There is no doubt that loving support is key to helping a child heal from sexual abuse or overcome a sexual behavior problem. But sometimes we can feel loving without knowing what loving steps we can take to help our children. As a parent or caretaker, here are some loving actions you can take to foster healing and recovery.
Respond to the child in a calm and matter-of-fact manner. Let the child know that no matter what happened or what they say, you’ll still love them. If the child has been abused, be sure to reassure the child many times over that the abuse was not their fault. If they disclosed the abuse, tell them how happy and proud you are of them for telling. If the child has harmed another child, assure them that help is available to help them stop. Either way, let the child know that you’ll do whatever you can to keep them safe.
Make sure your child knows that you are open and willing to talk. If your child has been abused, provide opportunities for conversation, but let your child be the one to bring the subject up. If they do, listen to them carefully, let them express their feelings, answer their questions as best you can and comfort them. Sometimes parents think that talking about the abuse will cause children more pain. But children need to know that there is a loving parent or adult with whom they can be honest, and who will acknowledge their pain and accept their feelings.
When a child has sexually harmed another child, let the child know that you are open to talking and that they can be honest with you about their feelings. Reassure your child that you are “in their corner”, that you love them, and that you will support them not only through your caring, but by getting them appropriate treatment and by encouraging them through the process of learning and practicing new behaviors.
Use routine to provide predictability and reassurance. Anxiety, fear, distrust are just a few emotions children who have been impacted by child sexual abuse experience. This can be as true for children who are struggling to overcome sexual behavior problems as it is for children who have been sexually abused. Having some structure in their lives, and a parent or caretaker who will explain beforehand when there will be a change in the routine or a new activity coming up, can be very reassuring to a child. Feeling that a parent or caretaker is in control a good deal of the time can help a child feel safe.
Understand that your child may go through a range of emotions and behaviors brought about by the abuse. Mood swings; changes in eating, sleeping and other habits; fear, anger, acting like a younger child are not uncommon responses to the trauma of sexual abuse. Expect some behavior difficulties. Although it’s not easy to do, try to be comforting while still setting limits on the child’s behavior.