How to Handle Disclosure of Sexual Abuse from a Child

Oct 20th, 2009 | By | Category: All Posts, Articles

Christina Enevoldsen

by Christina Enevoldsen

Sexual abuse is one of the most traumatic events that can happen to a child.  The way their disclosure is handled can make a difference in whether the discloser is a continuation of their trauma or the first step in healing.  Though it is difficult to believe that someone could hurt a child that way, children rarely make false accusations about their abuse.  It is easier to deny that abuse occurred because it’s a frightening thing to handle, even for adults, but imagine what it feels like for the child. 

It is extremely difficult for children to tell about their abuse for many reasons.  They usually feel shame and blame themselves for the abuse.  They may feel guilty if they received gifts or attention from the abuser or if they felt pleasure.  They usually feel not being believed and are probably very confused about what happened to them.  The child may also fear threats made by the perpetrator or fear that the abuser may get in trouble.

Your immediate response should be:

  1. Remain calm.  Don’t show feelings of anger, shock or horror.  Children cannot always differentiate between your anger at the abuser and anger towards him.Tell the child you believe him and he was brave to tell you. 
  2. Tell the child it was the right thing to tell you.
  3. Tell the child it was not his fault and he did nothing wrong. 
  4. Report the abuse.  If you are hesitant to call the police because you think there is not enough evidence, or that the crime isn’t serious enough to involve the police, call the police.  Let them decide if it is a valid case. 

For parents of abused children:

It’s heartbreaking to find out your child was sexually abused.  You may find that you are tempted to believe it didn’t happen, especially if the abuser is your partner, friend or relative.  You may also be tempted to blame the child in your attempt to process the news.  You may feel guilty for not protecting your child or angry at the abuser.   It is a very difficult thing to face, but remember that you are the parent.  As the parent, you are responsible for the well-being of your child and your child’s physical, mental and emotional health must be your focus.  If you can’t deal with the emotional difficulty, go to therapy.  But only go after you do the right thing and save your child.

If someone you know has abused your child, you must choose allegiance to your child.  It’s hard to believe someone you love could commit such a monstrous act, particularly on your own child.  They betrayed your trust and your child’s.   It is very painful to face, but do not allow your pain to keep you from acting.  Take your child away from the abuser.

If you are afraid to report it because it would end your marriage, choose to save your child instead of saving your marriage.  Your child is helpless. You and your spouse are not. 

Report the abuse to the police.  Many cities have special units that deal with family violence.  They can help you find resources for shelter and counseling. 

Your child trusts you to protect him. He trusts you to make the tough decisions and to shield him from harm.

It is extremely difficult to face this tragedy.  There are people who will help you through it.  But no one can help you or your child if they don’t know what’s going on.  Call the police.  They can put you in touch with a whole network in your community to help people in your situation.

How Can Abused Children be Helped?

  1. The first thing parents can do to help their child heal from abuse is to provide their child with a safe environment.  That means no contact with the abuser. 
  2. A child won’t just forget about this.  He needs help to process this serious trauma.  That help can come through an experienced counselor in working with children survivors of sexual abuse, through talking, writing or drawing about their feelings, or a number of other tools.  But time alone won’t erase the effects.  Ignoring it won’t heal them.  They need help. 
  3. Children shouldn’t be forced to talk about the abuse.  Allow them to bring it up and be willing to listen when they do.  
  4. Parents need to remember to take care of themselves so that they can be at their best for their children. 

Christina Enevoldsen is cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse, an online resource for male and female abuse survivors looking for practical answers and tools for healing. Christina’s passions are writing and speaking about her own journey of healing from abuse and inspiring people toward wholeness. She and her husband live in Los Angeles and share three children and four grandchildren.

[read Christina’s story here]

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