How you respond can really help
If you discover your child has been abused, you may find yourself experiencing a range of feelings, from confusion and anger, to horror and disgust, to grief and betrayal.
You may feel frustrated and helpless, or find yourself numb.
A range of emotions
Naturally, there are no right or wrong ways to feel in this situation – the most important things are:
● finding ways of understanding and managing your feelings
● offering effective support to your child
Some thoughts on how to respond
Children who have experienced sexual abuse also often experience feelings like confusion, anger and betrayal. They often blame themselves and feel stigmatized, embarrassed and ashamed. They might have these feelings during the abuse, when it’s discovered or they have told someone, or at some point in the future.
What happened and how it happened will effect how you and your child feel. People who sexually abuse often make the child feel like it is somehow their fault, 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.
What do young people need from their parents in this situation?
Every young person is different - but research into the views of young people has found some common themes. You may already be doing these things, and want to think about how these will work for your child, as you know them best.
● Be warm and empathetic towards your child, recognise that they may have complex feelings about what’s happened, but try not to guess or assume what they are.
● Have a meaningful conversation, ask about their feelings, with space to talk about anything that may be on their mind about the situation.
● Avoid questions that might feel intrusive or putting pressure on them 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 might be helpful for your child to see some of how you’re feeling, but it's important not to leave them feeling anxious or weighed down 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 used to manage or cope with the abuse.
● If there are signs that they are struggling, don’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 keep your child safer from further sexual abuse (by the same abuser or another) – whilst also holding in mind your child’s other needs, such as for growing independence.
What to say
There are some key messages that are important for children and young people to hear and see from you:
● 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 seeing how strong you have been.
● I trust you know who is the best person for you to talk to (for example, me, your other parent or carer, other family, friends, a therapist or counsellor).
● If there is someone else you’d like to talk to, I can help to set this up.
● You can always talk to me at any time . I know different feelings can come up further down the line.
● There is a way forward.
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 spot any feelings like these and avoid acting on them.
It can be a normal reaction when a parent sees their child getting hurt to feel frustrated with their child for anything they seemed to do to play a part – these feelings can come from a place of love but, if shown, can end up causing more hurt.
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 more 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.
Showing you are accepting is about more than just not saying things that are obviously disbelieving or blaming. Avoid any actions that could imply that you might blame or not believe 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 show that they think differently.
Protecting your child and others from further abuse
Reporting the abuse can feel like a difficult decision, particularly if your child doesn’t want anyone to know or you aren’t 100% certain of all the facts.
All child sexual abuse, past or current, should be reported to police. If you believe your child is at immediate risk of harm, you should call 999.
Reporting abuse will add to anything the police already know about the abuser and will hopefully help to protect both your child and others.
If reporting to police feels scary, you can also report to NSPCC who will talk through your concerns and ask you about the abuse to determine the right support and advice to give you. This may include making a referral to children’s social services and police if your child is at risk.
If your child was abused online, you may be thinking about what action you can take to prevent further contact from the abuser and to make your child safer online. This could include:
Supporting their online use. Your child may not want to return to online use, however they should be supported to return to a normal online experience, if they do want to. They may need your help to set up new accounts and privacy settings.
Having 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.
Parental controls. These are extremely important for limiting ‘adult’ content, but overall, open talking often is the most important thing.
Remember, once your child tells you about abuse it is likely that both you, and your child will benefit from ongoing support.