Secondary victims

Recently, I met with a young man who was molested by a beloved family member years ago when he was a teenager and the perpetrator was an adult. It took several years for the boy to be able to tell his family what had happened with this much adored cousin. But when he finally told them, his entire family was devastated. Several said they were so angry they wanted to hurt the perpetrator. Others were extremely sad for the young man and said they felt guilty because they hadn’t recognized the danger. Eventually, other family members told about the abuse this same cousin had inflicted upon them years before. Naturally, this increased the emotional trauma on everyone. They are still struggling to deal with what has happened within their family. They are true secondary victims. Victims of violent crimes, such as sexual assault or domestic violence are intensely affected by their experiences, but other non-perpetrator family members, friends and children of survivors are affected as well. They are known as “secondary victims.”
Research has found that the response of family members to a survivor’s disclosure of a violent crime can be a contributing factor to how damaging the trauma is to the survivor. Negative and otherwise inappropriate responses by family members to a survivor can have profound negative effects on the survivor and can lead to damaging family relationships.  Especially when dealing with a sexual assault, pressure from family members to remain silent or lie about it can be extremely hurtful.
Secondary victims sometimes feel a sense of self-doubt, self-blame, and guilt over their “failure to protect” their friend or family member. Following the sexual assault of a loved one, family and friends often experience considerable emotional distress as well physical and psychological symptoms that can disrupt their lifestyles and family structures. Responses of family members to the assault, including shock, helplessness, and rage can match the responses of the victim. Family members of a survivor often have a sense of isolation and distancing from others. They may also feel violated and may lose their sense of belonging. Both survivors and family members may well feel a sense of weakness or guilt and these feelings could be reflected in both self-blame and fault directed at family members.
In one survey of friends of adult rape victims 96% reported feeling angry at the assailant, 71% felt shocked, and 68% wanted to get even.  Ten percent of friends reported having nightmares about the assault. Eight percent were afraid of what other would think while 7% reported feeling alone in dealing with it.
When dealing with child sexual abuse, parents experience a secondary traumatization when sexual abuse of their child is disclosed. Parents of child victims typically suffer clinical levels of distress at up to three times the frequency of the general population. A sense of guilt and failure as a mother was a common initial reaction to discovery of the abuse. Many of the women also described strong feelings of anger towards men in general, and feelings of depression. Some mothers expressed their belief that their personal recovery was a key factor for the recovery of their children which is a strong indicator of the importance of support of secondary victims.
Research suggests that parents of adult victims of sexual assault are also significantly affected and traumatized by the rape of their adult child. Researchers emphasized the importance of long-term counseling in relation to families of survivors of sexual assault, as well as the survivors themselves.
These secondary victims need someone they can talk to about the trauma they have and possibly still are experiencing. There is no typical or predictable way to respond. That’s where Crisis Services can help. Call us 256.5745.5826  if you or your loved one has experienced sexual assault.  We are available to help families in crisis process what has happened. There is no shame in asking for help or a shoulder to lean on. We  care and we listen without judgement. Our services are free and confidential.

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