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Incest & Sexual Abuse–the Oldest Taboos

One of the oldest taboos in the civilized world may be that of incest. The Bible addresses this issue in 2 Samuel 13 with the story of Amnon and Tamar. Amnon was King David’s firstborn son. Tamar was his younger sister for whom he lusted. Amnon devised a plan to fake illness in order get the virgin Tamar to come to his residence to cook for him. He then lured her to his bedroom and raped her. Once finished, his lust turned to hatred. (This may be common in instances of incest, as it absolves the attacker of blame and places it on the victim. It also probably involves some transference of self-hatred as well.) He cast her out and shamed her. The passage says she “remained desolate in her brother Absalom’s home” (NKJV). Interestingly, it says that when David found out what Amnon had done, he was angry, but it doesn’t say that he took any action to provide justice for Tamar. That would have compounded the feelings of betrayal, injustice, and humiliation she must have felt. Several years later, Absalom murdered Amnon for his transgressions.

Approximately 90 percent of sexually abused children know their abuser. Incest is the cruelest betrayal of trust between a child and parent and understandably has emotionally devastating consequences. When an older sibling or relative is involved, it’s just a damaging. Sexually violating children is probably the worst evil most people will ever experience. When people who are supposed to protect you end up violating you, it is thoroughly destructive. Statistically one in three girls and one in six boys will suffer unwanted sexual experiences before the age of eighteen. That number is probably higher, as it is estimated that a high number of people never tell anyone they have been molested. Regardless, those conservative estimates alone translate into about 60 million people in our country having been victims of sexual abuse. Literally, everywhere you go, you will be in contact with someone who has suffered this fate. Look around you. In a room full of women, at least a third of them have been sexually abused as a child. This has to stop. If this is your legacy, you can stop it in your lineage by following some of the steps detailed throughout this book.

It’s estimated that up to 90 percent of all incest victims never tell anyone. Why? Because they are afraid of breaking up the family. Susan Forward and Craig Buck say, “Incest may be frightening, but the thought of being responsible for the destruction of the family is even worse.”

And the damage is even worse if the victim experiences any pleasure from these acts as their shame is magnified. Our bodies are designed to be sexual beings. In addition, it is biologically programmed to respond (often as a form of physical protection) to sexual acts even in cases of non-consent and assault. This causes many victims to feel responsible for the event. Understand, as a child you were always the victim, whether you derived pleasure or not. The adult is always the one to blame in those circumstances.

Additionally, people do not tell anyone because incest abusers are very adept at psychological manipulation and fear-mongering. They use threats and manipulation to keep their victims quiet.

Threats Used by Incest Abusers

Tell and I’ll kill you.

Tell and I’ll kill your parents/siblings/grandparents.

Tell and no one will believe you.

Tell and your mommy will be mad at (or hate) you.

Tell and people will think you are crazy.

Tell and I’ll go to jail and there won’t be anyone to support the family.

Survivors of incest often report feeling worthless, bad, dirty, and damaged. Depression is a common result of incest. Women especially may allow themselves to become overweight as adults. This serves two purposes: (a) she imagines it will keep men away from her, and (b) the body mass creates the illusion of power and strength. Like many victims of abuse, incest survivors frequently self-medicate their pain with drugs and alcohol.[i]

Men who have been sexually abused have a special set of challenges to deal with, as it strikes at the heart of their masculinity. Men are not supposed to be assaulted, vulnerable, dominated, raped, or controlled. They may feel emasculated or that they are destined to be a homosexual.

Men generally find themselves uncomfortable dealing with and expressing emotions. In part, it’s how they’re brought up. Any form of sexual abuse creates intense emotions. Here are some common emotions men feel in these situations:

  • Dehumanized—They feel like they have no value and constantly compare themselves to other men.
  • Shame—They transfer false shame and guilt to themselves.
  • Ambivalent—They can understand the emotion of anger, but not love. During the abuse they were feeling horrified and scared but also aroused. Their mind was saying, “This is not right,” but their body is designed to respond when stimulated.
  • Impotent—A word no man even wants to think about. They believe they have no voice—that no one will listen to them.
  • Disrespected—They don’t feel other men will respect them. That they will make fun of them. That they never measure up. Often they will become very promiscuous in an attempt to prove their masculinity (to themselves and the world).

