Adults, because of their maturity and knowledge, are always the ones to blame when they abuse children. The abused children should never be blamed. When a child tells someone about sexual abuse, a supportive, caring response is the first step in getting help for the child and reestablishing their trust in adults.
When a child tells an adult that he or she has been sexually abused, the adult may feel uncomfortable and may not know what to say or do. The following guidelines should be used when responding to children who say they have been sexually abused.
What to Say
If a child even hints in a vague way that sexual abuse has occurred, encourage him or her to talk freely.
Don't make judgmental comments
Show that you understand and take seriously what the child is saying. Child and adolescent psychiatrists have found that children who are listened to and understood do much better than those who are not. The response to the disclosure of sexual abuse is critical to the child's ability to resolve and heal the trauma of sexual abuse.
Assure the child that they did the right thing in telling
A child who is close to the abuser may feel guilty about revealing the secret. The child may feel frightened if the abuser has threatened to harm the child or other family members as punishment for telling the secret.
Tell the child that he or she is not to blame for the sexual abuse
Most children in attempting to make sense out of the abuse will believe that somehow they caused it or may even view it as a form of punishment for imagined or real wrongdoings.
What to Do
Offer the child protection and promise that you'll promptly take steps to see the abuse stop.
Report any suspicion of child abuse
If the abuse is within the family, report it to the local Child Protection Agency. If the abuse is outside of the family, report it to the police or district attorney's office. Individuals reporting in good faith are immune from prosecution. The agency receiving the report will conduct an evaluation and will take action to protect the child.
Consult with your pediatrician or family physician
The doctor may refer you to a physician who specializes in evaluating and treating sexual abuse. The examining doctor will evaluate the child's condition and treat any physical problem related to the abuse, gather evidence to help protect the child, and reassure the child that he or she is all right.
Obtain a psychiatric evaluation
Usually, the child should also have a psychiatric evaluation to find out how the sexual abuse has affected them, and to determine whether ongoing professional help is necessary for the child to deal with the trauma of the abuse. The child and adolescent psychiatrist can also provide support to other family members who may be upset by the abuse.
While most allegations of sexual abuse made by children are true, some false accusations may arise in custody disputes and in other situations. Occasionally, the court will ask a child and adolescent psychiatrist to help determine whether the child is telling the truth, or whether it will hurt the child to speak in court about the abuse. When a child is asked as to testify, special considerations, such as videotaping, frequent breaks, exclusion of spectators, and the option not to look at the accused, make the experience much less stressful.
Arrange for counseling
Counseling is very important and helpful to children if they have been sexually abused. It is appropriate and sometimes very important for your child and your family to get professional counseling, especially when the offender is someone known and trusted by the family.
Professional counseling can
- Help the child and the family in dealing with any trauma and crisis related to the sexual abuse.
- Allow for the open expression of feelings, and build self-esteem and a sense of worth.
- Change self-destructive or "acting out" behavior.
- Give support and reassurance to the child and non-offending family members that they are not to blame for the sexual abuse.
- Help the child return to normal functioning.
- Teach the child the skills necessary to take control of his or her own body to prevent the possibility of further abuse.