Teaching your children how to protect themselves against sexual abuse is the most effective way to prevent sexual abuse we currently have. We try to do all the right things, all the things experts tell us to do. We teach them the right names for their genitalia. We talk to them openly and honestly about consent, empower them to decide whom to hug and kiss and whom to keep at a distance. We perform background checks and Google the adults they spend time with at school, at church and in extracurricular activities. We teach our children that secrets are not safe, and if an adult tells them to keep a secret, that is a sign that the adult is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. We do all the right things and more, but there is no guarantee that our children will never experience any form of sexual abuse.
If your child has been sexually assaulted, the aftermath can be completely overwhelming for both parent and child. How a parent reacts to their child when sexual abuse has been discovered can protect their child from more severe psychological fallout. When parents and loved ones work to support a child or adolescent after abuse, it is possible for a child to experience sexual abuse and come out safe and healthy on the other side.
- Stay calm
If your child discloses the sexual abuse to you, it is perfectly normal to feel shock, rage, pain, confusion, fear, and pretty much any other negative emotion in the book. There is no right way to feel after your child tells you they’ve been sexually abused, but there is a best way to react. Extreme emotions are very normal, but they need to be processed when the child is not present, ideally with a trained therapist. This isn’t to say you can’t cry or show emotion when you child discloses abuse, but those emotions need to be constrained.It’s important that your first reaction doesn’t scare your child or make them feel that telling you has made things worse. If your child has told you about the abuse, they likely see you as a safe person. The way you handle disclosure is important, if you yell and scream, that is a signal to them that you’re not safe and they may withhold additional important details. However, if you are able to hear what they are saying and absorb the information calmly, you are telling your child that they are safe to tell you everything.
Your child may even have been breaking the house rules when the abuse happened, and you might feel angry with them about that breach of trust, but in the moment what matters is the abuse they’ve disclosed. Any rule that has been broken can be dealt with at a later time, it’s important you child doesn’t feel that they are in trouble to telling you what happened.
- Believe them
Children very, very rarely fabricate spontaneous disclosures of sexual abuse. If they are telling you that something happened, chances are very good that something happened. In my work with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, my clients often tell me about situations in which they told a parent or trusted adult what was happening and that adult did not believe them.It may be difficult for you to believe existentially that this is happening, but it’s important that you believe your child. Sexual abuse is most often perpetrated by somebody the child knows, and thus that you likely know, which makes the stakes all the more higher for the child. When a child is brave enough to disclose and they are not believed, chances are they will not feel safe to disclose again, leaving them even more vulnerable to continued or additional abuse.
It’s also important to know that after a child tells you about sexual abuse they may recant or say that they were making it up. This does not necessarily mean that the child was lying when they disclosed the abuse. There are many clinical reasons why a child might recant a claim of sexual abuse, which don’t include lying.
- Thank them.
It is incredibly frightening for a child or adolescent to disclose abuse. They might not have told you right away, or they might have disclosed to somebody else before they told you, and it’s important to let them know that that’s okay. There are many reasons why the child might not disclose immediately or to you first; their abuser might have made threats, they may have convinced the victim they would get in trouble for telling or that no one would believe them. Thank your child for telling you so that you can now help protect them. Let your child know immediately that you love them, and that you are grateful and proud that they were brave enough to share their story with you.
- Reassure Them
Throughout the grooming process (the method by which abusers establish a trust relationship with their victims) and during abuse, one way that perpetrators keep their behavior a secret is by making the child afraid to tell anyone about the abuse. This is why it’s so important to reassure your child that they are loved no matter what, and protected from the threats the abuser made.The perpetrator may have told your child that you would not love them, that you would be angry with them or that they would be in trouble if you found out. The perpetrator may have even told your child that they would hurt your child or someone your child loves if they told. That’s why it’s so important to let your child know that they are not in trouble, that they are safe and loved, and that you will do everything you can to make sure they will stay safe.
- Let them know it’s not their fault
Abusers silence their victims by telling them or implying that they brought the abuse on themselves. They say the child was too friendly, too pretty, they “knew what they were doing,” they were asking for it. Let your child know that this is not true, and that it was the perpetrator who did something wrong, not them.This can be particularly challenging if your child was abused while breaking a house rule. I’ve had clients tell me that their parents implied that they were responsible for their own abuse because they snuck out of the house when they weren’t supposed to, or because they were hanging out with someone they weren’t supposed to be seeing. Whether or not your child followed the rules is not relevant to their sexual abuse. It is important for victims to know that, even if they were somewhere they weren’t supposed to be, they still didn’t cause or deserve sexual assault. Deal with the rule breaking separately. Your child did nothing to cause their abuse, let them know you know that.
- Get Support
Parents often don’t know what to do when their child is sexually assaulted, and that’s okay. There are systems of support set up, and professionals who are trained to help parents navigate this complicated terrain. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has a search page that can help you connect to your local sexual assault support provider, and you can also call their national hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE(4673) for immediate support in a crisis. If you feel your child is in immediate danger, you can also call 911. A sexual assault support provider will be able to provide connections to the resources you need, and guide you through the reporting process if you and your child decide to report the abuse to law enforcement.
- Take Care of Yourself
Parents of children who are sexually abused or assaulted often experience their own symptoms of trauma. I provide counseling for victims of sexual abuse but I also provide counseling for secondary survivors, a term used for people who are the loved ones and support system for a trauma survivor. Often secondary survivors exhibit the same trauma symptoms as survivors, and those symptoms should not be ignored. Feelings of helplessness, reliving the moment they told you, hypervigilant behaviors, insomnia are all signs that you are experiencing trauma and need help.While you are helping your child, make sure you are also helping yourself as the better you are at handling your own experience, the better you will be at helping your child. Find a therapist or a support group with trauma experience.Parents of victims often also experience difficulty parenting a traumatized child. It can become challenging to know how to talk to your child about their experience, how to discipline them, how to react to behavior changes, and how to support them so that they can return to normalcy as quickly as possible. These are all normal experiences, and seeking help for yourself is a wonderful way to provide support for your child.
Everyone experiences sexual abuse in their own way, and everyone recovers in their own time. It is the job of the parent to provide a safe, loving, and protective environment where their child can heal on their own terms and receive whatever support they need to return to the life they want to be living. Nobody should be expected to cope with the trauma of sexual violence alone, and as a parent you can help your child access the people and skills they need to lead healthy, happy lives after sexual assault.