In my last blog we discussed how to talk about and prevent sexual abuse. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a child still gets hurt. So what do you do if your child or a child you care for discloses to you that they have been abused?
- First and foremost stay as calm as possible. This child has trusted you with very vulnerable information and they are looking to you to restore safety and stability in their world. Reassure the child that they’ve made a very good and brave choice by telling. They will be watching your reaction very closely and looking for cues that everything is going to be ok. You don’t have to pretend as if nothing has happened, but overly emotional reactions such as intense crying, screaming or rage may cause the child to feel as if they’ve made a mistake or that they are to blame.
- Contact the authorities. This can be a very intimidating process; however, this is the first and biggest step towards recovery. It is also the law. By reporting the incident, you are setting the stage for breaking the cycle of abuse that the child is desperate to be free from. You are taking control of a very difficult situation and allowing yourself to be a game changing part of the process.
- Make sure the alleged abuser has no further contact with the child moving forward. This can be a confusing time for a child, especially if the abuser was someone the child knew and trusted. It’s not abnormal for a child to want to be with the abuser again or to want to try and protect him/her. It is important to help the child understand that he/she is not to blame for what happened to him/her and that the abuser will need help from other grownups to make sure that he/she doesn’t continue to hurt others.
- Follow the child’s cues to re-establish his/her sense of safety. For example, a child may want to sleep with a light on for a time or wear sunglasses to ‘hide me from the bad guys’. Continue to assure the child that he/she is not to blame and be mindful of your own language when speaking about the abuse. For instance, a child may feel shame if he/she participated in sexual games ‘willingly’. Sometimes as loving adults we may even find ourselves blaming a child for participating or for not telling sooner. Remember it is developmentally appropriate for a child to want to please the adults in his/her life.
- As much as possible help your child to maintain a typical daily routine. Allow him/her to continue to spend time playing with friends or engaging in favorite activities such as sports and social outings. Engaging in the normal everyday allows for several things: 1.) It gives the child reprieve from having to think or talk about the abuse all the time. 2.) It reenforces stability and gives the child hope to live into ‘normalcy’, rathe than feeling like life can never be ok or safe again.
- Get professional help. Never ever try to deal with sexual abuse without seeking professional help. Sexual abuse is far reaching and it not only affects the abuser and the victim, but also those close to them as well. It will be very normal as a parent or caregiver to feel rage, grief and guilt among other things. It is important for everyone effected to have a safe space to address the emotional damage that comes with the abuse. Often times secret keeping and isolation can be a natural reaction to dealing with such an overwhelming situation, but secrets tend to only deepen the shame and further support the ongoing cycle of abuse.
With the right support recovery is possible! Many people that have experienced this type of trauma are able to heal and go on to lead very healthy and successful lives as adults.