that’s not my problem. If you wish I would keep my mouth shut, it’s not your story to tell, it’s mine, and if it helps even one person then it makes it all worthwhile. It takes as long as it takes and don’t ever make up shit about my therapists. I have the right to feel everything I need to feel. I didn’t get the chance to have my feelings as a child. It’s time for them to see the light of day. A parent’s mental illness does not absolve them from the responsibility of caring for a child they brought into this world. Intergenerational trauma affects us. I can love someone and decide not to see them at the same time. I have the right to blame those who perpetrated the abuse upon me instead of wallowing in shame and blaming myself. 

That’s all.

So, what should you say to a disclosure of child abuse? First and foremost, “I’m so sorry.” This not only validates the pain of the survivor, but it shows them you believe them.

Second, and maybe one of the most important things, “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me. I know that takes a tremendous amount of courage.”

And finally, “I’m here for you. What do you need?” You may not be able to fix anything, but knowing you are there and aren’t going to abandon the survivor or flee the situation because it’s too hard helps us feel less alone on our healing journey.  

Photo by Yuya Hata on Unsplash

Originally published: August 20, 2019
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