But what if…? How to Support Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused

Imagine that you planted a tree. You meticulously prepared the soil. Then you carefully put the tree in the ground and even put stakes next to it to help it grow straight. You did everything you could to make sure that the tree had every opportunity to develop. Now imagine that after all of your thorough preparation, you didn’t do anything else for the tree. You didn’t water, you didn’t fertilize—the tree was left to do the best it could on its own.

Think of this analogy in the context of helping a child who has been sexually abused. When you initially found out about the abuse, maybe you did everything you were supposed to: you listened to the child, you reported the abuse, you even ensured that the child got therapy. You should feel good that you’re putting your child on the path to recovery. Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t typically happen from responding in the moment and then moving on. Your initial response is important, but what do you do in the weeks, months, or even years after the abuse has occurred?

Provide consistent support

As you deal with the repercussions of the abuse, you might get discouraged. You’re probably angry at the perpetrator. Dealing with authorities or the legal system could leave you worn out. It can be easy for children to interpret the anger and frustration you feel toward the situation as directed toward them. Keep making it clear to the child that what happened wasn’t their fault and you’re not angry at them. Also, you might not be able to provide all the help your child needs yourself. Therapy can be a key to recovery, and it might need to go on for a while.

Think about getting a victim advocate

The legal system often gets involved in cases of childhood sexual abuse. Navigating the intricacies of the court can feel overwhelming. You might have questions: What’s your role in an investigation? Will someone be charged with a crime? How long will it take? What if you need a no contact order? An advocate can answer your questions and help you through the lengthy legal process. Consult the directory of crime victim services sponsored by the Office for Victims of Crime to find an advocate in your area.

Consider your own self-care

When dealing with sexual abuse, the child needs to be the priority, but your own well-being is also important. You are probably experiencing intense emotions, and you don’t want your emotions to turn into unproductive behavior like self-blame or blaming the child. If you feel like it will be helpful, seek out professional help. Also, if you need to talk through the situation, be prudent in selecting other people. You want to be open and honest about what happened, but you’re sharing sensitive, personal information about your child. Your child might not want everyone to know.

Increase your understanding of abuse

You probably have lots of questions about abuse and the potential impact it can have on your child. The more you can inform yourself, the more empowered you will be to help. One good resource is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

Dealing with sexual abuse trauma can take a long time. Your reactions in the beginning are important, but your ongoing response to the situation is going to have a big impact. Just as a tree takes lots of time and care to grow, your child will need steady and consistent support through the healing process. The results will be worth it.