Finding out your child has been sexually abused

Finding out your child has been sexually abused

Discovering your child has been sexually abused is a traumatic experience. Dr Elly Hanson, clinical psychologist and adviser to CEOP, provides some advice about how to support them.

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How you respond can really help

Parents and carers who discover that their child has been abused often find themselves experiencing a range of feelings from confusion and anger to horror, disgust, grief and betrayal.

Many will feel frustrated and helpless. Some find themselves feeling a sense of numbness. 

A range of emotions

Naturally, there are no right or wrong ways to feel in this situation – the most important things are finding some ways of processing your feelings and offering effective support to your child.

Some thoughts on how to respond

Following sexual abuse, or the discovery of it, children also often experience feelings like confusion, anger and betrayal.They often blame themselves and feel stigmatized, embarrassed and ashamed. They might have these feelings straight away or at some point in the future.

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Aspects of the abuse itself will influence how you and your child feel. People who sexually abuse often lead the child to see themselves as being at least partly responsible for it, and may also threaten or deceive them. How the abuser worked to keep the abuse secret and how they used their power will have an impact. 

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What do young people need from their parents in this situation?

Every young person is different - but research exploring the views of young people has found some common themes.

Much of this may be what you are already doing, and you will want to adapt it to fit with your knowledge of your child:

  • Be warm and empathetic towards your child, recognising that they may have complex feelings about what’s happened, but not predicting or assuming what they are.
  • Have a purposeful conversation asking about their feelings, with space to talk about anything that may be on their mind about the situation.
  • Avoid questions that might be felt to be intrusive or pressurizing about ‘what happened’. Focus on understanding how they are feeling now and what they might like from you.
  • Think about your own feelings first, before having these conversations. It might be useful to talk to someone else to help you process your own emotions. 
  • Recognise your feelings and think about which are helpful to share with your child and which may not be. It can be helpful for your child to see some of how you’re feeling, but it's important not to leave them feeling anxious or burdened by your emotions.
  • Young people often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating your child as if they are different in any way because of it.
  • Do take time to notice the strengths they have drawn upon in surviving or in coping with the abuse and related experiences.
  • If there are signs that they are strugglingdon’t be afraid of asking about how they are doing and seeking further support.
  • Think about whether the abuse has definitely stopped. (Often abuse continues even after a child has told someone about it). If you have any doubts, explore these with your child and other relevant people – for more advice on this, see below.
  • Think about whether there are any things you can do to lower the risk of further sexual abuse (by the same abuser or another)

What to say

There are some key messages that are important for children and young people to hear in their parents’ words and actions:

  • I believe you.
  • I don’t blame you in any way; I blame the abuser.
  • The abuse says nothing about you or who you are. I don't see you any differently (apart from recognising your strengths in surviving it).
  • I trust your sense of who might be the best person to talk to (e.g. me, your other parent, other family, friends, a therapist or counsellor).
  • If there is someone else you’d like to talk to, I can help to organise this.
  • You can always talk to me at any point. Different feelings can come up further down the line.
  • There is a way forward from any difficulties and intense emotions.

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A few words about belief and blame

It might sound unnecessary to say ‘believe your child’ and ‘don’t blame them’ but very often family and friends can fall into traps of disbelief and blame, because, strangely enough, they can be quite normal reactions. The message here is that if you know to look out for this in yourself, you can acknowledge any feelings like these and avoid acting on them.

It's a normal reaction when a parent sees their child getting hurt to feel frustrated with their child for anything they did that might have played into the abuse – these feelings can come from a place of love but, if expressed, can end up causing further hurt.

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It’s the same with disbelief – sometimes it can be hard to believe what children say because we don’t want to accept it – but, again, acting on this leaves children feeling much worse and can leave them at risk of further abuse.

Research has shown that children who are taken seriously after they talk about abuse do a lot better than those who are not all the way into adulthood.

Taking an accepting approach involves more than just not saying things that are obviously disbelieving or that blame the victim. Avoid any actions that could imply that you might blame or disbelieve them, such as asking lots of probing questions - or not saying anything. Children are often already blaming themselves and may well expect this from others. This means parents need to go out of their way to demonstrate that they think differently.

Protecting your child and others from further abuse

If the police and the local authority child protection department don't already know about the abuse, it can feel like a complex decision whether to inform them. Your child may not want anyone else to know and you may not be 100% certain about all the facts.

We do recommend informing the police or local authority, because what you know will add to anything else they already know about the individuals concerned and will help to protect both your child and others.

If talking to the police or child protection seems like a daunting first step, discussing it first with say someone from the NSPCC helpline or CEOP might be the best way forward. They will help you weigh up the options in your particular situation and what is best for your child and others.

It is important that you moderate or even, for some time, limit your child’s internet use. This is not a punishment, as they have done nothing wrong, but ‘best practice’ in the circumstances.

Have an ongoing conversation about what they are doing online and who they are talking to - it's an important part of their confidence that they can approach a parent if something goes wrong online.

Technical moderation packages have their place when looking at limiting ‘adult’ content, but overall, open regular dialogue is the most important thing.

Remember, once your child discloses abuse to you it is likely that both you, and your child will need ongoing support.