1. She may react poorly to being asked.
Let us first acknowledge that if a woman hasn’t disclosed a history of abuse to you, there is probably a reason. Maybe a conscious reason (such as her partner doesn’t know). Maybe an unconscious reason (such as one of her childhood coping mechanisms was to block out what was happening to her, and she doesn’t remember enough to tell you anything). Or maybe she simply hopes that her journey as a mom won’t be marred by her history, and therefore doesn’t want to bring it up. Any of these (or a multitude of other) reasons are incredibly valid explanations for why a woman might not disclose a history of abuse. And if she hasn’t disclosed, putting her on the spot by asking such a private question could lead her to feel ashamed, defensive, or withdrawn.
2. You should instead “hear the music behind the words.
”My training as a From Trauma to Triumph: When Survivors Give Birth facilitator was with Penny Simkin, PT and Phyllis Klaus, MFT, co-authors of the book When Survivors Give Birth. Phyllis loved the phrase “hearing the music behind the words”. It means that if we’re paying attention, we don’t need a disclosure in order to be truly sensitive and helpful. So, given that as many as one in three women is a childhood sexual abuse survivor, you should at least consider the possibility that your client is a survivor. And you should use that possibility to provide the best care to every one of your clients, regardless of whether there is a confirmed history of abuse.
3. What if she says “no?”
You can imagine how this might go: You suspect your client has a history of abuse, you ask, and she denies it. You have now not only risked her reacting poorly to being asked, as mentioned above, but potentially even caused discord in your relationship. You might start to question your own judgment or second guess whether she is being honest, and the minute we start questioning ourselves or our clients we shatter a part of our relationship. It is her right to keep that information private, if she chooses.
In addition, some survivor clients do not consciously choose to keep anything from us. Sometimes a woman’s memories of abuse get buried so deep that she may not actually remember that she was abused, or certainly may not remember some of the details. In this case, when your client says “no,” she is being as honest as possible.
4. Trust issues.
The final reason not to ask a client about a history of childhood sexual abuse is you risk breaking trust. Many survivors have difficulty establishing trusting relationships, especially if their perpetrator was someone they trusted. Trust yourself. Trust your client. If and when they are comfortable and ready, they will disclose their history to you. And at that point the disclosure actually has the ability to build trust, rather than strip it away.
My hope is that you will now (re)consider whether to ask your clients about a history of childhood sexual abuse. As you continue to build a relationship with your client, allow the trust to build as well. If she is a survivor, allow her to be the one in control, allow her to find her voice if and when it feels right, and ultimately allow her to have a repatterning experience that begins with you.
Learn more about working with pregnant, birthing, and postpartum trauma survivors (including birth trauma survivors), please click here for information on my next local From Trauma to Triumph: When Survivors Give Birth training. The training will be May 14th & 15th in Denver. Early bird registration is available until February 15th, so don’t delay!
As a certified From Trauma to Triumph trainer, she helps professionals learn how to work more easily and effectively with survivors during this transformative time in their lives.
She loves serving clients and training other professionals, and also strives to find her own work/life balance as a wife and mother to two beautiful children.
For more information on Selena and her work, please visit: www.selenashelley.com.
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