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In our recent preliminary study, non-offending parents’ general distress and history of child sexual abuse was found to be negatively associated with sexually abused preschoolers’ abilities to regulate their emotions (Langevin, Hébert, Allard-Dansereau, & Bernard-Bonnin, in press). In fact, while these parental factors were not associated with positive emotion regulation manifestations (e.g., ability to delay gratification, positive engagement with children and adults), they were more important than the abuse status of the children in predicting emotional dysregulation (e.g., a tendency to get easily frustrated and to have temper tantrums). These results underline the role of non-offending parents in aspects of adaptation following sexual abuse disclosure.

Parents play an important role in sustaining their children’s emotional development (Thompson, 2013). They act as models, as well as sources of comfort and support, and impact development of children’s emotion regulation abilities through their reactions to emotional display. Distressed parents might have more difficulties fulfilling their role in helping their children cope with the emotions induced by the trauma. The same seems to hold true for parents who have been sexually victimized in their childhood. These parents could be displaying emotion regulation difficulties themselves, or be too overwhelmed by their own distress to be optimally supportive to their children.

Psychological treatments for sexually abused children are usually child-centered therapies, and few solicit non-offending parents’ participation. When programs do involve the parent, the focus is on making the parent an ally in his or her child’s treatment. However, our results suggest that if we want to help young sexual abuse victims overcome their trauma and develop positive emotion regulation strategies, it may be relevant to offer services to non-offending parents as well. It is noteworthy to mention that studies reveal that approximately 50% of sexually abused children’s mothers have themselves experienced sexual abuse in childhood (Cyr, McDuff, & Hébert, 2013). In our study, we found that a little over 40% of the non-offending parents reported child sexual abuse, and 50% of non-offending parents presented clinical levels of distress. These findings highlight the need to include a detailed assessment of non-offending parents, including level of distress and past history of child sexual abuse prior to treatment. Based on this initial assessment, clinicians could decide to refer parents to treatment, namely in cases where past resurgence of trauma increases distress. If decreased sensitivity to the child’s affective needs is identified as a result of parental distress, therapists could also decide to include a parent-child attachment based module to their sexual abuse treatment to overcome that issue.

Given the important role of emotion regulation in adaptation and mental health (Gross, 2013; Langevin, Hébert, & Cossette, 2015), and the central role of parents in emotion regulation’s development (Thompson, 2013), offering services to distressed and/or sexually abused parents as an adjunction to sexually abused children’s treatments could be a key factor in fostering resilience among abused preschoolers.

Reference Article:

Langevin R, Hébert M, Allard-Dansereau C, Bernard-Bonnin A-C. Emotion Regulation in Sexually Abused Preschoolers: The Contribution of Parental Factors. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2016:n/a-n/a.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the optimal services that need be offered to non-offending parents following disclosure of sexual abuse by their child? Should an intervention for parents be offered before or concurrently to their child’s treatment?
  2. Are these results specific to preschool-age children or could they be replicated with a school-age or adolescent samples? What are the developmental considerations in the factors predicting emotion regulation in youth?

Author Biographies

Rachel Langevin
has recently obtained her Ph.D. in psychology (clinical and research profile). Her research interests are related to risk and resilience, and developmental trajectories of maltreated children. She is also pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist.

Martine Hébert
is full professor at the department of sexology, UQAM. Her main research interests focus on the diversity of profiles in youth experiencing interpersonal traumas and factors related to resilience pathways.


Cyr, M., McDuff, P., & Hébert, M. (2013). Support and profiles of non-offending mothers of sexually abused children. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse: Research, Treatment, & Program Innovations for Victims, Survivors, & Offenders, 22(2), 209-230. doi: 10.1080/10538712.2013.737444

Gross, J.J. (2013). Handbook of Emotion Regulation (Second ed.). New York, NY: The Gilford Press.
Thompson, R.A. (2013). Socialization of emotion and emotion regulation in the familiy. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of Emotion Regulation (Second ed., pp. 173-186). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.