Understand that incest affects its victims in very subtle and damaging ways. This is another type of abuse that may require very intense counseling in order to heal from. Don’t wait! The longer you put it off, the more difficult it becomes.

[i]Susan Forward, with Craig Buck, Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life (New York,: Bantam Books, 1989


Excerpted from Rick’s newest book, Overcoming Toxic Parenting: How to be a good parent when yours wasn’t, by Revell Publishing.

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Inside the Abusive Family

Our family constitutes our entire reality as a child. It teaches us who we are and how we are supposed to interact with the world. Good families give us the skills and encouragement to interact successfully with the world and other people. They teach us to lead a successful life. Toxic families teach us survival skills that may or may not translate into leading a successful life. Because of this, many abused people make self-defeating choices like believing they can’t trust anybody, that they aren’t worthy of being loved, or that they will never amount to anything. They are programmed to conform to the dysfunctional behaviors of the family. People from abusive families are taught that to be different is bad—they must conform and obey the rules of the family at all costs. To be different is to be a traitor—and being a traitor or turning on the family is high treason in abusive families.

Many families take on role-playing to perpetuate the family system. For instance, if Dad’s role was to drink, Mom’s role was to be codependent, and the children’s roles were then to be the parents in the home. Children from dysfunctional homes often take on specific roles in the family.

Here are some common roles (my three siblings and I fit into these roles pretty clearly):[i]

The Rebel gets into trouble and is known as the “bad boy” or “bad girl.” Their behavior often warrants attention, distracting everyone from the real issues at home. They are also known as the “scapegoat.” They are ashamed of their family life and often the first to get into “recovery.”

The Mascot/Clown uses comedy to ease tension and calm explosive situations. The humor helps a family in pain but is a temporary balm. This child is kind and goodhearted but never seems to grow up.

The Good Girl (or Boy) or Golden Child is dutiful and respectable. They get good grades, don’t make waves, and are often a confidante of a parent. They are fixers of the family but never get their needs met. They can be rigid, judgmental, and controlling. They are very self-sufficient and usually very successful in life but lack emotional intimacy.

The Lost Child becomes invisible. They stay out of the house by escaping into activities, friendships, or sports. They escape from reality but are generally very sad and angry, which they deny and avoid.

How Toxic Parents Cope

Toxic parents react to threats to their balance by acting out their fears and frustrations, with little thought for the consequences to their children. Here are some common coping mechanisms:

  • Denial—Denial that anything is wrong or that it will never happen again. Relabeling is also denial—an alcoholic becomes a “social drinker.”
  • Projection—Abusive parents frequently accuse their children of the very inadequacies they suffer from.
  • Sabotage—In dysfunctional homes, other family members assume the roles of rescuers and caretakers. If any family member begins to change or get healthy, it threatens the balance of the home, and the other members may unconsciously sabotage their chances of success so that things get back to normal.
  • Triangling—One toxic parent may enlist a child as a confidant or ally against the other parent. The child is pressured to choose sides and becomes an emotional dumping ground for their parent’s discomfort.
  • Keeping Secrets—This turns families into private clubs. Children who hide abuse by saying she “fell down the stairs” are protecting the club from outside interference.[ii]

Parents are godlike in their positions in the home. They provide sustenance and shelter, make rules, and dole out pain, whether it’s justified or not. Without parents, children instinctively know they would be unprotected, unfed, and unhoused. They would be in a constant state of terror, unable to survive alone.[iii]

Abusive homes tend to have common characteristics, including the appearance of normalcy, emotional isolation, secrecy, neediness, stress, and lack of respect.

All children have certain rights. They have the right to have basic needs met, such as being fed, clothed, sheltered, and protected. They also have the right to be nurtured emotionally, the right to make mistakes, and the right to be disciplined without being physically or emotionally abused. Unfortunately, these rights are seldom honored in abusive homes.

