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When a Child Tells About Sexual Abuse
What protective adults need to know
Three quarters of children who are sexually abused do not tell anyone about it and many keep their secret all their lives. Sexual abusers are more likely to be people we know, and could well be people we care about; after all more than 8 out of 10 children who are sexually abused know their abuser. They are family members or friends, neighbours or babysitters – many hold responsible positions in society. The closer the relationship between the abuser and the victim, the less likely they are to talk about it.
Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them so being aware of the signs is vital. However, children may give vague hints that something is happening. Their information may not be clear and they may not have the words to explain what is happening to them. The way adults respond to this is vital to ensuring the child’s safety.
Respond with care and urgency
If you think a child is trying to tell you about a sexually abusive situation, respond promptly and with care. The police and children's social services have joint working arrangements for responding to suspected child sexual abuse. They are experienced in this work and will deal sensitively with the child and family.
Believe the child
If a child trusts you enough to tell you about abuse, you must remember that they rarely lie about such things. Although it may be hard to believe that someone we trust or care about is capable of sexually abusing a child, it's highly unlikely that a child would deliberately make false accusations about adult-like sexual behaviours.
The pressures on the child to keep silent are enormous. It takes tremendous courage to talk about abuse. A child's claim that sexual abuse did not happen (when it actually did), or taking back a disclosure of abuse are common. Sometimes the child's account of what happened changes or evolves over time. This is a common pattern for disclosure and should not invalidate their story.
It is important that they feel supported – don’t dismiss their claims or put them off talking about it.
If they are talking to you about it, don’t get angry. Stay calm and steady. If you get angry the child may think you are going to punish them – this will play into the hands of the abuser who warned the child not to tell.
Make sure the child knows you love them and that they have done nothing wrong – and keep telling them. The child will need to see that adults believe them and they are doing all they can to protect them. Make sure the child knows they were right to talk about it and that you are glad they came to you.
Face the problem
When the abuse is known, adults must face the problem honestly, protect the child at all costs and place responsibility appropriately with the abuser.
Do what is necessary to protect the child from further harm. Put into place a family safety plan.
Do not despair
Children can and do recover from child sexual abuse. It is incredibly difficult to hear that someone you love has been hurt in such a way but help to recover is available.
What the child may be feeling
Afraid that the person who abused them will reject or harm them or those they love.
Scared that no one will believe them.
Anxious about what will happen next.
Confused and conflicted
Unsure about whom they can trust.
Feels protective and/or loving toward the person who abused them.
Regrets having told (may even take back the disclosure).
Guilt and shame
Believes they are responsible for the abuse.
Feels guilt about upsetting the family by telling.
Feels ashamed if they experienced positive physical sensations.
Hope and relief
Is relieved that the burden of secrecy has been lifted.
Feels hopeful that the abuse will now stop.
Sexual abuse or incest within the family
When a child is abused by another family member, each family member is affected. Typically, the help of outside specialists is needed to address the emotional toll on the family and to assist the healing process of each individual.
When sexual abuse takes place within families, the pain we experience can include conflicting and confusing emotions. We may feel extreme anguish over what was done to the child, while still feeling love and concern for the family member who committed the abuse.
What protective parents and caregivers may be feeling
Rage toward the person who abused for harming the child, betraying our trust, deceiving and manipulating us.
Anger at the child for not telling sooner.
Self-blame for not having seen what was happening in time to protect the child (even when the person responsible for the abuse did all that they could to keep it hidden).
Guilt over loving or caring about the person who abused the child.
Afraid about how the abuse will impact the child.
Fearful about the family's future and the consequences for the person who abused the child.
Loneliness and loss
Grieving for the loss of the life we had, or thought we had, before we knew about the abuse.
Feeling extreme sense of isolation.
Finding support for ourselves
As protective parents and caregivers, we also need support. Connecting with whom we can share our feelings will help us cope with the trauma and the challenges we face. Useful contacts can be found on our get help / further support pages.
Intervening with the person who has sexually abused
The person who has sexually abused a child needs to be held accountable and get specialized professional help. The local police or children's services are often best placed to take the next steps. Should you choose not to contact them, and if it is safe, consider speaking directly to the person who has offended.
Some points to keep in mind when speaking with someone who has or may have abused:
- Explore the situation in a non-accusatory, non-confrontational way. This may help to reduce the person's defensiveness.
- Be specific about the behaviours that concern you and state your reactions to them.
- Ask simple and direct questions.
- Let the person know that there is help available; individuals can and have gone on to live abuse-free lives by first taking responsibility for the harm they've done, facing the consequences of their actions, and committing themselves to change and to specialized treatment.
- If you feel it, let the person know that you care about them. Loving support can be an important factor in getting someone to take responsibility, face consequences and get treatment.
- Conversations generally need to happen more than once.
- Find an ally for yourself whom you can turn to for support.
- Encourage them to call the Stop it Now! Helpline on 0808 1000 900.
When abuse is exposed the person who offended may experience any of the following:
Feels angry at the child for telling.
Shame and remorse
Feels extreme self-hatred; may want to self-harm.
Is remorseful over the harm they have done.
Afraid of legal consequences.
Fears loss of family and loved ones, home, reputation, status and job.
Concerned about being viewed contemptuously by others.
If a child or teen, fears being taken from home or losing friendships.
Feels impulse to deny, justify or minimize the harm.
Relief and hope
Believed that the burden of the secret has been lifted.
Hopeful that they will get help for a problem they have struggled with secretly over time.
Learning that a child has been abused is a time of trauma. It's important to get help for yourself to help you cope with the emotions, challenges and decisions you face.
This may be the time to turn to a friend, clergy member, counsellor or therapist for emotional support. The more able you are to cope, the more you can help your child and family. Organisations that you may wish to contact can be found on our useful links page.