How do I help my daughter?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

When our son was 14, my husband caught him inappropriately touching his 9 year old sister in the pool. My husband held our son’s head under water until he trashed for air. Our daughter witnessed this. Our son was told that if he EVER touched his sister again, his father would drown him.

I was beside myself when I found out and wanted to take our son to a psychiatrist, but my husband (who has since died) told me that boys are naturally curious about girls and that he knew somthing like that would never happen again. I believed him.
Fast-forward twenty years.

Following her father’s death, my daughter confided in me that her brother had continued to abuse her until he was 17. He would put a plastic bag over his head and threaten to suffocate himself if she didn’t allow him to touch her.

When my husband and I used to go out and leave the kids (now in their teens) alone, she would beg us not to leave her with our son, but she never told us why, only that they would fight and he would ‘pick on her.” Now that I know what really went on, I feel like I have failed her as a mother. What I thought was the usual sibling drama turned out to be a horrible nightmare for my child. I cannot believe that we were so blind to this.

My daughter had herself admitted to a hospital for three months due to suicidal thoughts and is still working with a therapist. She continues to cut herself, and all of the psychologists who have worked with her believe there is still an incident that she is repressing. She swears that she can’t remember it, but she is terrified (her words) of being hypotized.

I am angry with my son. I want to call him and confront him. My daughter forbids me to do so, but she refuses to do it herself. She no longer wishes to speak to her brother. Since she made this decisiion within the past two years, he doesn’t have a clue why she no longer wants to have any contact with him or her nieces and nephew.

He and his wife have three children, two of which are girls (5 and 14). Are those girls in any danger of being abused by their father or their brother (who is five-years older than his younger sister)?

What can I do to help my daughter? I love both of my children, but I am so angry with my son that I can hardly bear communicating with him. What should I do?

A: What a tragic situation! Your husband’s actions may have caused your son to develop a paraphilia called erotic asphyxia. Sexual arousal is heightened by cutting off oxygen to the brain. It’s a dangerous practice because people sometimes wait too long to give themselves air and then suffocate. Some teens stop doing this when they realize the risks. Others don’t and develop a lifelong compulsion.

I hesitate to comment on the counselors’ approach with your daughter since I know so little about the case. Generally, however, I don’t think it’s important that abuse survivors remember every incident in order to heal. Further, hypnosis sometimes yields “false positives.” To my thinking, your daughter remembers quite enough. She knows she both witnessed abuse and was herself abused and scared. She is getting support for her feelings and, hopefully, she is learning to manage them so she no longer hurts herself.

What complicates an already painful situation is that your daughter isn’t the only victim. It’s important to remember that you and your son are victims too. Your husband’s idea of discipline was to make your son believe he was drowning and to threaten more of the same. You are also a victim of that incident. You are feeling terrible that you didn’t see what was going on at the time and now feel torn between the two adult children you love.

For these reasons, I think this is a family case. I think it would help all three of you to see a family therapist to help you acknowledge the pain of that chapter in your lives and to have a place to work through the feelings of anger, guilt, betrayal, and fear that now get in the way of your relationships with each other. My guess is that you all have unresolved feelings about your husband/their father as well.

As for whether your son’s children are at risk: The only way to know is to ask your son. Sometimes abused kids work extra hard to be sure that their own children never suffer as they did. Sadly, others repeat what was done to them, partly because normalizing the behavior of the abuser is the way they make some kind of sense about what happened to them. This is yet another issue that could be addressed in family therapy.

Your daughter’s counselors, of course, have had the opportunity to get to know your daughter. I’m limited to the information I have in your letter. I therefore encourage you and your daughter to talk with her counselors about what they think about expanding her treatment to include some family work.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Sep 2009

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2009). How do I help my daughter?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2009/09/08/how-do-i-help-my-daughter/