Many readers were concerned that I had not addressed the legal issues involved in this problem, so we have added that advice in this update.
I recently learned that approximately 20 years ago, my daughter (about 8 at the time) was molested by my son (early teens at the time). He threatened to kill her if she ever told. Those threats continued for the next 5-6 years until he left home. He had been engaged in various behaviors where he threatened her life if she ever divulged them to us. She has been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder as a result. My son is unaware that we know all of these things. She is still concerned for her safety, even though I doubt he would inflict physical harm at this time since he’s married with children of his own. My daughter can no longer be at family gatherings where my son is, as it’s too stressful. Additionally, her doctor recommended she avoid any contact with him. I’d really love some direction on how to proceed to remedy the issue.
I can only imagine the shock you must feel upon learning of the terrible abuse inflicted on your daughter by your son throughout her childhood. Even though your children are all grown and out of your home, you aren’t powerless to influence and bless their lives in the aftermath of abuse.
If you haven’t already, let her know how courageous she is for breaking the silence about her abuse. Thank her for trusting you with her painful story and reassure her that you won’t say anything without her permission. She needs to know that you will protect her, as she likely doesn’t trust anyone.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious condition which must be handled with great care and concern for the one injured. It’s no surprise to me that your daughter is still afraid for her physical safety after enduring years of threats to her life if she spoke the truth about her situation. I’m sure you feel her fear and want to proceed carefully so you don’t cause her any unintentional harm.
While this puts you in a difficult position knowing this information about your children, your discomfort is secondary to making sure your daughter has a safe place to begin her healing. Your willingness to suffer with her and move at her pace will be a great source of strength to her. Attending family events may or may not be something she’ll do for a while. That’s not the priority right now. Restoring her trust in family relationships and regaining her voice are much more significant needs. Victims of abuse, especially incest, have their voices taken away and learn that what they want doesn’t matter. You can show her that she has a voice and you will take her concerns and wishes seriously.
I recommend you do not plan or initiate any family gatherings until there has been adequate healing for your daughter and accountability for your son. One way you can protect your daughter is to not put her in situations where she feels pressure to be around her brother.
I encourage you to continue inviting her to talk with you about her experience. Most abuse survivors aren’t believed by those they tell. It’s human nature to deny things that are painful and shocking, so it’s critical that you give her the reassurance that you believe her and want to be there for her. You might even ask her if you can join her in her counseling to better learn how you can support her. She had to endure this alone as a child due to the threats of physical harm, but she now has the opportunity to heal with the caring support of her mother.
Even though you will pace things to her level of safety, when the time is right, you might have opportunities to help her cast off the shackles of threat and fear she’s felt for the past two decades. I love the counsel Elder Richard G. Scott shared in the April 1992 General Conference:
“Know that the wicked choice of others cannot completely destroy your agency unless you permit it. Their acts may cause pain, anguish, even physical harm, but they cannot destroy your eternal possibilities in this brief but crucial life on earth. You must understand that you are free to determine to overcome the harmful results of abuse. Your attitude can control the change for good in your life. It allows you to have the help the Lord intends you to receive. No one can take away your ultimate opportunities when you understand and live eternal law. The laws of your Heavenly Father and the atonement of the Lord have made it possible that you will not be robbed of the opportunities which come to the children of God. You may feel threatened by one who is in a position of power or control over you. You may feel trapped and see no escape. Please believe that your Heavenly Father does not want you to be held captive by unrighteous influence, by threats of reprisal, or by fear of repercussion to the family member who abuses you. Trust that the Lord will lead you to a solution. Ask in faith, nothing doubting.”
Elder James E. Faust also taught that we need not be paralyzed with fear, for Satan is a coward and, “if we stand firm, he will retreat”[i] In time, your daughter will hopefully learn that she doesn’t have to be afraid anymore. With proper treatment for PTSD, she can learn that she has a voice and can protect herself. There are many empirically validated methods for treating PTSD, so offer to help her find treatment that will help her heal the impact to her body and emotions.
You may be wondering what to do with your son. First, your state law may require you to report your son for the abuse he inflicted on your daughter as well as the potential threat he is to his own children. It’s important that you contact Child Protective Services, law enforcement, and an attorney to fully understand your legal obligations to report his actions. Also, make sure you discuss this with your bishop, as he can contact the LDS Church abuse hotline for legal counsel specific to your area. What your son did is criminal behavior and needs to be investigated. It will be important that your daughter knows you are willing to face this without minimizing the seriousness of his actions in your home.
I hear the concern that your daughter doesn’t want him to know she’s opened up about the abuse. However, due to the seriousness of his past behaviors, threats to her life, and the fact that some of these behaviors likely continued after he was age 18, this is something that requires action.
This is your chance to protect her and give him a chance to heal from what he’s done. This family cannot continue to be held hostage by his threats. Again, work closely with a competent team of child welfare, legal, and counseling professionals to help you proceed with this very difficult and sensitive situation.
Finally, please know you don’t have to live with fear, despite the overwhelming distress you must be feeling for your children. You can be guided to know what to do and what not to do. President Boyd K. Packer taught this important truth when he stated, “We need not live in fear of the future. We have every reason to rejoice and little reason to fear. If we follow the promptings of the Spirit, we will be safe, whatever the future holds. We will be shown what to do.”[ii]
Thanks to Jeff Ford, MS, LMFT, for his feedback on this article
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children. You can connect with him at: