Having your child tell you he or she has been sexually abused is very likely among your worst nightmares. But if it’s nightmarish for you, imagine what it would be like for your child. That’s why your first priority, should your child ever disclose sexual abuse to you, is to make him or her feel safe, comfortable, and reassured.
What to Do After Disclosure
If you find yourself needing to fall apart, by all means do so—but wait until you’re away from your child and in the presence of a trusted friend or other adult who can listen. A child who has experienced sexual abuse is very likely already feeling guilt and shame, so making them feel as if they have upset you by telling would only add to the problem.
What to Say Right Away
As soon as your child tells you about sexual abuse, try to say things like the following:
- I am so proud that you told me.
- You were so brave to tell me about this.
- I can help keep you safe because you told me.
What to Do Next
Then follow these guidelines:
- Be matter-of-fact, and try to be objective.
- Encourage your child to open up by repeating what he or she told you and then saying things like “Tell me more” and “What happened next?”
- Try to be as warm and caring as you can, and avoid expressing anger or blame.
- Reassure your child, and make it clear that you believe him or her.
- Don’t insist on precise answers and details like numbers, days, times, and so on.
Then reassure your child that it will not happen again, and that you will get help.
If You Were Too Upset to Listen
If you find you need to revisit the conversation with your child because you were too upset to listen the first time, sit down with your child and gently say something like, “Remember what you told me earlier, about how Uncle John touched your private parts? Can we talk about it again?” Then follow the same guidelines listed above.
Next, report the abuse to your county’s child protection agency or the local police. Don’t worry if you don’t have details. A trained professional will talk to your child, with you present, to learn more about what happened.
There are also national hotlines, such as Childhelp (800-4-A-CHILD) and the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN, 800-656-HOPE). If you need more information, visit our Child Protection Resources page.