Having a child come to you and disclose they’ve been or are being sexually abused can be an earth-shattering experience. The same goes for the child; it takes incredible bravery to talk about one of the most traumatizing things they’ll ever experience.
For many, learning of this sexual abuse is completely blindsiding and can cause a state of shock. Not many are prepared for dealing with a situation as serious as this. So, how can you support a child who discloses to you that they’ve been sexually abused?
One of the most important things to do in this situation is to listen intently. Sit down in a safe place with the child and listen to everything they say without judgment, argument, or doubt. Responding in that way is damaging to the child and exacerbates the trauma they’ve already experienced.
Let the child say everything they want to tell you without interrupting or asking questions. Once they are finished speaking, gently ask questions to clarify things or learn more about the situation. Let the child do most of the talking so you can learn as much as possible and they feel heard.
Much of children’s reactions are based on the reactions of the adults around them. This is something to keep in mind when a child opens up about sexual abuse. It’s an incredibly sensitive topic, and children need to know it’s okay to tell an adult.
Hearing details of abuse from a child is obviously an awful experience. But as the trusted adult in this situation, refrain from expressing shock, anger, or disgust, no matter how disturbing the news is. The child may take your negative reaction as judgment towards them, or it might frighten them to see that you’re horrified by the news. Any strong reactions on your part could deeply upset the child, who may not want to speak any further. They already may feel terrible about the experience, and a trusted adult reacting strongly can make them feel even worse.
Reassure and Comfort Them
After calmly listening to what they have to say, reassure the child that they made the right decision by telling a trustworthy adult. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about something so traumatizing. Many abusers convince children that they or their loved ones will be harmed if they tell anyone else, so it can be scary for a child to go against that threat. With your reassurance, the child will realize they’ve made the right choice.
It’s also very likely that the child will be emotional, upset, or even crying. This is when you need to comfort them and provide a safe space. A hug and some reassuring words can go a long way.
Write Everything Down
When there’s an allegation of sexual abuse, a criminal investigation may follow. For this reason, it’s important you document every detail of what the child told you and when. Include the date and time of the conversation, where it took place, and what was said. Include direct quotes from the child, the follow-up questions you asked, and keep everything objective. Consider it potential evidence that will be presented in court.
Protect the Child
Once you know of the abuse, take any steps you can to protect the child from their abuser. This might involve finding them somewhere else to stay, calling the police, informing other adults in the child’s life, or getting in touch with Child Protection Services. Do anything you can to remove the child from being exposed to or left alone with their abuser.
Understand the Impact of Abuse
Sexual abuse impacts children in a variety of ways, and they may exhibit behaviors that are completely unlike them. Here are some things that might result from sexual abuse:
- Clinginess and separation anxiety
- Nervousness around strangers or in large groups
- Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
- Lashing out with anger or aggression
- Depression and/or frequent crying
- Bedwetting, night terrors, or insomnia
- Inability to concentrate in school
It’s important for adults to keep an eye out for these behaviors and understand that they are coming from a place of pain and confusion. This way, instead of frustration or harsh discipline, you can help the child process the trauma they’ve experienced.
The best thing you can do is to be patient with the child. Going through something as deeply troubling as sexual abuse can overwhelm them. With your patience and unconditional love, their healing journey can begin.
Boundaries are important for a child who has been abused. They’ve had their boundaries completely destroyed, and may not understand what behavior is appropriate or not. Some children will talk about sexually inappropriate topics, act out the abuse with toys, or try to see others without clothing on. As an adult, explain to the child what is appropriate behavior and what isn’t, so they can begin to understand the difference.
Respecting boundaries is not only important for the child, but for the people around them. Do not pressure the child to hug or physically interact with others if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Advocate for them if they express discomfort in certain situations, and ask the adults in their life to respect their decisions. In addition, physical play like tickling or wrestling with other children may trigger a victim of abuse, so keep an eye out for these situations.
Lastly, act as a role model and demonstrate proper boundaries. Many young children model their behavior after the behavior of the adults around them, so make sure you are setting a good example.
Seek Out Professional Help
Therapy can be a huge help for both the child who has been abused and the adults in their lives. There are child therapists that specialize in sexual abuse specifically, so they can be a valuable guide along this process. Going to therapy can equip the child with coping mechanisms, not only to handle their current feelings but their future experiences as an adult as well.
Therapy can also help the family and loved ones of the child. Parents or other caretakers of a sexual abuse victim experience a variety of emotions as well, including sadness and guilt. Speaking with a professional and dealing with these emotions in a healthy way benefits both the parent and the child.
Finding out about the sexual abuse of a minor can be devastating, for both the child and the adult receiving the information. This is why it’s so important to handle the situation delicately and put the child’s safety and well-being first.
If you or a family member has been sexually abused by a person of authority, whether it is a a clergy member from any church, Boy Scout or Girl Scouts, youth sports organization, private or public school, daycare, medical professional, University, or any organization supervising children, you can submit your Private and Free claim by visiting https://www.stopsexpredators.com. We are highly experienced and compassionate when dealing with Sex abuse cases and we can keep your identity private throughout the process of holding the abusers and those who helped cover up the abuse accountable. We can help you recover costs for medical and counseling expenses, loss of income due to extended recovery times, loss of companionship with family members, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.