Every situation is unique. Reacting to a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse with the right amount of appropriateness, care and sensitivity is not easy. No one ever does it perfectly. And if, in addition, the person committing the abuse is someone we love, the sense of betrayal makes it more complex. Our allegiances to those we care about can seem not only tested, but divided. But healing is possible for everyone involved.
The ways in which adults respond to a child’s disclosure effects the child’s concept of the abuse as well as their handling of the recovery process. One of the most difficult parts of helping a child cope with sexual abuse may be keeping the needs and reactions of the adult separate from those of the child. When we, as adults, are able to respond with care and without threats of punishment to anyone, then we play an even more important role in boosting our child’s ability to move toward an experience of safety and healing.
If you think a child is attempting to tell you about a situation of sexual abuse, it is important that you remain calm and let the child know that they did the right thing by telling you. Let the child know that you believe what they are telling you is true (even if it is hard for you to consider or accept). Assure the child that you will do whatever you can to prevent the abuse from happening again. Keep in mind that threats of violence or punishment to the person who abused them may frighten a child even more, especially if the child still has positive feelings toward this person.
The child’s well-being and sense of safety need to be the primary focus. Even if you have trouble believing the disclosure, it’s important to let the child know they will be protected. Additionally, it’s important that adults demonstrate to the child that he/she deserves protection by limiting contact with the person who has been abusive. Be careful, though, not to make absolute promises that the abuse will stop. Broken promises are harmful to any child – especially one who is already feeling betrayed. Rather, reassure the child that once he/she -- and the person who is harming them -- receive help, the situation can get better.
Do the best you can and get help. Although you may be tempted to handle a disclosure on your own, it is best to seek the guidance of a competent professional. Find specialized treatment for everyone. Keep reminding yourself that everyone – including the person accused of the abuse – is in need of healing.