Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Counseling and Psychological Services

First Advisor

JoAnna F. White, Ed.D. - Chair

Second Advisor

Greg Brack, Ph.D

Third Advisor

Catharina Chang, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Catherine Brack


ABSTRACT MATERNAL PERCEPTIONS AND RESPONSES TO CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE by Elizabeth U. Willingham Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a complex phenomenon that requires various levels of intervention to address the safety, recovery, and prevention needs of children and families who have experienced victimization. Although there is a large body of literature that has identified and examined many aspects of CSA (Putnam, 2003), less is known about nonoffending caregivers of sexually abused children. The one consistent finding across studies that have investigated CSA, nonoffending caregivers, and traumatic stress in children is the importance the of child-caregiver relationship in facilitating recovery (Elliot & Carnes, 2001; Scheeringa & Zeanah, 2001). CSA is stressful for both the child and the caregiver, and it affects the child-caregiver relationship. Studies are needed to determine the underlying factors and processes that contribute to nonoffending caregivers’ stress and coping responses, supportive and protective reactions, and intervention needs as they relate to supporting their children’s recovery and healing the family unit. This exploratory study examined the phenomenological experiences of mothers whose children had been sexually abused. In-depth exploration and systematic analysis of mothers’ perceptions about their children’s victimization, their reaction, and their distress using constructivist grounded theory methods (Charmaz & Corbin, 2005) provided a better understanding of the mothers’ collective experience and response. This study used theoretical sampling (Miles & Huberman, 1994) for participant selection. The researcher interviewed 14 mothers of children who had been sexually abused and had received services at a child advocacy center. Two key informants were also interviewed to obtain a detailed conceptualization of the theoretical and practical aspects of the programs and services at the child advocacy. The findings from this naturalistic, phenomenological inquiry revealed that the mothers experienced crisis and traumatic distress following their children’s disclosure. The findings also showed that even in the midst of traumatic distress and grief, the mothers did believe and protect their children. In addition, the results of this study highlight how maternal supportive responses are interdependent on numerous factors, especially their capacity to cope with past abuse, current distress, and their level of emotional and financial dependency on their child’s perpetrator.