How to Respond

Similar to the grief process, mothers experience a time of shock and denial following disclosure of their child's sexual abuse. They want to believe their child's report, while struggling to absorb what they are hearing and make sense of it. Depending on the identity of the perpetrator and other factors, such as age of child and length of time of abuse, mothers experience anger, guilt, fear, confusion, and other painful feelings and negative thoughts

Harmful and Helpful Reactions to Disclosure
Your reaction will influence how your child and family cope following the disclosure of the abuse. The most important reaction is to believe and acknowledge what your child is telling you. Most children do not tell because they fear not being believed, and they fear the consequences of telling. The most harmful reaction to the child's disclosure is verbal disbelief or punishment for the disclosure. When the child discloses, and the adult does not believe him, the child doubts his own internal sense of right and wrong. Perpetrators often tell victims that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. Doubting himself following disclosure can open the child to future victimization. If the child is punished, he experiences a negative consequence to telling. This can affect his future ability to be honest in relationships. In general, children recant disclosures when they are not believed. In the case of incest, if the child is not believed by the non-offending parent, the child can experience this as pressure to recant.

Suggestions for Surviving the Crisis
Although a child's abuse is a traumatic event in the mother's life, she must maintain calm and portray a sane approach to the post-disclosure process. This will provide safety and stability for her child. If your child has disclosed abuse, you want to know what steps to take next and how to survive the crisis. Suggestions:
  1. Stay calm. Your calm spirit and attitude will reduce your child's anxiety.
  2. Take the disclosure seriously. Affirm your child for reporting the abuse. Recognize that although your child may be tenuous and provides minimal information about the abuse, this is normal for a child victim. Many children dissociate and do not have memories of much of what occurred.
  3. Listen to your child. Be present and listen. As difficult as it might be, do not interrupt and ask questions. Be careful that what you say does not contain doubt, suspicion, or judgment.
  4. Let your child know how proud of her you are - that she had the courage to come and talk about the abuse. Let her know that you know how difficult this is. Let her know that she did the right thing.
  5. Make an immediate emergency appointment with your child's physician, alerting the medical staff that the examination is necessary because of a sexual abuse disclosure. You may ask at that time for a referral to a child abuse assessment center, if one is available in your area. Assessment centers utilizing the medical model will have on-call physicians  who are skilled in sexual abuse cases. Your child could then have her examination and be interviewed in a safe, child-friendly place, minimizing anxiety and stress.
  6. Keep your child safe. This will require denying contact with the perpetrator, whoever he is. He may be a family member, community member, child care provider, or baby-sitter. Whoever he is, do not let your child be unsupervised with this person. You do not have to go through this experience alone. Numbers to call for support include:
    • The National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD). This hotline will refer you to support services in your area.
    • Department of Human Services (DHS), Child Welfare, or Child Protective Services. These agencies are listed in the telephone book under governmental listings. This agency will gather information and conduct an investigation. They may determine if law enforcement is involved. DHS and law enforcement often conduct investigations together. They will also provide counseling and support services to the child or refer you to mental health professionals.
    • A local women's crisis center will offer needed services to the family, including safe housing if you do not believe that you can maintain your child's safety in the home.

After the sexual abuse is reported, investigators from law enforcement, DHS, and the child abuse assessment center may interview you, your child, and other adults aware of the abuse. Findings will be reported to the District Attorney's Office, which will then decide if the information gathered to that point provides a sufficient basis for the charges. If so, they will issue a warrant, and a court process will follow.

Suggestions for Following the Investigative Process:

  1. Place responsibility for the abuse on the abuser. Consistently assert that the child was not responsible for the abuse and that it is always the adult's responsibility to protect the child. Let the child know that he is not alone. If the child is old enough, provide information about sexual abuse. Reinforce that secrets are what keeps people from talking about the abuse. Reliable statistics continue to show that 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys are sexually abused.
  2. Do not have your child confront the perpetrator. This can further traumatize your child.
  3. Be available. Let your child know that you want to support her and are available whenever she wants to talk about the abuse. Your child needs your love and comfort. If you are not available, she may feel rejected and abandoned, increasing the negative emotions and trauma symptoms. Even though you may be in pain yourself, you must prioritize the needs of your child. If you appear unable to cope with the disclosure and the post-disclosure process, your child may recant. She does not want to see you in pain and will feel guilty that she has caused this.
  4. Listen to your child. Be mindful. Be present. Do not minimize or offer quick fixes to the issues she brings up. Negative or emotional reactions to what your child discloses will increase her guilt and reduce her feelings of safety and support.
  5. Respect your child's process. Do not insist that your child repeat the story or tell you more details. Allow her to talk about the abuse at her own pace and in her own timing.
  6. Encourage and teach your child to express her feelings. This can be done with words, verbal or written, or through art, music, dancing, or play. Common feelings are guilt, fear, anxiety, sadness, confusion, betrayal, and feeling damaged or dirty.
  7. Remember that emotions will be stronger if the perpetrator was a close family member, loved and trusted by the child.
  8. Protect your child no matter who the perpetrator is. If he is your husband or partner, he will have to leave the house. If the perpetrator is another child, a sibling of the victim, you will need to find alternative housing for your other child, at least temporarily.
  9. Be aware that some people will judge you for what you are doing. Some people will not believe the allegations. If the perpetrator denies abusing your child, other family members and friends may align with the perpetrator. This adds additional pain and rejection for you to deal with.
  10. Know that some people will blame you or your child for the abuse. It is more likely that the child will be blamed if he or she is an adolescent. If she is a troubled adolescent, it becomes more likely that others will not believe her. What they do not understand is that a symptom of child sexual abuse is acting out behaviors as teenagers. Abuse victims are more likely to drink, use drugs, be sexually promiscuous, cut on themselves, have eating disorders, attempt suicide, get pregnant, run away, and be prostitutes as teenagers. What is portrayed as problem behaviors in your child may be warning signs for abuse.
  11. Support your child. The mother's support is a positive indicator of the child's future recovery from the abuse.
  12. It is common for sexually abused children to revert in toileting behaviors (bed-wetting, soiling pants) and have nightmares, night terrors, and acute fear of abandonment. Victims may revert to sucking their thumbs or they may masturbate in public. Whatever the behavior, it is important to remain calm, not judge the child, and patiently remind her of acceptable behaviors and rules. She needs you to be there, understand, and support her.
  13. Reassure your child of her worth and value. Let her know that she is beautiful, smart, perfect, and undamaged. She may believe that she is "no good," "damaged," "ruined," and worthless. Let her know that this is not true. Remind her that she is not at fault, that the responsibility for the abuse is the offender's, not hers. Look for ways to boost her self-esteem. Encourage her to engage in activities in which she feels competent, such as dancing, music, sports, hobbies. Help her develop new activities and hobbies.
  14. Develop a support group for yourself. Find the friends and family members who accept you without judgment and are available to you for phone calls, emergency visits, and to accompany you to appointments. Find a counselor or support group in your area, if possible. Read books . Take part in online discussion groups for mothers of sexually abused children.       




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