Parenting Themes for Incest Survivor Mothers with Daughters

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by Christine Kreklewetz M.Sc.


This research looked at the parenting experience of incest survivor mothers by examining mothers' parenting beliefs, attitudes, and practices, including mothers'perceived strengths and weaknesses, from a feminist perspective. This study examined how a clinical sample of sixteen incest survivors experienced parenthood. This included: 1) how they protected their daughters, 2) how they dealt with their preadolescent daughter's emerging sexuality, and 3) how they saw the family roles played by themselves and their daughters.

Sixteen adult women with histories of incest were interviewed. Ten mothers were currently receiving counselling, and six had completed counselling for their sexual abuse. The amount of time mothers spent in therapy varied from six months to ten years; the mean time spent in therapy was 3 years. The mothers' average age was 37 years, and most mothers were divorced. Most of the participants were Caucasian and varied widely in income level. Mothers indicated that their sexual offenders were predominantly fathers (81%). Half of the mothers revealed that their preadolescent daughter had been sexually abused. In six of these cases, at least one of the siblings in the family had also been sexually abused.

Each woman talked about her experience as a parent and her relationship with her pre-adolescent daughter. Mothers also completed a parenting attitude questionnaire. Content analyses explored three important themes identified in the clinical literature: 1) protectiveness and associated fears, 2) sexuality issues and 3) parentification of daughters. New themes also arose from the data and are discussed along with implications for professionals in treating survivors and recommendations for the prevention of further sexual abuse within the family are provided.

I. Protection and Trust

All of the mothers described themselves as protective, and often "overly" protective parents. While some mothers expressed concern that their protection might have negative effects on their daughter, others saw their protectiveness as a strength in their parenting skills and did not desire to become less protective. A primary concern of these mothers was that their children were safe from abuse, and all of the mothers felt that their daughter was generally safe a majority of the time. These mothers protected their children in a variety of ways by adopting "protection strategies" or "safety plans". These protection strategies allowed them to feel more comfortable about their child's safety and are aptly named due to the conscious decision making and planning that went into the protection strategies. For example, mothers' protection strategies and safety plans included: 1) education and information sharing with their children, 2) monitoring their children's contact with certain people and in certain situations and 3) checking behaviors (i.e., making certain where their children were and what they were doing).

The most frequently mentioned protection strategy was education and information sharing. Unquestionably, these mothers felt that the more information they could pass on to their child about assertiveness and respect for one's body, the less likely their children would be abused and the more prepared they would be to protect themselves. Implicit in this education and information sharing strategy, were strenuous efforts at promoting good communication with their daughters.

A second protection strategy that mothers used to safeguard their children was monitoring their children's contact with certain individuals and situations and developing "safety plans". Some mothers did not allow their children any access to their own abusers or with individuals they feel may be "potential" abusers. In some cases, this included children not having contact with family members who refused to acknowledge the mother's own past abuse. Mothers mentioned two particular situations as seeming very high risk, and as eliciting the most fear and cautionary behavior concerning their daughter's safety. These were 1) situations involving adults consuming alcohol and 2) allowing their daughters to sleep over at a friend's house. For some mothers, common adolescent behaviors such as going to the mall with friends also evoked responses ranging from cautionary to fearful.

Finally, the third, and rather unique protection strategy that emerged from the data was that mothers frequently used "checking behaviors". Mothers used these behaviors mainly inside the home and checking behaviours were less conscious and more automatic than the other strategies. Checking behaviours are unique in that they were more commonly used by mothers of very young children, rather than by mothers of preadolescents. However, for these mothers, checking and monitoring their children's behaviors enabled them to feel more effective as parents and lowered the likelihood that their children might also be sexually abused. When talking about their daughters' safety and needs for protection, mothers were inclined to talk in general terms about unsafe situations and "bad people" existing "out there". There were also frequent references to the fact that while they couldn't control what happened outside of their home, most felt that they had control over their children's safety inside their home. Nevertheless, there was ambivalence and uncertainty about trusting their male partners completely. Five of the seven women in this study who were married or living with a partner expressed some ambivalence, worries, and concerns about trusting their partner with their preadolescent daughter.

II. Parentification

Indications of parentification were weak and diluted, but nonetheless present in many of the interviews. Examples of many different types of parentification were evident, but most of them were quite mild. Mothers described daughters as taking on adult responsibilities and concerns, especially when the mothers were sick or unable to do so. Some mothers clearly recognized how their roles with their daughters had reversed at some point in their relationship. Some mothers viewed their daughter's "early maturity" as helpful to them and very positive overall.

III. Sexuality

While mothers admitted feeling anxious about their daughters' approaching sexual activity, for the most part, the majority of the women were very eager to provide their daughters with as much information about sexuality as early as they could. Many mothers wanted to impart information they felt they had not received as preadolescents, although mothers were sometimes unsure about the type of information they should give their daughters and how much was "appropriate". Some women feared that their own past sexual abuse and subsequent negative attitudes towards men and sexuality may somehow "rub off" on their daughters through how they educated them about sex and sexuality. Books and other resource materials were seen as "lifesavers" to the majority of these mothers. The public school system was one of these resources. Most of the mothers were very excited about their adolescent daughters' emerging sexuality. A sense of discomfort surrounding their daughters' physical development was quite rare.


