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Helpful and Harmful Reactions to Disclosure of Sexual Abuse

How a parent or adult responds to a child's disclosure of being sexually abused will have a huge impact on that child. Learn more.

At the time of your child's disclosure of sexual abuse, your reaction will play a very large part in how your child and family cope and heal from the sexual abuse.

The most important helpful reaction is to believe and acknowledge your child's experience. Your child will learn from you as a parent and from other significant adults about the meaning of the sexual abuse experience.

For a young child, the most harmful reaction that a parent(s) can give is verbal disbelief and punishment for the disclosure. Verbally expressed disbelief teaches a child that their internal sense of right and wrong cannot to be trusted. When punishment occurs, children learn the consequence for disclosure is a negative reaction.

In general, sexually abused children recant disclosures and information when they feel that what they have said is not accepted or heard by significant adults. In particular, with incest cases, disbelief expressed by the non-offending parent can feel like pressure to a child to recant their disclosure.

Children may also recant disclosures for the following reasons: their perpetrator denies the disclosure; they are repeatedly questioned by child welfare authorities such as law enforcement, child protection workers, doctors and others in our legal system; and finally, when disbelief is expressed by other significant adults, such as teachers or family members, such as siblings.

As a parent(s) you may find it necessary to reduce further stress by limiting your child's contact with others who are not supportive or believing of the sexual abuse.


 

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Once you tell your child that you believe them, it will be important to show them by giving support and reassurance. Being able to give your child support helps validate their perception of the sexual abuse situation. Two ways of verbally providing reassurance are to tell your child that you are sorry about what happened and to make a statement that it was not okay for the perpetrator to touch them in the way they did. Some children will benefit from reassurances that they will be protected from the perpetrator. A word of CAUTION: if you cannot protect your child from future contacts with the perpetrator, such as often occurs in disputed incest and custody cases, do not give false reassurances. Failure to keep promises of protection will contribute to your child's feelings of helplessness. Another way of providing reassurance is to be available to talk when it appears as though your child may need it the most, for example, prior to stressful transitions such as change in day care or at bedtime.

How a parent or adult responds to a child's disclosure of being sexually abused will have a huge impact on that child. Learn more.Talking with your child in a matter of fact, calm voice helps your child feel that you are in control and that you can help them survive their experience. Reactions of shock, such as, "you'll never be the same," reinforces feelings of difference and damage. Highly emotional reactions such as revenge and extreme anger can increase your child's fear and worry. Young children tend to feel responsible for parental reactions and feelings. It is harmful to show your child that you are in a great deal of distress from their disclosure. Your child needs to know that you can survive the sexual abuse experience with him/her.

Children who feel responsible for causing the sexual abuse will suffer a more negative impact from the experience. As a parent you can lessen your child's burden of disclosure and feelings of responsibility for causing the sexual abuse. You can tell your child that it was not his/her fault and that it took a lot of courage to tell.

Parental reactions such as, "how could this happen", questions such as, "why didn't you tell me sooner" or "why didn't you tell me", can unintentionally intensify feelings of blame.

When parents indirectly or directly blame their child for causing the abuse, they are in effect excusing the perpetrator. Perpetrators are solely responsible for the sexual abuse of a child.

Parents can have the tendency to want to lessen their child's hurtful/painful feelings by minimizing the seriousness of the situation or event. Sexually abused children need to have acceptance of their feelings whatever they are. Empathy with your child's feelings shows acceptance and validates that you are listening.

It will be important that you resist the urge to treat your child differently. Should you begin to do so he/she may further believe that they are somehow damaged and different because of the sexual abuse. Parental reactions of guilt, such as, "I should have known", can lead to overprotection. Overprotection can send the message that your child will not recover from his/her experience. Keeping daily routines and reducing changes can be comforting for your child.

When a disclosure is made a report to law enforcement or child protection usually follows. It is helpful to reassure your child about the involvement of these professionals in your life. For example statements such as, "other adults will help us" or "we need to find other adults to help us" or acknowledging that you don't have an answer but stating, "I will find someone who will answer that question", can be reassuring to a child.

Sources:

  • Dane County Commission on Sensitive Crimes

next: When to Seek Help for Your Child

Last Updated: 17 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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