My Dad Was Sexually Abused as a Child. Should I Talk to Him About It?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My mom and dad divorced when I was 14. I’m in my forties now. Neither of my parents is in the best of health, and I don’t know how much time left I have with them. They don’t talk to each other. I’m on good terms with both of them, though closer to my dad.

I was visiting my mom a couple of years ago when she told me a bombshell of a family secret: my dad had been sexually abused by a pastor as a child. This went on for years, apparently. It seems my mom is the only person in our family he has told about this—assuming she is to be believed. I add this qualifier because she has a history of creating drama. I have not known her to outright lie, however.

I am inclined to believe her, as I know my dad was raised in a devout, church-going family and he has never been one to be very open with his feelings, emotions, or past experiences. If he was indeed abused as a child, I think it’s likely he’d hide it from his children, out of what I would imagine is a deep sense of shame.

It’s my empathy and compassion for that shame that has kept me from saying anything to him these past couple of years. One the one hand, I really want him to be able to talk about his past with me. Part of me thinks that by talking about it, he might be able to make peace with it (assuming he hasn’t already) and perhaps have fewer regrets as the end of his life approaches. On the other hand, I don’t want to push him into talking about something he doesn’t feel comfortable talking about. The one thing I am sure of is that he’ll take this to his grave if I don’t bring it up. If I do bring it up, I would not be surprised if he denied it.

What are your thoughts? Should I try to get him to talk to me about this? —Hurting for Him

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Dear Hurting,

What a fascinating question—and touching, since your empathy for your father is so obvious. I’m moved by how you want to help him find peace with what sounds like a pretty awful betrayal and abuse of trust. As the film Spotlight illustrated, it’s terribly painful when “God’s ambassadors” are the ones perpetuating such psychological and/or physical injury, which can leave scars for a lifetime.

I suppose my main question is: whose peace are you actually seeking? It sounds as if you are nagged by the question or impulse to help him. My question is, and I mean this in a deep sense: how come? This is not to sound skeptical; I just find it’s helpful to understand one’s own impulse to help. There are times when, in my own experience, the relief cuts two ways—one for the other person and two for ourselves, since we are troubled by such a disturbing disclosure.

Wanting to help our parents as they grow older is one way many of us want to “give back” for what we are just now beginning to appreciate. It sounds as though you have an intuitive sense of how this might be bothering your father. I also wonder if your mother told you because she either was tired of carrying such a secret herself all these years or was hoping you might find a way to approach him. Did she say this to you in confidence, or is she okay with you bringing it to him?

It’s impossible for me (and you, it sounds like) to know how your father has or hasn’t made peace with this. I have learned not to underestimate the ability of the human mind to compartmentalize. We have to, in order to adapt and move forward. Where adaptation becomes repression or dissociation can be ambiguous, since every person, every relationship, and every situation is different.

I would still advise you to pause a moment to gently reflect on your motives and feelings. What are you hoping might come of an honest conversation with your dad? If he has never really dealt with it, it’s unlikely one conversation will clear it up. It might—or it might stir up all kinds of complex feelings around what happened. He may feel anger at the perpetrator and those who failed to protect him as a boy. It’s also possible he doesn’t know how he feels, or harbors deeper feelings that may arise in a conversation and take time to process (which doesn’t mean “don’t do it,” just that he might say no before he says yes, or say no and want to reflect on it himself).

He may also have feelings about your mother disclosing this to you. Again, I don’t know anyone involved or the dynamics of the family, but sometimes there is an unspoken need among family members for a secret to come out in the open, and sometimes there is conflict around it. He may chuckle and say, “Oh, your mom …” or he may become angry about having his secret spilled.

It’s impossible for me (and you, it sounds like) to know how your father has or hasn’t made peace with this. I have learned not to underestimate the ability of the human mind to compartmentalize. We have to, in order to adapt and move forward. Where adaptation becomes repression or dissociation can be ambiguous, since every person, every relationship, and every situation is different.

Is it possible your mother wants your dad to discuss it while he is reluctant or outright disinterested? Are you then concerned about your mother’s distress? Is your mother enlisting you as a kind of stand-in for her own pursuit? The “drama” you allude to regarding your mom might be a way for her to attract attention while avoiding her own feelings or vulnerability.

If any of this is true, keep in mind the risk of wading into a longstanding struggle; sometimes adult children are the “power brokers” or go-betweens in such situations. This has its benefits and risks, naturally. I recommend considering the downside of stepping in, along with the potential benefits. It’s also true any decision you make will have potential ups and downs, and there is often no easy choice. I sense you care deeply about both of your folks—and at the end of the day, provided you move with empathy for all involved (as best you can), this is what matters most.

Should you decide you’d like to try discussing this with him, I would broach the topic gently and see if he wants to discuss it before specifics are introduced. You can come from a place of your own concern, even curiosity, about his experience, and ask if talking would help him—rather than coming at him with a pre-decided or firm intent to help (which can be received as critical, if a person hasn’t asked for it).

I often encourage people to ask, “How can I help?” before deciding for the other person what’s needed or how it ought to play out. (Not that you’re doing this.) I often ask people in therapy (or even loved ones) if they want suggestions before offering my own advice. It surprises me how, so much of the time, people just want to be heard, validated, understood … so they don’t feel so alone in their struggle.

Of course, you may hit a wall with him. He may resist and then come around, or he might surprise you by being open right at the start.

If you decide to broach the topic, the key is to be honest with him about your love and concern for him. It’s a bit of a tightrope, wanting to be transparently honest without falling into “you need to do this, dad” when the motivation may be your own anxiety. One thing to consider is whether some of the shame and darkness you imagine he’s feeling is, possibly, what you are feeling. It’s painful and difficult to think of a person you love being harmed in such a way.

In short, the “lead” as they say in journalism is your love and concern for him, your empathy, in compassionately considering him and his (conscious or unconscious) struggle, and your wanting to lighten the load. One of the most loving things you can do is to ask if or how you can help with all this—if you decide to talk to him. (If this is a real hot button between your folks, it’s also okay to recuse yourself.) Let him decide whether he wants to open this door wider or at all, or would rather leave sleeping traumas be.

I hope, whatever happens, he will be proud of a son who cares enough about his dad to take a risk.

Finally, please know there is no “perfect decision” in such cases. Often, in the messiness and muddle of human affairs, we simply do the best we can. Sounds to me like you’re a good son trying to do just that.

Thanks so much for writing!

Darren Haber, MA, MFT

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 4 comments
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  • eric

    eric

    June 3rd, 2017 at 7:16 AM

    Don’t press him to talk unless he is ready.
    I think that this would be true for any victim of sexual trauma.

  • June

    June

    June 4th, 2017 at 6:13 PM

    Its a very personal matter, I strongly doubt the father would appreciate any interferance into his personal history and probably escpecially by his daughter!

  • KIllian

    KIllian

    June 5th, 2017 at 11:17 AM

    Sometimes the one thing that anyone needs is just to know that there is someone there to talk to if that is what they need. But sometimes they need you to mind your own business too. I guess that in every case it is getting a good feel for what that person actually needs in his or her life. If they know that you will be there for them then I think that you can trust that they will approach you and possibly even open up to you when they are ready. Not before.

  • Delia D

    Delia D

    June 7th, 2017 at 11:58 AM

    It does somehow make me wonder though why your mother would be so willing to share this with you even though its not her story to tell

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