When Your Child Reveals Sexual Abuse: 4 Steps to Take

sexual child abuse

As a parent, the day your child reveals their sexual abuse is likely the most painful and devastating day of your life.

When your child says something is wrong, it’s always a shock, no matter how much you expected it. It’s a moment that you can never fully be ready for.

Your world stops turning. Your heart shatters into a million pieces. You feel a flood of emotions – shock, rage, devastation, guilt.

How could this have happened to your precious child? How did you not know? What do you do now?

If you are in this tough situation, remember it’s not your fault.

You are not to blame for the evil actions of an abuser. Your main job is to support and protect your child, believe in them, and help them get the help they need.

As impossible as this may feel, you will get through this. Your child will heal. There is hope.

The road ahead will be difficult, especially if the abuser is someone close to the family, as is so often the case.

Abusers who are trusted by the child or their family perpetrate most child sexual abuse cases.

These abusers are often relatives, family friends, teachers, coaches, or acquaintances.

The child or their family knows and trusts these abusers. This is true in about 90% of cases.

This betrayal by someone you allowed into your child’s life adds another excruciating layer to an already traumatic situation.

You may be grappling with disbelief that this person you thought you knew could commit such a reprehensible crime.

You may feel torn between your fury at the abuser and your care for other family members who love this person.

If the person hurting you is your child or spouse, it makes the situation harder and more painful.

Please know that it’s normal to feel conflicted. This does not in any way diminish your love and commitment to your victimized child.

So what should you do if your child discloses sexual abuse? 

4 critical steps to take

Step 1: Listen to your child and believe them unconditionally.

If your child tells you about their sexual abuse, listen without judging, blaming, or doubting. This is the most important thing you can do.

Make it clear that you believe them, that it is not their fault, and that you are so proud of them for telling you.

Do not interrogate them about the details of the abuse. Allow them to share what they are comfortable sharing at their own pace.

Reassure them that you will do everything in your power to protect them.

Sexual abuse overwhelms many children with feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame.

The abuser may have manipulated them into thinking the abuse was their fault or that telling would get them in trouble.

Some may have even experienced positive physical sensations, which the abuser then twists to convince the child they “wanted it.”

You must make it abundantly clear to your children that they are not to blame for what happened to them, no matter what.

Nothing they did or didn’t do makes them responsible for the abuse. The guilt lies solely on the abuser. Period.

Avoid asking questions like “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” or “Are you sure this happened?” that may make your child feel doubted or blamed.

Don’t minimize the abuse or try to downplay it to make your child feel better.

Validation and unconditional support are essential. Let your child know that you will help them through this and that you will ensure they are safe.

Step 2: Report the abuse to authorities and get your child medical attention.

Once your child has disclosed sexual abuse, you need to report it to child protective services and/or law enforcement right away.

Do not confront the alleged abuser. Leave that to the authorities. Many perpetrators are master manipulators and may try to twist the truth or get others on their side if confronted directly.

You may feel hesitant to report, especially if the abuser is a family member. But your child’s safety and well-being must come first.

Hold the abuser accountable and prevent them from hurting your child or anyone else in the future.

In all 50 states, the law mandates teachers, doctors, and other professionals to report suspected child abuse.

Failing to report can put you and your child at legal risk.

When you make the report, the authorities may request that your child undergo a medical examination, even if the last incident of abuse was not recent.

Doctors trained to handle child sexual abuse cases can check for physical injuries and collect evidence for investigations and prosecutions.

This exam is critical for both your child’s health and the legal case.

If you don’t know how to report abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. They can connect you with the right people and help in your area.

Trained staff can walk you through the process and answer any questions. Remember, you do not have to go through this alone.

Step 3: Get your child professional help to process the trauma.

The trauma of child sexual abuse can have a profound and long-lasting impact.

Victimized children are at much higher risk for PTSD, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, and future revictimization, among other challenges.

Getting help early and finding the right mental health care can help your child heal and reduce potential risks.

Find a mental health professional with training in trauma therapy for sexually abused children. Ensure they have a license and experience.

Ask your child’s pediatrician or the authorities handling your case for referrals.

There are also wonderful organizations, that can connect you with qualified therapists and support services in your community.