However, most people (especially abused ones who crave parental nurturing) still have a need to deify their parents—no matter how bad they were. Many victimized people still believe their parent’s behavior was justified: “I guess I probably deserved it” or “Sure I was beaten, but I turned out okay.” Abusive parents have a propensity to deny that any abuse happened or they justify it. Just because inadequate parents “didn’t mean it,” doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt and cause harm. Intentionality is not a prerequisite of abuse. We hear people excuse these parents by saying things like, “they didn’t mean to do any harm” or “they did the best they could.” Too often inadequate parents expect their children to somehow take care of them and meet their needs—tasks children are not capable of fulfilling. I truly didn’t believe that many of the behaviors my parents exhibited were abusive until enough counselors and friends pointed it out or asked if I would ever treat my children that way.

Since many of us either deny we were abused or justify our parent’s behavior, we will look at some specific types of abuse in upcoming posts. It’s hard to break a behavior (and heal a wound) if we are not aware of it or refuse to acknowledge it.

[i]Lisa A. Miles, “Early Wounding & Dysfunctional Family Roles,” World of Psychology, PsycheCentral, August 8, 2013, http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/08/10/early-wounding-dysfunctional-family-roles/.

[ii] Forward with Buck, Toxic Parents, 169–70.

[iii]Ibid., 15.


Excerpted from Rick’s newest book, Overcoming Toxic Parenting: How to be a good parent when yours wasn’t, by Revell Publishing.  To find out more or to get a signed copy, click here.

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10 Tips for Better Dads

Niels Bohr said, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.” If that quotation is true, I must be getting pretty close to being an expert father by now. Hopefully though, I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made. The mark of a good leader and a good father is just that—the ability to learn from mistakes. The man who doesn’t is doomed to repeat them over and over again. The following areas are some tips about fathering that I’ve discovered over the years. I list these not because I’ve perfected these areas, but because I finally recognize them for how important they really are.

Tip #1 – Emphasize Strengths not Weaknesses
As a father I have a tendency to focus on the things my children do wrong instead of the things they do right. But as a coach I tell my players to focus on their strengths not their weaknesses. Help find your son’s and daughter’s strengths–their gifts from God. Focus on those instead of being overly critical of their weaknesses.

Tip #2 – Give Plenty of Physical Affection
As men we are raised to be uncomfortable with too much affection from another male—especially the physical kind. It’s interesting that we compensate for that by knocking each other all around the football field, wrestling mat, or boxing ring. For some reason we think it’s okay to slap another man on the butt during the heat of athletic competition, but we’re uncomfortable hugging one another in greeting. As physical as the male animal is, you’d think we would be more comfortable expressing physical affection. But I think it must be a social taboo ingrained into our unconsciousness at an early age. Hug and kiss your kids—even your son. Give them plenty of physical love. Even as they get older, continue to show them physical affection.

Tip #3 – Give Them Your Time
It’s almost a cliché to quote the song by Harry Chapin, “Cats in the Cradle,” to illustrate the consequences of a father being too absorbed in his work when his son is young. The reality is that most of us men are given the vision that in order to be a success in life we must be successful in our work—that our career is more important than anything else in life. Oh, we give lip service to the importance of our families, but our actions often speak louder than our words. Time is the most valuable, and the most limited, resource we have to give to our children. Your kids need your time more than they need your money—just ask any fatherless child.

Tip # 4 – Heart over Performance
Too often, I have a tendency to judge my children’s efforts by their performance. The reality is that an individual can do his personal best in an area in which he is not gifted, and still fall short of average performance. Likewise, a person can be gifted and do well in an area while applying very little effort. Which scenario should they be applauded most for?

Tip # 5 – Have Fun
It’s so easy to get caught up in the complexities and stresses of everyday life. This is especially true for those who take responsibilities seriously. But part of a dad’s charm is his ability to have fun. Let yourself go and remember the all the goofy things that make life worth living. Have fun with your children while they’re still little. Take some time to just goof-off. There will be plenty of time to be serious and somber. One of the things kids appreciate most about their fathers is his sense of humor. When Dad has life under control, he values the humorous side of life and shows it to his kids.

Tip # 6 – Don’t Fear Failure
I spent much of my life avoiding anything I wasn’t perfect at because I was afraid to fail. This has caused me to have a number of regrets. The regrets I have in life are mostly of things I didn’t do–not what I did do. Oh, I regret some things I’ve done over the years (I’ve done many things I’m not proud of), but I don’t regret my sins of commission like I do my sins of omission. Missed opportunities, an apathetic attitude, and not seeking significance were all choices I made which I regret deeply. I was raised to believe that failure was the worst thing of all. But it’s not. I’ve come to understand that true failure is never reaching out to attempt something great, to try and reach your full potential. You only fail when you don’t try. I regret all the times I was impatient with my children and never gave them the attention they deserved. I’ve told my son many times that I needed him to know that whatever mistakes I made as a dad–and I made many–those mistakes were my problem; they were never anything to do with him. He deserved more love and better fathering than I was capable of giving him.

