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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Molested at a Young Age

Q. My 4-year-old daughter was sexually molested two weeks ago by our 12-year-old neighbor. We took her to the doctor to see if she was physically alright and she was. Now we are burdened by the mental aspect of everything. Is it normal for me, as her mother, to be more upset than she is? I don't understand any of this and no one offers any advice on what to do after this has happened. The boy is running the neighborhood as if nothing has happened. We have reported this and nothing is being done. I feel hurt and ashamed. I don't know what to do for her or how her father and I can make anything feel safe and better for her at this time. What should I do?

A. It is completely understandable that you feel this mixture of powerful and confusing emotions. Sexual molestation is a terrible trauma for both the young victim and for his or her family. I can't comment on the legal aspects of this disturbing episode--why, for example, the 12-year-old has apparently not been taken into custody--but I can offer some comments on the psychological issues.

First, it is quite possible that, on the surface, you are more upset than your daughter. A child may not understand the implications of abuse in the same way as an adult, much less a parent--and may be using psychological defense mechanisms that are protective in the short term. These defense mechanisms may not be available to the parent. For example, children may repress some parts of the trauma, so that they actually are out of touch with the memory or its emotional pain. This may be why the child seems very matter of fact about the episode, even though it was most likely quite frightening when it was happening.

In the long term, however, it is very important for the child to have a way of processing what happened to him or her. This means seeing a mental health professional with expertise in childhood trauma. Since you and your husband are clearly in emotional turmoil over this episode, I would advise you to get some professional counseling, as well. You can get free referral help by calling the National Victim Center, at 800-FYI-CALL (394-2255). In addition, you may find the book "Coping With Trauma", by Jon G. Allen PhD, quite helpful for you. I hope that you and your family are able to find the help and comfort you need at this difficult time.

April 2002

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