Dear Newsweek, I was sexually molested by one of my brothers when I was 7. I didn’t tell anyone then since I couldn’t understand what was happening. When I was an adult, I learned that there are lasting negative effects on victims, but I sublimated the pain for the peace of the family.
A recent conflict with that brother (unrelated to the abuse) unsealed the buried pain that made me so angry, I cannot be around him anymore. I also blame my other siblings for not saving me as a child, even if that seems unreasonable.
There’s a family reunion scheduled for Memorial Day weekend that I will not be attending due to this recent emotional rollercoaster. How do I tell everyone without upsetting the whole family by spilling my secret?
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You Don’t Owe Your Family an Explanation
Jonathan Marko is a principal attorney and the founder of Detroit-based Marko Law. He represented dozens of people who said they were sexually abused by former sports doctor Robert Anderson during his four-decade tenure at the University of Michigan.
Sexual abuse and trauma can have lifelong negative effects on the victim, and your story is like so many others that I hear from my clients who are struggling with the aftermath of sexual abuse. Victims often feel shame or that they did something wrong and have to carry the “secret” of abuse with them through their lives. Feelings of resentment and betrayal against the perpetrator and others are common as well. The trauma can interfere with a victim’s relationships with others, especially family and those involved.
Your situation is particularly difficult because the perpetrator of the abuse is a member of your family who you still have to see and interact with. Understandably, this creates a complicated family dynamic.
First and foremost, you should make sure that you are getting appropriate mental health support for what you are going through. There are many therapists and mental health providers who specialize in helping victims of sexual trauma. I encourage you to find one to help you work through these issues as you are still dealing with the pain of what happened. Treatment can help you understand, cope with, and try to heal from the trauma you suffered. You shouldn’t have to deal with this alone.
With regards to the Memorial Day weekend family event, you don’t owe a lengthy explanation to your entire family about the reasons why you cannot attend. Simply communicate that you would like to attend but are unable to right now and you hope to see them at another event soon. Then you can work with a mental health professional to determine whether you will disclose the abuse in the future, who you will disclose it to, and how.
Tell One Person First, Telling Everyone At Once Might Be Overwhelming
Tia Kim, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, the lead spokesperson for the Hot Chocolate Talk child sexual abuse prevention campaign, and vice president of education, research, and impact at Committee for Children, creators of the Second Step Child Protection Unit.
What you’ve been through is incredibly difficult. I want you to know that I believe you and it’s not your fault. You should never have had to experience child sexual abuse and carry that weight by yourself. You’re right: child sexual abuse can contribute to mental health, behavioral, and interpersonal issues in adulthood. So what you’re feeling right now is a completely normal response to trauma.
If you’re ready to tell your family about the abuse, I’d recommend starting with one person. Telling everyone at once might be an overwhelming experience and bring up additional traumas. Instead, find one family member you really trust and tell them why you won’t be attending the family reunion. When you tell this person about what you experienced as a child and your recent conflict with your brother, it will be incredibly important for that person to stay calm, believe you, support your decision not to attend the reunion, and support your healing journey going forward. Consider whether there are any confidants within your family who have these qualities as well as strong social-emotional skills like being compassionate, managing their emotions, and communicating empathetically. Then, set some time aside to have a heart-to-heart.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d also encourage you to seek resources to help you heal. Contacting a mental health professional, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center may be good places to start. If your family would like to learn more about how they can help prevent child sexual abuse in the future, there are free, research-based resources available at HotChocolateTalk.org.
Anyone seeking help should call The National Domestic Violence Hotline, a free and confidential hotline available 24/7 that can be reached on 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224. The Hotline also provides information on local resources. For more information visit