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Seeing a Parent Undressed or Being Seen Undressed: When is This Abuse?

by Brittany Ann on October 21, 2011

I want to make note that what I’m writing about here may be controversial, and therefore acknowledge that the culture a child lives in could have influence in this topic.

If you research types of sexual abuse, you will see that one type of abuse is a family member exposing themselves to a child. You will also see there’s a type where a child is watched in the state of undress. I’m writing about this as it happens within families since my experiences of it are within that environment. When does seeing a parent or a parent watching a child in undress become abuse?

Seeing my parents in a state of undress happened frequently around my house as a young child, and throughout some of my teenage years. Before I was able to vocalize that I am a survivor of Mother-Daughter sexual abuse, I had to feel extensive validation on a few things. One of those things that I needed validation for was the concrete fact that exposure and feeling exposed can be abuse.

I felt as an adult that perhaps I was “making too much out of nothing.” I realized that in some cultures in the world, a fair amount of undress is a way of life. I knew I had to do some research about these cultures. I then knew that what qualifies undress as abuse is when the child feels uncomfortable, exposed, and feels they are witnessing a sexualization of their parent.

As I am raising my daughter, I am re-visiting what I feel is acceptable undress to include anyone who might watch her. I have seen things I do not agree with. I have heard parents advocate for showing or allowing undress at what I feel are inappropriate ages on the basis of “teaching there is no shame for one’s body.” I wonder if they pay attention for clues that the child may feel uncomfortable. I believe that this is a fine line they are walking. I’d much rather be safe than sorry.

I don’t take my child into the bathroom with me. I don’t undress in front of my child. Many people do these things to keep from inconveniencing themselves. I have found so far in parenting that a good distraction for the child will give a parent a moment to tend to being in the bathroom or changing clothing. I do not feel like I am sending a message to my daughter that her body is shameful. I feel like I am teaching her that privacy is standard, and when she is older, that privacy allows personal time for herself.

I knew that my mother touching herself in front of me was wrong. I knew that my mother and father taking showers with me when I was uncomfortable was wrong. I didn’t always know that I have validation that a parent exposing herself around the house as I was maturing and pondering sexuality was wrong of her. I attributed it to there being something “wrong” with me. I thought that perhaps I was perverting a situation. I now know that I wasn’t perverting a situation. It was her responsibility to consider how uncomfortable I was feeling and to teach boundaries.

If you are feeling invalidated on your feelings about being uncomfortable or feeling violated by exposure or being exposed, that is acceptable. It was your parent’s responsibility to pay attention to these cues and to teach and model privacy. Exposure at an age where you are forced to face the sexuality of your parents is abusive, and you know that if you’ve struggled with it feeling wrong to you.

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8 Comments
  1. Vau permalink

    You have no idea how relieved I am to read this blog. I have felt for many years that I was making something out of nothing. In the past year since I have concluded it was indeed abuse that I experienced, I have still struggled with severe self-doubt over what I am remembering. So for that I thank-you.

    • Hey Vau,

      Thanks for your kind words. I know where you’re coming from. I have read a few blogs and certainly a lot of articles that have helped with validation.

      I’m glad that you were able to validate yourself with the conclusion that you have experienced abuse. If this post reaches out to you and the acts felt shameful and wrong to you, that is most certainly abusive.

      I’ve struggled with self-doubt as well. I very much appreciate your comment and the comments I receive here as it helps me just as well.

      Take good care,
      Brittany

  2. Thank you for this post. I recently posted about the exposure I have delt with and it does create a sexually violated feeling. This is a new feeling for me and I am struggling with it very much. It is so hurtful and wrong.

    • Hey Sandy,

      Thank you for your kind words. You are absolutely right that when exposure creates that violated feeling, it is just that. It is abuse. Speaking as a parent in reference to our parents and families, there is no way that a guardian could not pick up the sense that the child feels uncomfortable and shamed.

      Some parents seem to believe that exposing a child during punishments is an element of the punishment. They realize it will cause shame, yet do it anyways. Causing a child shame is an element of abuse. Why would a parent want their child to feel exposed and ashamed? It’s abusive. I hope to cover a bit more of exposure as parents allow it for punishment in a future post.

      There are just many ways that exposure becomes abuse.

      I hope to pop over to your site soon! Many healing thoughts to you as you are feeling these difficult emotions. You aren’t alone.

      Take good care,
      Brittany

  3. Shelia (Sunflowermomma3) permalink

    Thank you for this! I have often thought I was making something out of nothing. My mom would also sit around topless in front of my children and was offended when I requested that she cover up in front of them. My children do not see me undressed and I provide them with their privacy as well. I may be a little more cautious about it because of my exposure and abuse but I feel that privacy is very important and helps to maintain boundaries. I have not bathed my children since they have been old enough to do it themselves unless they have asked for assistance (like hair washing) and even then i did my best to be sure they were covered. My son was having difficulty with having a bowel movement and so I gave him a suppository then felt completely guilty about it, like I violated him. It is not like I do it all the time and I certainly did not get any gratification from it. I hope that he doesn’t grow up and think that I was abusing him : (

    • Hey Shelia,

      I recognize your screen name, and I’m glad you could have a look around and share your thoughts here. They are welcome and appreciated.

      You were definitely *not* making something out of nothing, Shelia. I used to push it down myself, but I was forced in a way to deal with my mother’s abuse when my daughter was born. I had to examine the mother-daughter relationship and how we were robbed and taken advantage of.

      It is not okay for a mother to make her child feel uncomfortable by exposing the mother’s sexuality. I have seen and read that the line is blurred on this topic, because many mothers do show some nudity in front of their daughters or sons at ages that I think are very much inappropriate. I think that these mothers have a responsibility to consider that a child will recognize it as sexualization and protect their children as they grow. You requesting that your mother cover up in front of your children was not out of line. In fact, it was strong of you and protective to advocate for your children.

      I will provide my child with extra privacy for both she and I as she grows, and I’m sure there is an element of extra caution in there because of what we’ve experienced. However, I can’t imagine how some parents take very little care in teaching privacy, and I would much rather have the benefits of allowing us our space over questioning myself.

      When it comes to helping your son with a bowel movement, giving a suppository when a child is unable to do that properly is not abuse. I think that you feel that you violated him because you remember feeling violated by what happened to you. You are aware there is a line to be crossed, as the line was crossed with you. However, from an outsider’s perspective I see no abuse there. Try not to be too harsh with yourself. It is a normal act of parenting to help a child medically, it’s just that so much has been distorted for us. I’m very sorry for that.

      I’m glad that you were able to share what was stewing with you. I wish you the peace you deserve as you parent, even though we have such little for example. The fact that you are facing the abuse and wanting better for your children is the fact that distinguishes you.

      Take good care and healing thoughts,
      Brittany

  4. Emily permalink

    Thank you so much for writing this… particularly the part about the MO being “teaching there is no shame for one’s body.” How ironic that it actually instills shame instead.

    I am just starting to come to terms with this as one of the many things my mother did to me, and it is incredibly validating to hear your explanation/experience.

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