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Support for parents vital in child abuse trauma recovery

The devastation and anger of discovering your child has been abused or harmed is for most parents followed by deep guilt and self-blame. 

Recent media coverage of the horrific case in which a Gold Coast man was charged with more than 1600 counts of abusing children in childcare centres here in Australia and overseas was heartbreaking on so many counts. 

Not only for what the children suffered, but the trauma of their parents. 

It’s very common for parents to blame themselves or be unable to forgive themselves for abuse suffered by their child. This leads to what we call ‘moral injury’ which puts them at higher risk of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and suicide. 

Also often known as vicarious trauma, people can experience moral injury when they witness or are exposed to violence or human suffering or its aftermath, and it can have far-reaching impacts. 

It’s particularly common in military personnel, but recent research has shown the devastating impacts on the parents and loved ones of abuse victims. 

A recent study we conducted on a sample of 151 non-offending parents in Australia found that they were blaming themselves, not others, and were unable to give themselves self-compassion. 

They essentially feel as though they have committed ‘moral violations’ by being unable to prevent the abuse and with this came a 47 per cent risk of increased PTSD symptoms. 

One of the reasons we want to better understand moral injury is that its specific symptoms are often left untreated. Medical care in these situations tends to focus on the PTSD without addressing the thoughts and beliefs of ‘moral failure’ these parents are experiencing. 

Moral injury has a negative impact on the recovery of not only the parent but the child as well. Parents can help their children by providing a sense of safe and secure attachment, but that can be a challenge for parents dealing with these kinds of internal struggles of their own. 

That’s why we developed our free Parenting Beyond Trauma program which is designed to help carers dealing with the impact of child sexual abuse.  

We’re also working on further research that will help us develop trauma-informed interventions to support non-offending parents. 

The goal of the research is to better understand the phenomenon of moral injury, develop an assessment and treatment tool, and ultimately help these parents recover and rebuild their lives. 

But the applications of this work reach far beyond the tragedy of child sexual abuse – there are many people suffering deeply as a result of moral injury caused by exposure to trauma. 

Doctors are just one example. What is frequently referred to as ‘physician burnout’ or ‘compassion fatigue’ may actually result from the moral conundrums that the contemporary healthcare system presents. The suicide rate for doctors is twice that of the general population. 

Our hope is that this research will help us develop a suite of supports that can be used across the spectrum for others at high risk such as teachers, police and emergency service workers and medical professionals, as well as parents. 

Dr Cher McGillivray is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Faculty of Society and Design. She is currently running an online support group for parents, find further details here.

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