If you have suspicions
that your child has been sexually abused
, but you have been unable to confirm these suspicions, you have an opportunity to prepare for the disclosure
. The following guidelines are meant to help you in that process. If your child has already disclosed, these guidelines remain useful. She may continue to disclose incidents and details. Your ability to be present, listen, and believe your child is critical to her now and in the future. Mothers are the most important predictor of the child's recovery from sexual abuse.
Guidelines for dealing with a child's disclosure of sexual abuse:
- Believe your child. The most important thing you can do right now is let your child know that you believe him. When the child discloses, he is afraid that he will not be believed or that the consequences of telling will be severe. The abuser has told him lies to prevent the secret from being told.
- Remain calm. The child may disclose just a little of the abuse and watch for your reaction. If you are appear shocked, angry, disgusted, or seriously upset, she may shut down and not tell more of the abuse or she may recant (take back) what has already been told. The child may want to protect you from getting hurt. The abuser may have used your reaction and the pain you would be caused as a way to keep the secret. The child also has feelings of guilt, shame, confusion, fear - your response will either reassure the child or increase these negative emotions.
- Do not show anger while you are talking to your child. You may feel angry at the offender. Hide it. Then allow yourself the opportunity later to feel your feelings and talk to someone safe, finding your own sources of support. If anger leaks out while you are talking to your child, make sure that she understands that you are not angry at her, but you are angry that an adult did something to hurt her.
- Provide a quiet, safe place to talk to your child. If the child starts to talk to you in a public place or with others present, try to move the conversation to a quiet place as quickly as possible. You want to protect your child by having as few people as possible know about the disclosure. Right now, your goal is to help your child stay safe and calm.
- Listen. Tell him you believe him. And do not ask questions or press for details. Leave that to the people who will investigate the case. If you ask questions or upset your child, he may be unwilling to talk to professionals, and you may then be unable to help him stay safe.
- Help your child understand that abuse happens to other children. Tell your child that many children are abused but that most children do not tell about it. Let your child know that you are very glad that she had the courage to tell. Tell your child that it was the adult or older child's responsibility to help you stay safe, and they were wrong to do this to you.
- Don't make any promises. You may want to say that you will make sure this never happens again. You may be unable to keep that promise. You may not have the power to move the abuser out of the child's life or perhaps out of the child's home. Your belief and support in your child, however, is the best predictor of your being able to keep her safe. She will feel more comfortable in talking to authorities. This will affect the legal process and your child's safety. You can tell your child that you will do everything that you can to help her stay safe.
- Suspend judgment while you are talking to your child. Do not judge the abuser or the abuse. Be as calm, neutral, and nonjudgmental as you can be. If the abuser is someone the child knows and loves, she will be ambivalent about the disclosure and may want to take it back immediately. If you criticize the abuser, she may want to defend him. Read Betrayal Bond and Stockholm Syndrome regarding the victim's loyalty to the abuser.
- Let the child know that you must report what he is telling you so that you can help him stay safe. If you do not let him know that you are telling someone else, he may feel betrayed when he finds out that you told.
- Reassure your child. Let her know that you are glad that she told you. Acknowledge the courage that it took. Let her know that the abuse is the fault of the abuser, and she is not guilty. Let her know that what happened to her is wrong, and that you want to protect her so that it will not happen again.
- Let the child know that you will find help for her. Begin to talk to your child about counseling and talking to someone who is trained in helping children get better after abuse occurs. Let her know that other adults want to help her stay safe.
- Report the abuse immediately after talking to your child. If you do not tell about the abuse, you will be unable to keep your child safe. Remember: Your job now is to believe, support, and protect. However, if you do not act responsibly and protect your child, Child Protective Services may assess you as not capable of parenting your child at this point.
- If the perpetrator is someone you know and love - husband, partner, father, brother, son - supporting your child, and reporting the perpetrator are intensely painful responsibilities. It is important that you momentarily lay aside the ambivalence and confusion, as normal as they are, so that you can focus on the child.
- All states have mandatory reporting laws for professionals. When you tell a professional, they are bound by law to report abuse to the proper authorities. Law enforcement and the Child Protective Services will usually be involved immediately. A legal case will be opened. An appointment may be scheduled for your child to be interviewed at a Child Abuse Assessment Center.
- Do not conduct an investigation regarding what your child has disclosed. Allow the investigators to follow up. Let them talk to the abuser. This is one of the most difficult time periods. Try to remain as patient and calm as possible. Try not to interfere in the legal process.
- Take care of yourself so that you can prepare for the stressful experiences ahead. Pay attention to your own health. Cope with the stress. Develop a positive support group of individuals you can call.
- Taking care of yourself helps you be able to support your child to the best of your ability. As much as possible keep daily functioning normal. Continue providing a predictable routine for your child. Spend time with your child. Play. Relax.