When a Child Tells About Sexual Abuse
What Protective Adults Need to Know
- About 85% of children who are sexually abused never tell, or delay telling, about the abuse.
- The closer the relationship between the child and the abuser, the less likely the child is to disclose.
- Often disclosure is gradual and may begin with vague hints or unclear information.
- If you believe a child is attempting to tell about a sexually abusive situation, respond promptly with care and find help for everyone involved.
The way non-offending adults respond to a child's disclosure of sexual abuse has a direct impact on the child's recovery. Children who tell about being abused need to see that adults believe them and are doing all that they can to protect them. When the abuse is made known, adults must face the problem honestly, protect the child at all costs, and place responsibility appropriately with the person who has offended.
What you can do when a child tells
- Stay steady. Offer calm reassurance. Children can and do recover.
- Believe the child. Assure the child that you believe what they are saying and are glad that they told you.
- Re-establish safety. Do what is necessary to protect the child from further harm.
- Free the child of self-blame. Tell the child that they are not responsible for what occurred, and keep telling them.
- Get help. Find professionals to guide your next steps towards safety and healing.
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.
Believe the child
Research suggests that children rarely lie about sexual abuse. 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 behaviors.
The pressures on the child to keep silent are enormous. It takes tremendous courage to disclose. 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.
Sexual Abuse or Incest within the Family
Help for the individual and for the family as a whole
When a child has been sexually abused by another member of the family, each family member is affected. Typically, the help of outside specialists is needed to address the emotional toll on the family and to assist in 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
- Greiving for the loss of the life we had, or thought we had, before we knew about the abuse.
- Feeling exteme sense of isolation.
Finding support for ourselves
As protective parents and caregivers, we also need support. Connecting with friends and/or professionals with whom we can share our feelings will help us cope with the trauma and the challenges we face.
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. If it is safe, consider speaking directly to the person who has offended. See our Let's Talk guidebook for more information.
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 behaviors 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.
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 harm self.
- 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.
- Relieved 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, counselor or therapist for emotional support. By asking your child's therapist you may be able to locate support groups for parents in a similar situation. The more able you are to cope, the more you can help your child and family.