How to Be Supportive When a Child Breaks the Silence of Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse thrives in secrecy. It’s something that is rarely talked about openly. When someone breaks that silence and discloses their abuse, it’s an important step toward healing. If a child or teen comes to you to talk about this, it can be difficult to know what to do. The research has clearly shown that the reaction someone receives when they disclose their abuse can have a big impact on their healing.1
How to Be Supportive When a Child Discloses
It’s been found that if a child discloses to a parent (versus another adult) and they receive support and belief from that parent, it may decrease their PTSD symptoms and behavioral problems related to the trauma.1 Keep in mind that if a child broke the silence and told you about what happened to them, they likely have thought a LOT about it first.2 They have also probably felt a lot of anxiety about “what will happen next” and how this may change your relationship with them. They need you to get them the help that they need and want to believe that you can protect them. Keep that in mind when times get tough, because, like healing, disclosure is a process.
It’s Not a One-Time Thing
A child is still working to process what happened to them and, depending on their age, their memories may be stored in such a way that when they talk to you it may not happen in a linear way. They may skip around when they’re telling you, they may leave out details, and they may downplay the severity of something if your reaction makes them worry they’ll be in trouble.1 This is not something that they are doing on purpose and it doesn’t mean that their account is inaccurate. While adults are more likely to store memories in a chronological way, children store them based on emotions, images, and sensory experiences. That could make it harder for them to retell or recount the experience sequentially and/or find the right words. Additionally, they may have dissociated during the trauma for safety and can’t recall specifics. Their brain is still processing their trauma and it may take some time for them to find the words and ability to tell it in a way that makes sense to someone else (even adults struggle with labeling and expressing their emotions, most children haven’t developed this skill yet).
Each child or teen will respond to disclosing trauma in their own way, but many will experience a lot of anxiety and may be having difficulty coping with everything that they’re feeling. They may also feel responsible for causing you to worry or feel stress; they’re likely to have heightened sensitivity to your reaction.2 Because of this, it’s important that if you show anger, they may misperceive it as you being angry at them and not at the situation or toward the person or people who harmed them. This could have an impact on what they tell you and when.
When children disclose, it can take them a long time to tell the full story.3 They may only hint at things that happened and wait to see your response. By “testing the waters” it will let them know if they can trust you to hear the full story. Keep in mind that the abuse that they’ve experienced was an unbelievable breach of trust and they may have difficulty trusting anyone for a while.
One incredibly important way to build trust and create that sense of safety is to believe them. In some ways that is the greatest gift that you can give to any survivor of child sexual abuse. Fear of not being believed is one of the reasons that so many survivors stay silent.1 This can come in many different ways. Some common ways that disbelief may be expressed include:
Telling a child that they were old enough to “know better” than to allow the abuse to occur.
Asking why they didn’t say anything sooner.
Asking why they let it go on for so long.
Disbelieving that the person who abused them would do “that sort of thing.”
Denying the abuse could have happened.
Taking the side of the abuser and/or blaming the child or teen.
Asking what they were wearing, if they’d been drinking, or where they were that would “allow” something like that to occur.
Assuming they would show more signs or symptoms if it were really true, or that they should be acting “more traumatized.”
Beginning a sentence with something along the lines of, "If this were true, then..."
You may have questions about what they’re telling you, but those can and should wait until your child feels safe and ready, forcing or coercing them into talking can do more harm than good, even legally speaking. Let them know that you believe them, that you recognize the courage they had in coming to you and encourage them to say anything they want to say.
Listen to Them
As mentioned above, they most likely won’t provide you with a detailed description in the form of a narrative.1 This may be the first time that they’ve talked about the abuse (or the first time they’ve talked about it to an adult) and it may take them time to process what happened. Don’t interrupt, don’t ask probing questions, just listen. Let them know that you’re listening by validating their feelings, being nonjudgmental, and giving empowering responses when it feels appropriate. Showing them empathy about what they’re feeling can be another important aspect of letting them know that you’re listening and really hearing what they’re saying.
Instead of asking clarifying questions about the abuse, ask questions about their well-being.2 If you feel they need a prompt to continue then ask open-ended questions like, “Will you tell me more about that?” or “What were you feeling?” Keep in mind that your child may be feeling a lot of confusing emotions. They may recognize that the act(s) were abuse, but they may still harbor feelings of love toward the person who harmed them.2 Such complicated feelings can be true in the case of a teen who perceived the sexual interactions as true love or romance, or if they were abused by a sibling or family member who they may still feel familial love toward. This may show up in the way they talk about what happened, if they sometimes defend their abuser, or why they may choose to “walk back” what they said to make it sound less severe and make their abuser not look “so bad.”
