The mother-daughter relationship as a moderator of long-term effects of child sexual abuse

Date

1988

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Abstract

While difficulties in intimate heterosexual relationships are reported -frequently by women in therapy with a history o-f child sexual abuse, there is little systematic research on the specific nature of this long-term effect. Similarly, clinicians have often emphasized the important role of the mother in the victim's adjustment, but few studies have examined differential consequences of sexual abuse as a function of the mother-daughter relationship and the mother's response to the abuse. In this study, 73 women (ages 22-50) with a history of child sexual abuse by an adult man completed questionnaires on their current relationships with men, on the quality of relationships with their mothers in their families of origin, and on the nature of their mothers' reactions to the abuse. Their responses were compared statistically with those of 63 same-aged women without a history of sexual abuse. The study found that sexually abused women reported significantly lower levels of trust in their male partners than did nonabused women (p's < .0005) and fewer experiences of emotional and sexual intimacy (p's < .0005). Also, sexually abused women differed from nonabused women in perceptions of their childhood relationships with their mothers, reporting lower levels of maternal care <p < .001) and higher levels of maternal overprotection/psychological control (p < .005). In regression analyses, the occurrence of childhood sexual abuse and the level of perceived maternal care were both important factors in the prediction of intimacy and trust in adulthood. Additional regression analyses were conducted within the abused sample to examine differences between cases of incestuous and nonincestuous child sexual abuse. Contrary to prediction, no effects of perpetrator were discovered to account for the range of adjustment exhibited by abuse victims in intimacy and trust. However, other aspects of the abuse experience, especially victim's perceptions of their mothers' response to the abuse, were significant predictors of trust and intimacy problems. A regression model which included the variables of duration, abuse by multiple perpetrators, time when mother knew of the abuse, whether mother believed her daughter, and emotional quality of mother's response accounted for 26.87. to 31.57. of the variance in trust, emotional, and sexual intimacy. The mother response variables were more predictive of trust and intimacy than were characteristics of the abuse. The findings are discussed in terms of the greater risk for adult interpersonal problems among sexually abused girls who lack a supportive relationship with their mothers. Promoting the differentiation of types of intimacy (e.g., emotional vs sexual) and of past and present relationships is recommended for treatment efforts.

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Keywords

Women, Psychology, Sexually abused children, Mothers and daughters, Intimacy (Psychology), Interpersonal relations

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