IV. Emergent Themes

Two new themes emerged from the interviews which involved a change in parenting style over time. These themes were 1) a change in the mothers' perception of what mothering was (i.e., from an external conscious preoccupation to a more internal, "natural", gratifying, integrated role) and 2) a more active parenting role (e.g., initiating discussion with their daughters about sexuality issues, discipline and limit setting behaviors, giving their children more responsibility and being more aware of protection issues). Many of the mothers attributed their increased active parenting style to their own healing and counselling. However, their change in parenting style was also connected to a supportive person in their life, and/or an unsupportive partner no longer in the family. All of the mothers had more than one child and most of them expressed that parenting the second child had been much easier, and displayed a more "positive" and optimistic attitude. The change in parenting style also appeared connected to their increasing confidence in parenting their first child.

Mothers' Perceptions: Effects of Incest on Later Parenting

Mothers in this study unanimously felt that their parenting had been significantly affected by their past incest experience. The strongest negative effects mothers felt that their past abuse had on their parenting included: repeating abusive patterns, (e.g., choosing an abusive partner), feeling they were unable to experience emotional and physical closeness with their daughter, and pervasive anger which carried over into their parenting, and feelings of powerless as a parent. Most of the mothers stated that resolving their abuse helped them become better parents. Some mothers felt that resolving their abuse helped them better communicate with and protect their daughters.

Implications for Professionals

Four general themes emerged from the interviews which highlighted these womens' experiences as survivor-parents: 1) a determination to parent differently and better than their parents; 2) a strong desire for resources and information; 3) a belief that parenting is challenging and difficult, and 4) a belief that parenting is a learned process. This descriptive study only began to highlight the importance of examining the parenting experience of incest survivors. Key issues arising from this research which focus on primary and secondary prevention and intervention are particularly relevant for clinicians working with survivors and their families. These include the following:

1) Specialized Parenting Materials and Programs

Unquestionably, help for these mothers came in the form of counselling, literature, and parenting groups. Most of the women emphasized the importance of gaining information on parenting, including taking parenting courses. While almost every mother in this study had taken at least one parenting course and found it helpful, some mothers felt that they didn't quite fit into "generic" parenting groups. Parenting courses geared to survivors, and survivor-issues would be most helpful to this population. Specialized parenting pamphlets and programs addressing information about transferring feelings to their children, parentification, protection issues and communicating a healthy sense of sexuality to their children, are not generally available to these mothers. These pamphlets would be valuable for professionals in all disciplines who work with victims of incest and their families.

2) Examining of the Social Context of Incest

There is often an assumption that "all mothers know" that child sexual abuse is occurring, and doubt surrounding their ignorance concerning their child's sexual abuse. It was apparent from the study that there were various levels of mother's knowledge of incest before disclosure. The recognition that incest survivor mothers exist within a social context which often includes poverty, family violence, single parenting, lack of resources and supports, and symptoms from their own abuse, speaks to the mother's lessened ability to protect her children from abuse. Incest survivor mothers especially need to be aware of behavioral and emotional indicators of child sexual abuse.

Child welfare workers in particular, need to be aware of the mother's own possible history of incest in the context of her ability to protect her child. Examining the incestuous family system as a whole would produce a more complete picture of the mother's experience as well as the family climate in which she is parenting. Examining the partner's perceptions and experiences parenting with a survivor of incest (primarily focussing on issues of trust), and the daughter's perceptions of being parented (including the parents' monitoring behavior) is also important for couple and family therapy professionals.

3) Early Intervention

The majority of women in this study talked about being emotionally withdrawn from their children or depressed at some point in their life. Most enjoyed parenting more after counselling, and with their subsequent child(ren). At the same time, half of the mothers had daughters who had been sexually abused. Early assessment and intervention with incest survivors (including prenatal assessment) regarding their own parenting experience and their current social environment could assist mothers at early risk in their parenting careers, and possibly lessen the chance of their daughter's sexual abuse.

4) Mother's Awareness of "Normal" Sexual Development

While the mothers in this study wanted to protect their daughters by educating them about respecting their bodies, assertiveness and the normal development of sexual activity, many mothers had received little healthy sexuality education themselves in their past. Consequently, many were concerned about "what" and "how much" sexuality information was appropriate. Education professionals must be cognizant of this when delivering parenting groups.


This preliminary research study represented a first step towards understanding the parenting needs of incest survivor mothers. The sixteen mothers who shared their views demonstrate only some of the diversity and wide range of individual differences in this population. While this research identified many parenting strengths and weaknesses, caution must be applied when it comes to drawing conclusions and widely applying these findings. This study does not attempt to formally draw inferences about the entire population of women who have experienced incest; rather, the main intent of this study was to gain a deeper understanding about parenting from sixteen incest survivors themselves. Further in-depth research is needed in this area to better understand the themes identified, to lend stronger support to the ideas and themes generated from the mothers' interviews, and to help clinicians and parenting professionals recognize the unique effects that being incestuously abused has upon subsequent parenting.