My Child Just Disclosed Sexual Abuse, Now What?

My Child Just Disclosed Sexual Abuse, Now What

When a child bravely discloses sexual abuse, as a parent or caregiver, you are thrown into a tornado of emotions. It is overwhelming and emotional to hear that someone you care about, especially a child, may have been harmed in this way.

You may have your own personal emotional response without even realizing it.

If you have past trauma in any way, it can very easily trigger your own emotional response from your past. Be mindful of this. First thing, breathe deeply in and out a few times to help center yourself before you speak or react.

Try to stay as calm as possible, children take their cues from adults. If you are immediately angered or show signs of extreme emotional duress, the child will feel that and could very well shut down out of fear of hurting you or making you mad.

The words and actions that follow a child’s disclosure can make a world of difference in their overall healing.

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Believe Them

young child disclosing sexual abuse to her motherThe first words out of your mouth should be that you believe them. Just saying, I believe you, can put that child at ease and reduce the anxiety and fear they are feeling at that moment. You will not have all the information, you may have a million questions swimming around in your head and in time you can seek those answers but what that child needs from you more than anything else at that moment, is that you believe them. Many children wait weeks, months, and years to disclose abuse, this is the norm, and rarely do children speak up right away.

There is a high likelihood that their perpetrator told them that no one would believe them if they spoke up, this is a common manipulative tool that perpetrators use to keep their victims silent. It is important that the child understand that you believe them. This will set the tone for how that child will react to you and any other adults who will need to speak with them down the line such as law enforcement, doctors, lawyer, etc. Try not to launch into an interrogation of that child, the questions you have are important, and they can wait while you tend to the child’s emotional needs.

If you launch right into all the questions you have, you could send the message that while you said you believed them, you really do not, because you are questioning their story. This can and will make a child immediately shut down, and they may withhold information out of fear. As a parent or caregiver, tending to their emotional needs first is the best approach.

Your immediate response may be to grab the child and comfort them physically, be careful here, as counterintuitive as it may sound, ask the child if they want a hug. Sexual abuse is a violation of personal space and boundaries, we want the child to feel in control of their own personal space, by asking them if they want a hug, you are reaffirming that they get to choose how they are touched, when and by whom. Let them know that it is ok if they do not want a hug, and reassure them that it is their body and their choice.

If the child is disclosing abuse that may have just occurred, it is important to seek medical attention. They could have injuries that you cannot see and may need to have testing done for sexually transmitted diseases. If your county has a Child Advocacy Center, that is the best place to start. Call them and explain what is happening and they can guide you. If there are no Child Advocacy Centers, contact your local rape crisis program, you can find your local rape crisis program here.

If the child disclosing is not your child or in your direct care, and they are disclosing to you, safety is a huge concern for that child. If the abuse is happening in their home or an environment, they frequent, such as school or activity, you will need to seek guidance on what you can do to assure that the child does not have to reenter that place. A few things you can do right away, contact the reporting entity in your respective state, You can do this anonymously or by giving your name.

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Thank Them for Trusting you with this Information

When children are preyed upon and abused, their trust in adults is significantly manipulated and harmed. Remember that 93% of all child victims know their perpetrators.[1] Most children are very confused by what is happening to them because they most likely know the perpetrator and trusted that adult before the abuse began.  Their trust has now been shaken and they are left unsure of who they can trust and who they cannot. The information they are giving you is a huge exercise in trust, please handle the information with care. Let the child know you can be trusted with this information and that you are not upset or angry with them. Do not make promises or reassurances that you cannot keep. It may seem comforting to tell a child that you will not tell anyone, but that is the opposite of what you should say to them. You will need to report the abuse to someone for the safety and well-being of that child and others. Let the child know that you will have to tell someone and report the abuse. Reassure them that they are not in trouble.

Normalize for them that talking about abuse is ok, it is healthy, and it can help them heal and recover from the trauma they are experiencing. Let them know that as more people are aware of the abuse they endured, they will have to talk to people such as law enforcement, lawyers, advocates, and others to share the details of what happened to them. Inform them that their voice is powerful and their story matters. Let them know that they are not alone and will never be alone in this process. Give them access to supportive services from local rape crisis agencies, books and other written materials that can help them feel seen and heard, and online resources such as chat support and online support groups.

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Tell Them it is Not Their Fault

child disclosing sexual abuse to her motherMost children who have been abused are feeling a significant amount of guilt, shame, and confusion. They think what has happened to them is their fault and are told this by their perpetrators. Explain to the child that what happened to them was not their fault, that as a child, it does not matter what they did, said, etc. no one should touch them without their consent. Also, let the child know that even if they were confused and did not know what was happening and think they allowed the abuse because they did not say no, explain to them that children cannot consent to any sexual activity due to their age.

