Few things confound parents more than hearing their child has been sexually
abused. A million questions race through your mind and you want to ask your child
all of them. DON’T!
Take a deep breath and stop what you are doing to pay attention to your child.
Whether they are 2 or 20, it took a lot of courage for him or her to tell and they
deserve your immediate attention and the right response. Remind yourself not to
over-react or under-react.
Thank your child for telling you and assure them you will help them and you will
make it stop. Your inclination will be to interrogate until all your curiosity is
satisfied but that will shut down communication and make your child wish they
had not brought it up. If you think you are overwhelmed, imagine what your child
must be going through.
Assure your child you believe him or her and allow them to tell the story at their
own pace. Try not to ask specific questions. The story will come out soon enough.
Take your child to a private place away from other people or distractions and say,
“Let’s talk about that. Tell me what happened.”
Parents have a tendency to make a child look them in the eye and talk to them.
That’s a good tactic if you are instructing a child to do something and you want to
make sure they understand your instructions. When you are expecting children to
tell you about a difficult subject, do just the opposite. A key element is to create an
environment where they are not expected to make eye contact. They have enough
trouble finding the right words and remembering the exact events. They don’t need
to have to face you and judge your emotional responses while they are struggling
to find words to express themselves.
Invite them to go for a walk with you, or sit beside them on the steps outside, or go
for a ride in the car if they are old enough to sit in the front side beside you.
If the abuse is from a stranger or someone you hardly know, the answer is much
easier for a parent. You call the police and the child advocacy center and you
prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. A bad guy has violated your child – end
of story! You get your child professional help and the whole family agrees it was a
terrible thing that happened.
But what if the offender is your brother or father or husband or even more
disturbing – your other child? (90% of sexual abuse is from within the family or by
someone the family knows and trusts.) Then the hesitancy starts.
The “what ifs” are stifling. What if my husband is arrested? What if my offending
child was abused by someone too? What if my child never recovers? What if you
believe your child but your spouse doesn’t. What if your marriage was fragile to
begin with and this pushes it over the edge? What if I make too big a deal over
this? What if DFCS or CPS takes my children away?
Your first order of business is to seek professional help to know how to support
your child and to build a support system for yourself.
Meanwhile, What Do I Say To My Child?:
1. Don’t say: “Why didn’t you tell me this when it first happened?” The vast
majority of children don’t tell because they are frightened of how you will react
and what will happen if they tell.
Do say: “I’m so sorry that happened. You were very brave to tell me and I will
2. Don’t say: “That’s not what you told me before. Tell me exactly what
happened.” Details in memory may change when a traumatic event occurs.
Do say: “Can you draw me a picture of what happened?” Or… “Can you show me
what happened with the dolls or teddy bears?”
3. Don’t say: “Well maybe he/she didn’t mean to or maybe you misinterpreted it.”
Never minimize a child’s feelings or memories.
Do say: “I will make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
4. Don’t say: “He’s going to jail for that” or “you can never play with Suzie
again.” A child may not want someone to be punished and they certainly don’t
want to be punished for telling. They just want the abuse to stop.
Do say: “You don’t have to worry about this happening again. We will figure out
how to keep you safe.”
For more in-depth information, join us on our one-day workshop in Cherry Log,
GA on November 11 th .