What do I say to a child who talks about being abused?


Dear Stop It Now!,

We know the signs to look for, however, at that moment when a child comes to you saying she is being abused, what's the conversation to ensure all is said and the child does not go back into a shell? The child may not want you to go to the authorities, or get someone in "trouble". Do I betray the trust and run to the police? What do I say to the child?

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Dear Concerned Bystander,

Thank you for writing to us with your questions. I am so sorry to hear that a child you care for is experiencing abuse. Sexual abuse is not something that one person can protect against on his or her own; it does require outside help. To start, please look over our information from our Online Help Center, When a child tells about sexual abuse.

Believe Them
Most importantly, believe the child. Children rarely make up a story of abuse and if so, it is usually at the prompting of an adult.. They are not able to make up stories about sexual abuse and adult-like sexual behaviors without having some awareness of these behaviors. Kids can make up stories about make-believe things that adults have talked about, such as unicorns and fairy tale kingdoms, but they are not able to create stories using imagery if they have not already been introduced to those images.

Stay Calm
Children will take their cue from the adults who hear their disclosure. While you may be experiencing many things such as rage, fear, or some other equally uncomfortable and unsettling emotion, these are your adult responses and need to be managed later and in private. The child will benefit from seeing an adult whom she trusts, who is in control and whom she believes will keep her safe.

Be Reassuring
Let this child know that she did the right thing in telling you. She may be fearful that someone she loves is going to get into trouble because of her disclosure, or perhaps the child was threatened that something bad would happen if she tells. Again, focus on helping this child feel safe.I know that you are concerned that this child wants you to keep her confidentiality but it’s important that you let this child know that now that you know, you are responsible for her safety. This means that as an adult, you will have to tell other people to make sure that both the child and the adult who is abusing the child get help so that no one else gets hurt and that this is not a secret you can keep.

Additionally, assure this child that she is in no way to blame for what happened.  You can explain that when adults hurt a child or do something that is against the rules, it is the adult’s responsibility – always.

Reporting is very important that you take the next necessary step and file a report with Child Protective Services or your local police.  I understand the child may see it as a betrayal to make a report but this is the only way to keep her safe and stop further abuse from happening.  As the adult in this situation it is your job to prioritize safety above all else. This is the most loving thing you can do in this case.

Filing a report with Child Protective Services means the child can be protected and everyone involved can get the help they need. Here is some information about filing reports: Reporting Child Sexual Abuse and to find your state’s reporting number, here is a Directory of Child Abuse Reporting Numbers.

Getting Help
It will be necessary for the child to be evaluated by specially trained health care professionals experienced in working with children who have been sexually harmed. This type of evaluation may occur in a nearby hospital setting or at the nearest Children’s Advocacy Center. Please see the National Children's Alliance, for a listing of advocacy centers and the Treatment Resources for Children for additional information.

This is a time when you and other involved adults may find it helpful to get support for yourselves and have someone to talk to about your own feelings – such as a close friend, other family member, member of the clergy or a counselor. 

I hope this information is helpful, and please do not hesitate to contact us back with further concerns or questions. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: June 1st, 2021