Talking with an Adult Who Has Already Abused

Decide first if it is safe for you to have a conversation

When your safety is at risk, it is simply not an option to speak directly with the person whom you know or suspect has abused a child, particularly in situations of domestic violence. In such instances it’s advisable to speak with a domestic violence advocate  and/or to report the abuse directly to the authorities.

Adults who offend are likely to justify or deny harmful behavior

Recognize that many adults who abuse can do so because they are able to justify the behavior to themselves and may attempt to minimize to others the harm they have caused. Some will deny the behavior in an attempt to defend themselves or because they do not believe that what they have done is abusive.

The person who has abused may make an attempt to explain that the child agreed to participate. Especially in a situation with a teen, the person abusing may perceive the minor child to be his or her romantic partner. You can help make it clear that no sexual act with a child can ever be consensual. Be prepared with a clear definition of child sexual abuse so you can respond to any possible attempts he/she might make to justify the sexual behavior or blame the child.

Offer your concern for their welfare and safety

Consider appealing to their concerns for what might happen to them. “If you don’t reach out for help now, your out-of-control feelings may get worse.” “By coming forward and admitting your behavior to a therapist or the authorities, you are making it known that you are willing to take responsibility for what you have done – this may be taken into account if there are legal outcomes.”

Some adults choose to come forward on their own

Offer them the opportunity to come forward first, if they are willing. Some people choose to offer the person abusing a chance to come forward voluntarily which could be considered in their favor in the eyes of the legal system. We talk to people on our Helpline who choose to come forward in a state of desperation for help and a strong desire for their out-of-control behaviors to finally stop. Whether the person abusing chooses to come forward or not, the protective adults should file a subsequent report with the authorities.

They may respond to you with feelings of shame and fear

Prepare for and be aware that possible reactions can include strong feelings of shame and fear. Someone who has abused may offer an apology in an attempt to rid themselves of the terrible remorse they feel. (Remember that accepting a promise “never to do it again” is extremely risky in cases of child sexual abuse.) Some adults may react with self-hatred and self-harming behavior such as drug use, or thoughts or attempts related to suicide. Some adults feel they should leave home, leave town and isolate themselves.

In case you think suicide is a risk

If you are concerned that this person is a safety risk to themselves, or might try to kill themselves, try your best not to let them be alone and connect them to crisis mental health counseling right away. Let them know you are concerned about them. “I care about you and realize that you may be feeling upset or frightened. Please let me know where you will be, exactly how I can be in touch with you, and when we will talk next.” Gather resources for local mental health crisis services, suicide lines, specialized treatment, temporary housing if necessary and family or friends who can be supportive.

Offer to assist them to take the next step

Offer resources and the practical support to access them. Recognize that they may be feeling trapped by the prospect of charges against them. You can offer to help find an attorney with whom they can have a confidential consultation and plan the best way for them to come forward. You might offer the names of specialized therapists whom they might consult for support to come forward.