Explain to the child that everyone responds to being abused differently, some may cry, scream, or fight while others may go into shock and not be able to even talk let alone scream. Explain to them that no matter how they responded, it was not their fault. A child may think that just because they did not scream or say no or fight back that it means they allowed it to happen. Reassure that child that the way they responded to what was happening to them is ok, regardless of what they said or did. Child abuse is never the victim’s fault. Period.

When children are traumatized and hurting, they tend to act out. They often lack the verbiage to explain what is happening inside. If your child withdrawals, or begins to act out, monitor their behavior and be gentle with them as they are internally processing what happened to them.

A “trauma-informed” approach is one that aims to understand behavior—not label it, blame someone, or accidentally shame them. Telling children that it’s OK to not feel OK, sharing with them that they are not alone, and telling them that you believe them are all powerful ways to offer a young person a safe space to navigate confusion around trauma.

Validate their feelings and response and empower them to understand that they are having very normal reactions to these abnormal things they have endured.

Provide Resources

Information is power and when people have experienced trauma from sexual abuse, they have many questions and needs. One of the hardest jobs as a parent or caregiver is knowing that often, we are not the ones our children will turn to when they need to talk or want to ask questions. So, in normalizing the conversations around engaging tough topics be sure to give them plenty of resources and acknowledge that you know it may feel odd for them to speak to you about whatever they need help with. Tell them that this is OK and give them some alternative names, places, and entities to who they can speak, including trusted friends, family, advocates, or hotlines. By doing this, you are giving your child options that help return control back to them.

Ask the child what they need, do not assume that you know exactly how they feel or what they need. Each child is unique as are the facts around every case. By asking the child what they need, you are once again empowering them to think about what they need and then, if they can ask for what they need. It’s second nature for many parents and caregivers to want to launch into an immediate plan of action, to offer advice or opinions-try to pause first and ask the child what they need from you at this moment.  They may not want you to offer guidance or try to fix the situation, launching into a whole conversation or plan could overwhelm the child and shut them down. If you need help with these conversations, reach out to your local rape crisis program, child advocacy center, and or victim services agency for help. You as the parent are also not alone in this process.

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Teach Healthy Coping Strategies

child disclosing sexual abuse to a parentNo doubt that the impacted child is going to need help in coping with the short and long-term impacts of sexual violence which include but are not limited to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, substance use, self-harm, anxiety, panic disorders, and more. If we can build resiliency in our children and teach them to feel feelings while normalizing trauma in a way that gives them space to talk, feel, heal, and deal with it, then they are less likely to reach for negative coping mechanisms. So often, negative coping comes from a lack of effective coping strategies.

Encourage children to use their words and give them permission to be mad or sad by being there for them when they cry. Teach them to use tools such as meditation, deep breathing, and walking away when overwhelmed. Normalize common emotions by making them feel supported instead of isolated, this helps to teach them how to process emotions in a way that makes them feel better. Continue to include the child in all typical family engagements and events, meaning, do not treat them differently, and do not make decisions to exclude them because you think it’s too hard or uncomfortable. Rather, empower the child to make those decisions and for them to know that while this traumatic thing has happened, they are still a part of the family. This allows them to have a sense of normalcy in their lives such as continuing normal routines and allowing them to feel that not every aspect of their lives has been impacted by the traumatic event.

Check in with the child about the incident and their feelings, and be mindful of how trauma impacts the brain, especially in developing children. Children are resilient, and their brains have an incredible way of protecting them, but this can also make engagement about the trauma a challenge.

So, when you need to ask more probative questions, engage children when they are playing or during physical activity. A child’s brain and development are different and direct questioning does not always work, especially if you’re trying to get them to talk about something scary, fear-inducing, or traumatizing.

Sometimes, if a child’s brain is already engaged with coloring, drawing, or shooting hoops, it can be easier for them to talk about topics that are more emotionally overwhelming. Ask questions, let them know you love them, that you are always willing to hear anything, and that you will never judge them or shame them for anything they must share.

By giving children healthy coping tools, you are building a foundation for them when they can and will have hard feelings, and you are giving them permission to process those emotions without them wanting to escape.

There is no one path to healing; all survivors will need individualized support and resources to heal and find recovery from the trauma they have endured.

Written By: Jennifer Storm, Coordinator of Advocacy and Community Outreach

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[1] Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement (2000).