Parenting Victims

The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides information to parents regarding sexual abuse and how to establish safety and family guidelines. Although written as a guide for foster parents, it contains much useful information.

Children who have been sexually abused display emotions and demonstrate patterns in behaviors and relationship that are similar and can be expected. Being aware and prepared for these to occur can help you to separate your own emotions from the situation and be more available to your child for support. Common emotional responses and behaviors include: 
  • Withdrawal -  Your child may be overwhelmed by painful emotions and may want to withdraw physically or emotionally from the family. She may isolate, avoid interaction, not talk to you, not listen when you speak, and appear detached from the family.  
  • Mood swings - Your child's mood may change rapidly and be unpredictable. Her way of relating, communicating, receiving or showing affection, are variable. These may be random and catch you off guard. The pendulum swing of emotions may be daily, with depression or rage changing to calm and responsiveness. 
  • Anger  - Your child is angry at the offender, the process, herself, and you. The safest target for angry feelings is the person most trusted. Therefore, mothers may be the target for the most anger. 
  • Unreasonable demands - Some children may have learned skills of manipulation or control in the process of surviving sexual abuse. They may feel entitled to extra privileges and demand things, time, or money.  
  • Sexualized behaviors - A sexually abused child may act out sexually towards other children or towards adults. They may demand participation in sexual activities or discuss sexual activities with other children or adults. 
  • Avoidance - Some children will not want closeness with anyone, adult or child, and recoil from physical touch. They may feel uncomfortable with being touched because it reminds them of the abuse.  
  • The sexually abused child may have feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and being damaged goods. She may think that no one will ever love or care about her unless sex is involved in the relationship.    
  • Self-harm - Sexually abused children may hate their bodies and want to do self-harm by scratching, cutting, or burning themselves.
  • Confusion - Your child may think and believe that she has been abused but sometimes also think that she imagined it.
  • Blame - Your child may blame you, the mother, for not protecting her and may not be able to talk to you. She may be afraid that she will hurt you. 
  • Many areas of a child's life are negatively impacted by sexual abuse. See Ten Life Areas Most Impacted
  • Thoughts and feelings about the sexual abuse, holding themselves responsible for it because:         
    • Physical sensations felt good.
    • Abuse occurred over a long period of time.
    • They did not stop the abuse.
    • They did not say "no."
    • They were not forced.
    • They did not tell.

Your response as a parent when your child says or does the things above is critical. Support from the mother is the most important factor in a child's recovery from sexual abuse. How you respond, what you say, how you parent - all of these affect your child's ability to recover from the sexual abuse, develop healthy habits, improve ways of relating to others, and grow up as a healthy adult without many of the negative consequences of abuse.

  • Reassure the child that you love her and that is why you will provide boundaries. Establish the boundaries and then maintain them - even under pressure.
  • When you observe changes in your child's behavior, discuss them and involve the child in looking for solutions. Have your child help you set consequences for specific behaviors.
  • When your child's moods fluctuate and are unpredictable, remind yourself that it is not about you and try not to personalize situations. Your child is in pain, and you want to help. However, you cannot control someone else's feelings.
  • Provide consistent love and care, while maintaining boundaries
  • When your child blames you, do not get defensive. Listen. Love. Detach. In this way, she can learn to trust you, trust your responses. 
  • Remain calm. If she explodes in anger, remain calm. Give alternatives. Give consequences. Calmly.
  • Accept that your child does not understand why she is saying what she is. She is in pain and striking out. You may be the closest and most trustworthy target.
  • Do not accept your child striking you or place yourself in danger. Assure your child that you are willing to sit down and talk or to do some other activity that may distract her from present painful feelings.
  • Be consistent, be fair, and be predictable in your responses. Your child will be comforted and feel more secure.
  • When children act out sexually, they may be trying to meet needs that were previously met during sexual abuse. Although some sexual abuse involves pain and force, many times it occurs in a context of love, caring, intimacy, touch, validation, companionship, affection, and nurturing. The child is unaware that this is not appropriate between an adult and a child. The child has been told by an adult that it is appropriate. Try to understand how confusing this is to the child.
  • You will need to work with your child so she can learn other ways to meet the needs previously met through sexual abuse.    

Children who have been sexually abused will benefit from structure and consistency in the home and guidelines and rules to follow. Rules should be clear, be explained prior to an expectation that the child will follow them, and consequences for not following the rules should be outlined. Rules should cover situations that may occur both at home and away. Your child will feel safer and more secure with these rules in place.

  • Privacy -Teach your child that everyone has the right to privacy, and this is why you knock when doors are closed. Be sure that you follow the rule.
  • Bedrooms and bathrooms - These two areas are triggers for children as most sexual abuse occurs in one or both of those rooms. You will want to decide on clear rules and guidelines regarding sharing bedrooms, being in another child's bed, being in the bathroom when someone else is in the bathroom, and sharing bath times.
  • Touching - Let your child know that no one should touch another person without permission. Let her know that private parts are to be touched by no one other than a doctor during a medical examination. If the child is very young, include that you may help them with bathing or toileting. 
  • Clothing - Have family rules about being clothed. A sexually abused child may be overstimulated by seeing others in their underwear or walking around nude.
  • Setting limits, saying "no" - Teach your child assertiveness. Teach them how to say "no" clearly when someone touches them in a way they do not like. Practice this with them.
  • Emergency plan - Teach your child what to do if someone goes beyond their limits, even though they have said "no." Teach your child about safety plans, emergency people to call. Teach your child to scream, if to do so will not result in their being harmed.
  • Sex education - Teach your child basic sexual information. Let her know that it is all right to talk to you about sex. Provide appropriate words for body parts, such as penis, vagina, breasts, buttocks. Help the child find ways to talk about the abuse that does not trigger the trauma. 
  • Obscene and sexualized language - Set family rules that obscene language is not allowed. For children who have been sexually abused, language can be a trigger for painful feelings.
  • Secrets - Have a "no secret" rule in your home. Make it clear that if an adult ever asks a child to keep a secret, the child should immediately tell you.
  • Being alone with one person - Whenever a child is struggling with sexually acting out, she is high risk for further abuse or for abusing a younger child. Protect your child. During these times make sure that she is never left alone with someone.
  • Wrestling and tickling - These behaviors have sexual overtones. Set rules that they are not allowed in the home. They may appear to be normal childhood behavior; however, a younger, weaker child may feel uncomfortable or humiliated. Some sexual abuse occurs within the context of "tickling." Pay attention and protect your children.
  • Other thoughts and feelings - Let children know the difference between feeling and behavior. Let them know that feelings are normal, including sexual feelings. However, a feeling does not give a right to a behavior. Discuss the topics of choice and responsibility with your child.

If the perpetrator is a parent or other family member who your child will continue to see, set guidelines and limits around those situations. Do not be afraid of being harsh. Others may judge you. Maintain your role as protector

You unconditional love and acceptance of your child will help her rebuild her self-esteem and recover from the sexual abuse. Modeling effective coping skills and self-care and demonstrating your own emotion management will help her find ways to control her emotions and begin to self-regulate.  

Additional guidelines for you as the parent of a child who has been sexually abused:

  • Put the needs of your child first.
  • Supervise and protect your child at all times.
  • Be consistent with schedule, structure, rules, and consequences.
  • Practice mindfulness with your child. Be there. See her. Be aware. Do not take her for granted. Listen. 
  • Develop and maintain a strong support network for yourself.       

See Post-Disclosure Parenting.



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