Your child may resist therapy or struggle to open up to a stranger about their most painful, shameful experiences. Don’t force the issue or get frustrated with their reluctance.

Let them know that you believe in and support them. The therapist is there to help, not to judge. They can share as little or as much as they feel comfortable with.

Trust is essential and will take time.

You should also strongly consider therapy for yourself and other members of your family. You have all experienced trauma and have a long, difficult journey ahead.

A professional can help you process complex emotions, support your child’s healing, and build resilience.

Many parents feel alone in this nightmare like nobody understands what they are going through.

Consider joining a support group, in person or online, for parents of childhood sexual abuse survivors.

Connecting with others who have walked in your shoes can provide much-needed empathy, advice, and encouragement.

Step 4: Be patient and don’t try to “get back to normal.”

After your child discloses sexual abuse, you may feel the urge to return to normal.

It’s important to address the issue and provide support. Take the time to listen to your child and validate their feelings.

Seek professional help if needed. Remember, healing takes time and patience.

But there is no going back. The abuse has shattered your child’s innocence. The abuse may have destroyed your sense of trust.

Your family dynamics and routines will change as you deal with the legal process and emotional fallout.

You cannot erase your child’s trauma and pain, no matter how much you wish you could.

Pressuring them to “get over it” or “move on” will only backfire and impede their healing. Instead, adjust to a new normal.

Be patient and let your child set the pace. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t press the issue.

If they need extra reassurance, give it freely. If they regress in their development, don’t panic – this is a common trauma response.

Healing is not linear and will involve many ups and downs.

At the same time, try to maintain as much stability, consistency, and normalcy as you can.

Stick to school and household routines when possible. Ensure your child gets proper rest and nutrition.

Encourage them to engage in activities they previously enjoyed even if they resist. Spend positive, quality time together as a family that doesn’t revolve around the abuse.

Remind your child that there is so much more to them and to life than this terrible thing they experienced.

Hope and healing are possible.

With patience, support, and specialized help you can guide your child out of the darkness and help them reclaim their life. They will need you every step of the way.

child asking for help

Red Flags

If you are seeing potential warning signs of sexual abuse in your child, don’t wait for a disclosure to act. Some red flags to watch for are:

  • Sudden changes in mood or behavior, especially anger, aggression, depression or withdrawal
  • Nightmares, difficulty sleeping, or other sleep issues
  • Reverting to behaviors from earlier childhood like bedwetting or thumb-sucking
  • Uncharacteristic rebellion, running away, or problems at school
  • Advanced sexual knowledge or behavior that is not age-appropriate
  • Avoidance of or fear of certain people or places
  • Self-harm behaviors like cutting or burning
  • Changes in eating habits or dramatic weight loss

Many victimized children will not directly disclose abuse, but their behaviors can be telling.

For example, a young child may not say “Mommy, Uncle John touched my private parts.” But they may say something like “I don’t like going to Uncle John’s house anymore” or “I don’t want to hug Uncle John goodnight.”

Pay close attention to these “disguised disclosures” and gently probe for more information without leading the child. You can say something like “I’ve noticed you don’t want to go to Uncle John’s anymore. Can you tell me more about why you feel that way?”

Let your child know that you are a safe person to talk to and that you are ready to listen whenever they want to share.

Take Action

If you suspect your child was sexually abused, seek help from a professional. They can guide you on how to discuss the situation with your child.

It’s important to address the issue sensitively and appropriately.

Remember, seeking support is crucial in handling such a delicate matter.

The Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD has counselors available 24/7 to talk you through this difficult situation.

If your child has revealed sexual abuse, know that your love, belief, and support will make all the difference in their healing.

Be kind and patient with yourself and your child as you navigate this excruciating path. You are not alone in this battle.

Lean on the many resources and professionals ready to help you every step of the way.

With time, commitment, and courage, your child and your family will emerge from this darkness stronger than before.

There is hope.

If your child has revealed sexual abuse, know that healing is possible with the right support and intervention.

I help children and families deal with trauma. I am here to support you through this tough time.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out and schedule an appointment with me.

We can assist your child in understanding their emotions. We can help them learn healthy coping mechanisms. We can support them in feeling safe and well once more.

You don’t have to face this alone.

Call my office today (561) 376-9699 / (305) 981-6434 to learn more about how I can support you and your child through this challenging time.