‘My family treated me like a liar when I told them I was sexually abused’

Tell Me About It: The 12-year-old you needs to be believed so that healing can begin

PROBLEM: When I was 12, and my cousin was 14, we were molested by my mother’s older second cousin. We told my mum and aunt, who most likely told our fathers.

They didn’t do anything about it, except we were treated like liars initially, then the whole thing was brushed under the rug and never spoken of again. I have had a difficult relationship with my mother for years, which I’m starting to think began around about when this happened.

Is this the reason?

ADVICE: Of course your relationship with your mother was impacted by the situation when you were 12. Not only had you suffered sexual abuse, but you were not believed and not protected by the very people whom you relied on for your security.

This is a shocking response to a 12-year-old child who had the guts to tell their parents what had happened with a relative. The outcome for you at its mildest would be an inability to trust adults, a withdrawal of all reliance and belief in your family system and a sense of being blamed for your own violation. But these are huge impacts on a young teen, and it seems you were left alone to deal with the consequences of trauma, rejection and disbelief.

The parent-child relationship is a fundamental one in which we expect unconditional love and this allows us to face into the world with a sense of worth and value.

If this relationship is poor, the self-esteem and sense of security of the child can take a hit and if the relationship is badly damaged (as in your situation), the impacts on the child can be negative and far reaching. Not only does this experience affect your relationship with your parents, but it is likely it will affect any future intimacy where vulnerability and trust need to be at the core of the encounter.

The effects of childhood sexual abuse are well recognised and there are free, confidential services that you can access. The National Counselling Service offers long-term, free, frequent, trauma-informed counselling for anyone abused in any way as a child. Call 1800 234 111 and you will get a list of regional services. Also, your local rape crisis centre will provide support and assessment and counselling (info@rcc.ie).

Making a report is the responsible action to take and you must remember that you are not the cause of any family upset, your cousin is

You say no conversation has happened between you and your parents and that you are not even sure if your father knows of the sexual abuse so you will need to break this silence if you are to have some recovery. However, it would be of benefit to you to access these services before engaging in a conversation with your parents as it will arm you with knowledge and a language with which to speak about the effects of such abuse.

There is also the concern that your cousin may still be putting children at risk and these agencies will assist you, if appropriate, to make a report to Tusla so that the case can be investigated and dealt with. Making a report is the responsible action to take and you must remember that you are not the cause of any family upset, your cousin is.

Your family has taken a position of silence. This can harm children and create an unsafe environment that allows the worst of things to happen. This pattern of silence continues as nobody speaks about the elephant in the room so one of the things you can do for your extended family and all future generations is to speak out.

Many children do not tell their parents of their abuse experiences as they try to protect their parents from this terrible information, but you actually told yours and then suffered the double horror of not being believed and of having to manage the trauma by yourself.

You have an opportunity now to take the risk of challenging your parents about their actions, or lack of them, when you were 12. It might be that they persist in their avoidance but at least you will know what you are dealing with and can take appropriate steps.

This may mean emotionally removing yourself from them and sourcing your support network elsewhere – this would not be easy, and you will need lots of support if you are to do this. Perhaps you could talk to your cousin who suffered with you as they might share your position.

However, there is also the possibility that your parents have been carrying this burden of avoidance with them for years and are afraid to bring it up for fear of hearing the truth with the resultant realisation of their guilt. They may find facing up to the past difficult but bringing it into the open offers them some possibility of redemption if they take responsibility and atone for their behaviour.

You are not responsible for their reactions, but you are at a point where the past injustices are begging to be aired and you might all benefit from the breaking of the silence. The 12-year-old you needs to be believed, heard and some justice applied so that healing can begin.