Abusive situations in families do not happen in isolation. It is neither bad luck, nor is it the fault of the victim of abuse. Abuse happens within a culture of abuse. That is, there is something that is handed down over the generations that encourages those who abuse and allow those around the abuser to ignore what is happening. While the abuser is certainly responsible for his/her actions, there are other family members who are complicit by their passivity or inability to recognize the signs. Now that society is finally recognizing the prevalence and importance of this issue, families have to take some responsibility and not merely leave it up to the victim to get help.

What do I mean about a “culture of abuse”. Abuse flourishes in a family where the parents themselves grew up in an abusive household. For example, more times than not, when an adult survivor of sexual abuse comes to see me, it comes to light that either or even both parents may have experienced sexual abuse when they were growing up. That is even the case when the abuser is a sibling and not a parent, grandparent or uncle/aunt. If not directly, then they were probably in a household where abuse occurred. Therefore, they have been hiding their own secret and easily fall into denial about what is occurring now.

Even when parents do notice, and do take action, the family must look at not only what happened, by why it happened. If an adult is the abuser, that adult must be held accountable. While we try and understand how it could have happened, we help the victim to heal. And everyone else in the family – to a much lesser degree - is a victim as well. That is, if we all acknowledge our part, then we can also see that everyone has been adversely affected by what has happened.

This is much clearer when the abuser is a sibling. It is much clearer because it is much harder for parents to know how to correctly deal with sibling abuse. They feel that they have to make a choice, if they reach out to the victim; they have to condemn their other child. It can feel like a “Sophie’s Choice”, save one child, lose the other. But that shouldn’t be the case. Both children need to be helped. The abuser is crying out for help even if he/she knows does not know it. Whether it is sexual, physical or emotional abuse, the abuse is a symptom of something else. What the parents might not want to look at is the fact that it may be a symptom of an overall abusive or neglectful environment. No one is trying to turn the parents into villains. But if they won’t look at themselves, they are, at the very least, not being good parents.

What about when it’s a parent or grandparent who is the abuser? Does the family have to cut off from that adult? Perhaps. But by doing nothing, you are siding with the abuser against your own child or grandchild. Unfortunately, many adults unconsciously make that decision because they either don’t want to break up a marriage or they don’t want to lose a parent or a brother/sister. There is no easy answer. And it would be cavalier to say that no matter what; you have to protect your child. But in my world, no matter what, you have to protect your child.

Author's Bio: 

West Los Angeles based psychotherapist specialized in treating sexual abuse, emotional abuse, trauma & relationship/communication issues.