Suspecting or discovering that your child has been sexually abused raises challenging questions and concerns, not to mention the emotional toll you may feel as you learn about the abuse. At Saprea, we work hard to provide the support, resources, and good information you need to help you and your child find hope and healing.
Responding When Child Sexual Abuse Has Already Occurred
Believing and validating your child when they disclose sexual abuse has a powerful impact on long-term outcomes.1 Many children may feel scared, guilty, or ashamed, so it’s crucial for you to affirm your trust and support.2,3 Avoid casting blame, expressing doubts, or interrogating your child, and reassure them that the abuse was not their fault.
Believing your child and taking supportive action are two of the most important steps you can take in tandem to help them heal from sexual abuse. Some survivors report that their parents believed them, but still ignored the situation or “swept it under the carpet.” This type of response can lead to an abused child feeling invalidated, anger, and prolonged feelings of worthlessness.4
It’s critical to ensure their safety and prevent the abuse from continuing. Intervene by not allowing the perpetrator access to your child, even if that means switching them to a new sports team, accompanying them to activities with their youth group, breaking up with someone you’ve been dating, or discontinuing visits to see extended family members. Your calm reassurances to your child will be important as you establish firm boundaries to keep them safe.
Keep in mind that disclosure of sexual abuse is often a process that takes time. For the purposes of reporting, it may be necessary for you to get more information about what happened. Allow your child to share at their own pace, using their own words. Asking open-ended, non-leading questions can foster a safe and supportive environment in which your child or teen can share the details they need to.5
- “Can you tell me what happened?”
- “When did this happen? Can you remember the day or time?”
- “What was going on before this happened?”
- “Can you describe what they did?”
- “Can you describe where they touched you?”
- “Was there anyone else around when this happened?”
- “Was there anything said that made you feel uncomfortable or frightened?”
- “How many times has something like this happened?”
- “Did they touch you inappropriately?”
- “Did this happen last week at school?”
- “Were you doing something that made them think this is something you wanted?”
- “Where did they hurt you?”
- “Did they touch your private parts under your clothing?”
- “Did this happen when you were alone with the person?”
- “I need to know if that person threatened you to keep quiet.”
- “Did they do this more than once?”
Offer a compassionate and understanding response if they disclose the details of sexual abuse. It’ll be important to remain calm and composed when communicating with your child as this will help their emotional state and their healing process. Your primary role in this situation is to support your child and, in every way possible, avoid assigning blame or questioning their credibility. This is an important time for you to demonstrate to your child that you will be a safe, trusted, caring adult who will help them navigate through the pain and uncertainty they are experiencing. And, it’s also important for you to remind yourself—and your child—that they will be okay. Healing from sexual abuse is possible, and you’ll be their ongoing support throughout the journey.
Regulating Your Emotions as a Parent/Caregiver
You will likely experience a range of intense emotions upon learning about the abuse. Questions might flood your mind: “How did this happen? What could I have done to prevent it? What should I do?” These responses are understandable, and it will likely take some time for you to work through your own pain. It’ll be important for you to engage in consistent self-care, as your child will likely need to draw upon you for ongoing emotional and mental support. As a parent or caregiver, you also need a safe place where you can openly share and process through emotions, concerns, and questions. Consider joining a peer support group if one is available. If you have personally experienced sexual abuse in your own past, this undertaking may surface difficult emotions and memories. Be attuned to your own needs and seek the support of others during this challenging process.
Just as you attentively listen to your child and reassure them that their well-being is your top priority, you can also benefit from a network of support. It’s important to avoid processing your emotions with your child, as they may interpret that they are the cause of your distress. It may be helpful for you to work with a professional who specializes in responding to child sexual abuse, such as a therapist, counselor, or other medical practitioner. These professionals, who understand the potential psychological, emotional, and behavioral impacts of child sexual abuse, can guide you on the necessary steps to take, provide services for the child, make referrals to additional programs and services, and offer support to your entire family.
When Should I Report Sexual Abuse?
