Disclosing sexual abuse can be difficult and traumatic for a child, so it is important that parents and care givers respond in a calm and supportive manner. The following article offers some helpful advice on how best to deal with sexual abuse disclosures from a child. Want more information? Contact us to schedule a consultation.
Wendy E.M. LeBlanc, M.A.Ps, L. Psych
During the time of your child's disclosure, your reaction will play a very important part in how your child and family cope and heal from the sexual abuse moving forward. The most critical and helpful reaction is to acknowledge and believe your child's statements. For a young child the most harmful reaction that a parent/caregiver can give is verbal disbelief and punishment for the disclosure. Verbally expressed disbelief teaches a child that their internal sense of right and wrong cannot be trusted. When punishment occurs, children learn the consequence for disclosure is a negative reaction.
Overall, sexually abused children recant (take back) disclosures and statements when they feel that what they have said is not accepted or heard by significant adults. In particular with incest cases, disbelief expressed by the non-offending parent can feel like pressure to a child to recant their disclosure.
Children may also recant disclosures for the following reasons: their perpetrator denies the disclosure; they are repeatedly questioned by law enforcement, child protection workers, doctors and others in our legal system; and finally, when disbelief is expressed by other significant adults such as teachers, or family members such as siblings.
As a parent/caregiver you may find it necessary to reduce further stress by limiting or ceasing your child's contact with others who are not supportive or believing of the sexual abuse.
Once you tell your child that you believe them, it will be imperative to show them by providing support and reassurance. This will help validate their perception of the sexual abuse experience. Two ways of verbally providing reassurance are to tell your child that you are sorry about what happened, and to make a statement that it was not okay for the perpetrator to touch them in the way they did. Some children will benefit from reassurances that they will be protected from the perpetrator.
Talking with your child in a factual, calm voice helps your child feel that you are advocating for them and that you can help them overcome their experience. Highly emotional reactions, such as revenge and extreme anger can increase your child's fear and worry and could potential intensify their negative emotions. Young children tend to feel responsible for parental reactions and feelings. It is harmful to show your child that you are in a great deal of distress from their disclosure. Your child needs to know and believe that you can survive the sexual abuse experience with them.
Children who feel responsible for causing the sexual abuse will suffer a more negative impact from the experience. As a parent you can decrease your child's burden of disclosure and feelings of responsibility for causing the sexual abuse. You can tell your child that it was not his/her fault and that it took a lot of courage and bravery to tell.
Parental reactions such as, "how could this happen", questions such as, "why didn't you tell me sooner" or "why didn't you tell me" can intensify feelings of blame, shame and responsibility. When parents indirectly or directly blame their child for causing the abuse, they are in effect excusing the perpetrator. Perpetrators are solely responsible for the sexual abuse of a child.
Parents can have the tendency to want to lessen their child's hurtful/painful feelings by minimizing the seriousness of the abuse. Sexually abused children need to have acceptance of their feelings, whatever they are. Empathy with your child's feelings shows acceptance and validates that you are listening to them, and are ultimately there to support and protect them.
It is very important to not to treat your child differently as a result of learning of the sexual abuse. Should you begin to act in this manner, they may further believe that they are somehow damaged and different because of the sexual abuse. Parental reactions of guilt, such as "Why didn't I know?" can lead to overprotection. Overprotection can create the harmful message that your child will not recover from his/her experience. Keeping to normal daily routines and reducing changes can be comforting and reassuring for your child.