Tip # 7 – Understand Your Power
Several years ago, during a rare bout of brutal self-honesty, I discovered that I treated my employees better than I did my wife and children. I heard myself saying things to my family I would never say to my employees. If another man had made those kinds of statements to my wife or kids, I would have physically confronted him. Why did I feel free to verbally wound those I treasure more than anything else in the world with words that I would never dream of saying to a stranger? God has given us men great power that can be used for good or evil. Just look around at some of the problems men have created in other peoples’ lives. Then look at some of the great things men have accomplished to benefit others. It’s an awesome power. But with that comes the need to understand it and use it responsibly. Former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammerskjöld said, “Only he deserves power who every day justifies it.”

Tip # 8 – Develop Friendships
Most men in our country have acquaintances, but no real friends. The pressures and time constraints of work and supporting a family often take away the opportunity to build masculine relationships. But to be the best father possible, you need other men in your life to hold you accountable and to lift you up during difficult times. Another man’s experiences are invaluable when we try to navigate some of the uncharted waters of fathering.
Isolation is death to a man’s character. Perhaps that’s why our culture, seemingly bent on the destruction of positive masculinity, continues to promote the rugged individualist as the model for men to look up to. The Marlboro Man, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, and James Bond—our celluloid heroes—never needed any help from other men. They just sucked it up and overcame whatever problems popped up. Then they rode off into the sunset by themselves.
But real men need other men. We need the accountability, comradeship, support, and yes, gasp, help, that other men can provide.

Tip #9 – Be Consistent
Being consistent is one of the strongest traits a man can bring to fathering. Kids rely on you to be consistent in your responses no matter the circumstances. They rely on you being dependable, a rock in the face of adversity. When life throws a curve ball, they need Dad to be there to tell them it’s okay. Think about how scared you would be if the leader you were following–maybe someone you thought was strong or even invincible–were to suddenly become very frightened or to exhibit erratic, out-of-control behavior during a stressful situation. Would you want to follow that person again? I wouldn’t. Your emotional stability, especially in stressful situations, provides your kids with the security they need in order to grow into a healthy man or woman. You can’t keep stressful situations from happening, but you can control how you react to them. Teach your kids that a man keeps his head while others around him lose theirs.

Tip #10 – Overcome Complacency & Passivity
In the movie Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist during World War II. In an effort to capitalize on the war he acquired a factory in Poland which he ran with the cheapest labor around—Jewish labor.
At first he seemed like every other greedy German industrialist, driven by profit and unmoved by the means of his profiteering. But somewhere along the line, something changed. He succeeded in his quest for riches, but by the end of the war he had spent everything he made on keeping 1,100 Jewish men and women alive. He literally bought their lives by having them work in his factory.
In a powerful scene at the end of the movie, with Allied forces bearing down, Schindler said goodbye to the many Jewish factory workers he had saved. The workers had previously removed some of their gold-filled teeth to create a ring for Schindler. Inside the ring they engraved an old Hebrew proverb, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
As they gave him the ring in gratitude, Schindler fell to his knees and began sobbing in remorse. He deeply regretted that he had not done more to save additional lives. Even when the workers tried to console him that he had done so much more than anyone else, he cried out in agony over regret at his complacency. “I could have got more out. If I’d just…I didn’t do enough,” he sobbed. “I could have gotten one more person—and I didn’t…I didn’t!”
Shindler, while certainly not as complacent as many of us, realized too late that he could have done so much more. He regretted it dearly. And while others did not blame him, he knew in his heart that he could have done more.
When my time comes I do not want to be a man on my knees before God with my face in my hands sobbing with regret over the fact that I did not use the gifts that God gave me to make a difference in other people’s lives—especially my own children’s. I don’t want those regrets and I don’t want you to have those regrets either. Use the power God has given you to make a difference in the world—before it’s too late. Your kids will be proud of you for it!