As an adult who is concerned for the health and well-being of a child, it is important to consider how the child may be impacted (both now and in the long-term) should you delay or avoid reporting. Anyone, regardless of relationship to the child, may make a report when there’s reasonable suspicion of child sexual abuse. And, in some areas of the world you may be legally responsible to do so. Laws vary from one place to another. In some cases, you may be a mandatory reporter regardless of your occupation; in other cases, you may be a mandatory reporter solely based on your occupation. Consult with reputable resources to help you understand your responsibility.
Involving others and sharing this type of sensitive information is intimidating, but initiating the report creates an opportunity for authorities and child advocates to join with you in ensuring the safety and well-being of your child. When you report abuse, it can launch an investigation by professionals (law enforcement, child protective services, child advocates, and others) who are trained to handle these types of cases. They will be able to take steps to protect the child and gather more information. As they look into the details and understand your situation, they can offer guidance, support, and connect you with other necessary services. Sometimes that can include a legal recourse for the child or your family. The legal system can help pursue justice, hold the abuser accountable, and provide avenues for seeking needed protections.
Sadly, there are times where one child’s experience raises an alarm that eventually brings to light a pattern of abuse by a perpetrator. By acting and reporting abuse, you may be able to help prevent further harm from occurring and help protect other children from potential abuse. By involving the correct authorities, steps can be taken to ensure the safety of many children and address any ongoing risks within your family or community.
Reporting abuse sends a message to your child (and other children) that what they experience is important, and sends a message to abusers that they will be held accountable for their actions.
Reporting Child Sexual Abuse to Law Enforcement
- Visit the organization websites that come up in your search results that are relevant to your needs.
- Explore the content related to reporting sexual abuse.
- Look for dedicated sections or pages that provide information on reporting procedures, resources for survivors, hotline numbers, or contact details of professionals who can offer guidance.
- Take note of the resources, tools, or guides offered by the organization.
- Look for materials that can help you understand the reporting process, legal rights, and available support services.
- Check if they provide information on local reporting requirements, such as contact information for local law enforcement or child protective services.
Helpful key phrases for your web search:
- “legal support for reporting sexual abuse”
- “legal advocacy for survivors of sexual abuse”
- “reporting sexual abuse”
- “victim advocacy”
- “support for survivors of sexual abuse in [name of your city, state, or region]”
Addressing Concerns About Reporting Child Sexual Abuse
“I’m hesitant to involve the police. I’m afraid of the potential impact on my child’s well-being and emotional stability.”
What to Do:
“I’m worried about the impact a complicated legal process will have on our family.”
What to Do:
“I’m worried about potential repercussions for my child, such as retaliation or further trauma, if I report the abuse to the police.”
What to Do:
“I’m uncertain about the credibility of my child’s disclosure. I feel conflicted about involving the police without concrete evidence.”
What to Do:
As far as false reports go, statistically they are very rare. Researchers suggest as few as 2% of all reports made by children are false.6 In contrast, there are volumes of research that demonstrate that the impact of not being believed when sexual abuse was disclosed has a cumulative, detrimental impact on the victim.7 In fact, some survivors report that not being believed was more harmful to their long-term mental and emotional well-being than the sexual abuse.8 It requires a great deal of courage to disclose something as personal as sexual abuse; at Saprea, it’s our position that believing a disclosure of abuse is the best way to begin supporting a loved one.
You can also seek support from professionals experienced in child abuse investigations, such as child advocacy centers or forensic interviewers. These professionals can conduct interviews or assessments to gather additional information and how best to proceed with the disclosure. Their expertise can help address any doubts and provide clarity about the accuracy of the child’s account.
While you may not have physical evidence that sexual abuse has occurred, reporting doesn’t require you to prove it happened. Reporting is encouraged anytime an individual has a reason to suspect something has happened/is happening, or anytime a child states something has happened/is happening. Ultimately, it’s the job of the investigation to collect evidence, but the investigation won’t happen unless there’s a report to initiate it. When protecting children is involved, it’s better to report and discover you didn’t need to instead of avoiding a report only to discover later that you could have been key to intervening in a child’s behalf.
