Child Sexual Abuse and Narcissism
Blaming the victim expands the trauma.
Posted Mar 25, 2011
Narcissism is a serious disorder that has far reaching effects. Our obligation to understand demands informed awareness. Having placed a focus on trauma, my professional work includes treating both parental narcissism and child sexual abuse. Is there a connection? What an understatement!
Let me be clear: Of course all narcissists are not sex offenders, but child sex offenders display narcissism in its most destructive form.
When treating adult children of narcissistic parents, I have observed a major factor that releases shame and turns the corner for the advance of recovery. That factor is realizing that the narcissistic parent has a serious disorder. And that this disorder is not the fault of the child. The child understandably internalizes that it must be their fault or they would be loved and treasured. In recovery, the adult understands that the parental behavior was not about them at all, but about the limitations of the parent. This huge relief is the precursor for healing work to begin. For adult children of narcissistic parents, realizing that the parent truly cannot love unconditionally or express empathy in a genuine manner is difficult and painful. But it is also the expressway to freedom. It's the understanding that the parent may have a bike, but no legs to ride it. Or the parent sees the rainbow, but is colorblind. Limitations are limitations.
In the five-step recovery model developed in my work for adult children of narcissistic parents, this level of acceptance is the first and foremost step to moving ahead. Given the need of the small child to depend on the parent for their physical and emotional survival, denial of the parental disorder is a needed defense mechanism in childhood. To do otherwise is terrifying for the child. In recovery, however, it must be embraced and exposed.
When treating victims of child sexual abuse the initial focus is exactly the same. My experience has shown that even after years of therapy with assurance that the sexual abuse was not their fault, the victim continues to carry the shame. Somehow the child feels they must have caused this behavior in the parent: "But, I did get extra attention." "I was the favored child." "I did accept the gifts." "Sometimes the touching felt good so I must have liked it." "I want to love this parent, so if I believe it is my fault, I can still hope for genuine love."
But, enter the profile of a sex offender...the ultimate narcissist. Whose needs are more important? Does that offender think of the child and what that child needs? Are the child's needs put above their own? Is the offender aware of the life-long devastating effects on the child? Do they consider the fact that self-esteem, trust, and healthy sexuality will be a lifelong struggle? And that the child is at risk to carry the shame forever? Do they care? No. Now, add the child's burden of keeping a secret that is embedded by the sex offender's manipulation and grooming. And pile on a culture that sadly encourages this denial.
The sex offender is concerned about his or her own desperate needs. Sexual gratification is met at the expense of the child. The child is an object to be used. That child has no voice, is manipulated, and controlled. Because child sexual abuse is weirdly done with affection, the attention is disingenuous. So, how would the child know? It is not what it appears to be, similar to other kinds of narcissistic parenting.
Is it any wonder that victims of child sexual abuse, and children raised by other kinds of narcissistic parents, grow up with shame, confusion, self-blame, and feeling that it must be their fault? That they report there must be something wrong with them? With the alarming statistics that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they reach age 18, we must agree that denial of such an insidious and shattering problem is a monumental societal illness.
The cornerstone of narcissism is lack of empathy. Narcissists do not see or realize the impact their behavior has on others. They do not step into someone else's shoes. They see their own needs. Their sense of entitlement is paramount. This is why you hear mental health professionals say that sex offenders are difficult to treat and that full-blown narcissists are treatment failures. Narcissists typically blame the victim. They see it as someone else's problem.
Who says that the "get over it already" belief system works? It doesn't. Without treatment for adult children of narcissistic parents or children of sexual abuse, the trauma if not released is carried. It is worn like a heavy wool coat that suffocates and creates destructive life patterns. Sometimes those patterns include acting out the very trauma that they themselves experienced. Many sex offenders were themselves victims of child sexual abuse. Many narcissistic parents today had narcissistic parents themselves.
So, what makes the difference? How can we stop it and have the greatest influence for a healthier culture? How can we stop hurting children? The answer lies in accountability, awareness, education, and, ultimately, strong recovery programs. We could stay in denial: Keeping big white elephants in pretty external living rooms is easier in the short run. But in the long run, that elephant grows and begins to take up emotional space and energy. This ultimately consumes individuals, families, and, eventually, cultures. Knowing that it is okay and profoundly important to speak out and embrace the unspeakable is the first courageous step. Recovery is a huge blessing for all. William Shakespeare, in Sonnet 116, writes, "Love...is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests, and is never shaken." The violent storms caused by elephants in living rooms need to be stilled and calmed. How do we do that? We talk about it. There's predictably a frightening stir when that elephant is released, but the aftermath of trauma understood and processed is a state of tranquility understood only by the courageous and brave.