In the long-term, listening may also include recognizing what they’re asking for in order to heal. They may find comfort in connecting with other survivors, they may want validation for what they’re experiencing, or they may be showing signs that they’re struggling with shame and their self-esteem. Of course, they may not know what they want or need either. That’s okay, give them time. Keep listening and helping them and they’ll keep coming to you with their problems and recognizing you as a safe person.
Children who feel loved, supported, and cared for are more likely to hold on to (or regain) the belief that the world around them is safe and trusting.2 So create an environment that shows them that they are safeand that you are a safe person to talk to. Feeling safe is important to every child or teen, but it’s especially needed when they’ve experienced sexual abuse. If your child discloses to you about abuse that is ongoing, then it’s your responsibility to make sure that they are safe and that the abuse stops. If the person who perpetrated the abuse is in your home, then they should be sent somewhere else. Your child deserves the safety and security of their home as they heal, and being sent away, even temporarily, can make them feel that they are to blame for the abuse.
A safe, private space allows them to disclose.2 This includes creating a sense of safety not just in your home, but in any location where they are asked to disclose, including a therapist’s office, a car ride, a police station, or a clinic or hospital. Remember, the sexual abuse they experienced can lead to a lack of trust, so it’s important that they have a safe setting when they talk about it.2
Get Them the Help They Need
When something like this happens, you may have the desire to swoop in and protect your child from everything. You may want to change every aspect of their day-to-day life so that they are never without you. For some children, that may work for a brief time, but it isn’t sustainable long-term. Depending on who their abuser was and where the abuse occurred, most children will find their familiar routines reassuring. Your child lost all control in one aspect of their life, one way to give them some control back is to let them have a say in what changes are made to their routine. What will make them feel safe? Not just during their everyday activities, but even as they are going through any legal proceedings.
Your support plays an important role in assisting your child through the investigation process and treatment.4 This means reporting the abuse to the appropriate authorities and making sure that your child is acknowledged, understood, and provided with the services and interventions they need.2 Sometimes children resent reporting and interventions and this experience can be traumatic as well. Checking in with them and their emotions during the process is so important. Finding a therapist who specializes in childhood trauma or sexual abuse can be important for your child’s well-being. Keep in mind that healing is a journey, it will take your child—and you—time to heal.
Why Some Children Don’t Disclose
If you have discovered that your child has experienced abuse, you may be wondering why they never told you. Research has shown that most victims of child sexual abuse who don’t disclose shortly after their abuse will do one of two things: 1) Delay telling anyone (sometimes for years), or 2) Never disclose the abuse.1 One of the biggest reasons for nondisclosure is fear.
There are many things a child who is sexually abused may fear. Perhaps they’re afraid of the reaction they’ll receive, fear that they won’t be believed, fear that they’ll be blamed, fear that they are to blame, fear that the person who abused them will get in trouble, fear that someone they love will be hurt if they talk about their abuse, fear that they will be rejected, etc.
If they were abused by someone in their family, they are especially unlikely to talk about it. In this case they may be afraid of “ruining” the family, they may want to protect their abuser, they may fear their abuser, or they may fear that they will be kicked out of the family. There are also religious, cultural, and familial barriers that may make a child feel like they can’t talk openly or honestly about their abuse.1 Sometimes it is just that they didn’t know that sexual abuse is wrong, because to them it was a “normal” part of their life. This could be because of the age they were when it occurred or because of the way that their abuser talked to them about it or because their abuser was someone they loved and trusted. They may not have realized that it wasn’t something everyone experienced until they talk to their peers, learn about healthy sexual development, or receive some other type of new information that lets them know that what happened was not “normal” or okay.
If your child or teen didn’t disclose to you, it may not be because of a lack of trust. There are a lot of factors that led to their silence. The important thing is to support them, both in the moment and in the long-term.
The Importance of Long-Term Support
The long-term impacts of child sexual abuse can include things like PTSD, risk for revictimization, acting out, self-esteem issues, shame, etc. If you get your child the help they need, you can mitigate many of these. Lack of parental care, support, nurturing, and affection has actually been linked to an increase of stress and trauma symptoms.4 Conversely, parental support has been shown to have incredible impacts in both the short- and long-term adjustment and healing of sexually abused children.4
The support that you give your child after they’ve disclosed is vital. The support that you give them as they continue to heal is just as vital. By showing your child that you love them, believe them, and are willing to try to understand what they’re experiencing every step of the way, you make it easier for them to heal.
Take time to look over our resources at Defend Innocence. Through them you can find effective ways to support your child’s long-term healing.
Take Care of Yourself
After a child discloses abuse, it’s common for a parent to feel upset, especially if you blame yourself in some way.4 Recognize that you need support just as much as your child does. This is not something that you can or should do alone. Reach out to trusted family and friends, find a therapist, find a support group, or search out some other way to help you deal with everything that you’re feeling.
Child sexual abuse thrives in secrecy, but your child had the courage to use their voice. Don’t be afraid to use yours to ask for the help that you need.
Share this Post