Offering Ongoing Support to Your Child
There are additional things you as a parent can do to help them process and heal from the trauma of sexual abuse as well as reduce its long-term impacts. The relationship you have with your child is critical in reducing the risk of revictimization and helping them heal.
Children are less likely to be revictimized and more likely to develop better coping strategies when they feel safe, loved, and confident in their abilities to learn and navigate challenges and can identify to whom they can turn when they need help.
A child who has been sexually abused may feel as though their autonomy has been stripped away. As you focus on restoring your child’s sense of safety and strength, refer to these practical tips to nurture their confidence, establish and communicate boundaries, and increase their emotional well-being.
We’re in This Together
What Organizations Can Offer Support and Resources?
(Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
What Other Regional/Local Organizations Can Provide Support?
Seek out community-based resources, organizations, advocacy groups, or social services that are accessible in your area that prioritize empowering survivors and giving them a voice. They can provide you and your child with information, resources, and tools to make informed decisions and regain a sense of control over your life. Seek out individuals and organizations that are committed to maintaining appropriate confidentiality and protecting the privacy of survivors.
Such organizations can take different forms and scales depending on where you live. High-quality organizations and the workers who help serve within them often recognize the importance of collaboration with other groups, networks, and professionals to enhance their services and support systems. They may work closely with law enforcement agencies, healthcare providers, social service agencies, and legal professionals to ensure a coordinated response to the needs of individuals and families who are in crisis or who are working to heal.
Some organizations or resources offer a range of holistic support services to address the diverse needs of those impacted by child sexual abuse. As you connect with them, ask about how they can support you with:
- Crisis intervention
- Emotional support
- Counseling or therapy
- Legal advocacy or assistance with navigating the criminal justice system
- Safety planning
- Healthcare advocacy
- Referrals to other community resources such as healthcare or housing assistance
What Is Trauma-Informed Care?
Should I Connect With Advocacy Groups?
Advocacy groups work to raise awareness about sexual abuse, promote policy changes, and advocate for systemic improvements to support survivors. They may also offer guidance and support throughout legal processes, such as helping you understand your rights and providing information on legal options.
Advocacy groups often engage in community education and prevention efforts to raise awareness about sexual abuse, promote healthy relationships, and prevent victimization. They provide educational materials, workshops, and trainings to individuals, schools, workplaces, and other community organizations to promote understanding and prevention of sexual abuse. Even if the abuse has already occurred, you may find empowerment as you lend your efforts to preventing others from being abused in a similar way.
Accessing the Power of Peer-Led Support Groups or Group Therapy
“Group Therapy” refers to specialized meetings or counseling groups that are overseen/conducted by a licensed mental health professional. They are often highly structured and focus on specific topics.
“Peer Support Groups” can take many different forms and are usually not overseen by a therapist or a clinician. They can be adapted to serve participants in different settings and with various approaches.
Look for supportive environments where you can share your experiences, gain insight into trauma recovery, and learn coping strategies from others. Additionally, online support communities or forums dedicated to those impacted by child sexual abuse can provide a convenient and accessible option for parents seeking support. However, they are not always moderated in a transparent fashion or offer fair access to local resources.
If you have been thinking about accessing support resources for a child who has experienced sexual abuse, it is natural to feel quite overwhelmed and maybe a little unsure of where to start. But reaching out for support is an important step and a courageous act which can bring many benefits.
Remember to Take Care of Yourself
While the well-being of your child is an understandable priority, taking care of yourself is equally important. Remember, when you practice self-care, you’re better equipped to support your child. Taking care of your own needs could be as simple as setting aside time to engage in activities you enjoy, connecting with supportive friends or family, or seeking your own emotional support through counseling or therapy.
The more empowered you are to take steps and access the resources available to you, the more likely you and your child will feel the support you need to move forward in addressing the impacts of child sexual abuse.