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Sexual Abuse


Things you need to know when a child might have been sexually abused.

Sometimes parents worry that their child may have been sexually abused well before a child makes a disclosure.  There are many situations that might lead a parent to have this worry.  The child may be showing signs of stress, such as not sleeping well, avoiding things they previously enjoyed, complaining of vague physical ailments, or just being more irritable and cranky than is normal.  Sometimes parents just have a “gut” feeling that something is wrong or question whether there is something wrong in one the child’s relationships.   How does a parent encourage a child to talk about difficult topics without being suggestive?  

Sexual abuse or any kind of maltreatment is difficult for children to talk about – they often think they did something wrong, worry about getting the perpetrator in trouble, or worry that the perpetrator will seek revenge in some way.  Thus, it is important for children to feel comfortable and safe talking with you or another trusted adult.  Parents can let their children know that they have been worried about them because of they seemed more stressed than is usual.  Let the child know that you are there to help and you won’t get mad or upset but will do whatever is necessary to help them.  Let them know that you are there for them to talk to whenever they feel comfortable talking.  

Talking About Abuse

Sometimes perpetrators tell children that they need to “keep the secret” and “don’t tell anyone.”  Parents can talk to their children about the difference between secrets and surprises.  Let children know that there should never be a time when anyone asks them to keep a secret from a parent.  Children should always feel comfortable talking to their parents about anything.  Children might think that sometimes families keep some secrets, like surprise birthday parties or a gift they made for their parent.  Explain that those are actually surprises more than secrets, and those types of surprises are fun and positive, but that secrets from parents are usually a sign that something is wrong.

In general, it is good for parents to have discussions with their children about what to do when faced with problems.  This can include a number of stressors that children face, including worries about schoolwork, worries about school bullies, as well as inappropriate touching.  Sexual abuse can be explained to young children by talking about the “Private Parts Rule;” that is,  no one is allowed to touch or look at their private parts, with the exception of a parent who is helping with cleaning or applying medicine, or when a parent takes the child to a doctor for a medical examination.  Even then, if it feels uncomfortable, it is important to talk with a trusted adult to see if what is happening is OK.  “Private parts” can be defined as the “parts of your body covered by your bathing suit” or by using anatomical terms that the child is familiar with.  Children can be encouraged to say “no” to inappropriate touches, even if it is an adult, and then talk to a parent as soon as possible.

Things you need to know when a child has just disclosed sexual abuse.

Hearing a child disclose sexual abuse is one of the most difficult situations that a parent can face.  However, it is important to remain as calm and supportive as possible and reassure the child that talking about what happened is the right thing to do.  It is OK to gently ask questions to gain a general understanding of what happened, but it is important not to grill the child for details.  It is also important to avoid asking questions that might be suggestive to the child.  For example, avoid asking if the abuse happened with a particular person, at a particular place, and if specific acts were involved.  It is OK to share with the child your feelings (“I feel very sad that this happened to you”), but it is important to also model for your child that you can have these feelings but also be calm and attentive.  Once a child discloses abuse, it is important to talk to child protective services, and it is also important to have a medical evaluation.  When unsure who to talk to or where to go for a medical evaluation, it is always wise to consult your family physician. Medical and mental health professionals, teachers, and law enforcement officers are all required to report suspected child abuse to the local child protective service agency.  

Children may feel worried that they did something wrong, or that something bad will happen as a result of telling about the abuse.  Parents can reassure that what happened was not the child’s fault, that the perpetrator was wrong, and that as a parent you will make sure the child is safe and secure. 

Getting Support

Parents will need many supports through this period, and consulting with mental health professionals can be very helpful.  In many areas, Children’s Advocacy Centres can help families through the disclosure and healing. There are also many helpful organizations with websites that can provide important information.  These include the   National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of children, and the American Psychological Association.  Some children and families can benefit from mental health counseling and psychotherapy after the disclosure of sexual abuse.  A number of effective therapies are now available and are widely available through mental health centres, child advocacy centres, pediatric hospitals, and private practitioners.  

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