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As a parent, the idea that your child may have been sexually abused brings up all kinds of emotions: anger, fear, sadness, desperation. Your reaction will have a big effect on how a child deals with the trauma of sexual abuse, so first and foremost, don’t panic. It’s scary, but you are not alone.
My child just told me they’ve been abused. What do I do?
When a child tells you they have been sexually abused, it’s called disclosure. Disclosure can be a scary and difficult process for children. Some may take weeks, months, or even years to tell, and some may never tell at all.
Here is what to do if your child discloses to you:
1. Stay calm
Your reaction will impact how your child handles, talks about and heals from the abuse. Children whose parents and caregivers are supportive heal more quickly, so stay calm. Hearing that your child has been abused can bring up powerful emotions, especially if you are a survivor [link to page] but if you become upset, angry, or out of control, it will be more difficult for them to tell you what’s happened.
2. Believe your child
Tell your child you believe them. It is very important to say this out loud. Let the child know that he or she is not to blame for what happened. Praise the child for being brave, and for telling you about the abuse.
3. Get help
Protect your child by getting them away from the abuser and immediately reporting the abuse to local authorities.
- In Tennessee, call 1-877-237-0004 to report.
- Outside the state call 1-800-422-4453 or visit childhelp.org.
In addition to getting medical attention for injuries or sexually transmitted diseases, it is important for your child to be able to talk with a mental health professional who specializes in child sexual abuse. That process will reduce distress in your family and the effects of the trauma on your child.
Our Kids will provide expert medical evaluations, crisis counseling and other services to your family. We have nurse practitioners and social workers on staff who can respond to the unique needs of each child and caregiver. To learn more about bringing a child to Our Kids, click here.
4. Reassure the child
Tell your child that they are loved, accepted and important to you. Don’t make promises you can’t keep (such as saying you won’t tell anyone about the abuse), but do let your child know that you will do everything in your power to protect them from harm.
5. Keep your child informed about what will happen next
Talk to your child openly about what’s going to happen in an age-appropriate manner, particularly as it relates to legal actions. Children feel very uncertain in these situations, so reassure them they are being kept in the loop.
What if the perpetrator is part of my family or a close friend?
Finding out that your child was hurt by someone you trusted can fill you with all kinds of emotions that may surprise you and others. All responses are valid, but it’s crucial to find ways to manage these emotions so you can focus on securing the safety of your child.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, some of the feelings of non-offending parents may include:
- Anger toward the child for disrupting your family
- Anger toward the perpetrator for hurting your child and betraying you
- Guilt that you didn’t know the abuse was occurring
- Guilt that you still have feelings for the person who hurt your child
- If one of your children abused another, conflicted about how to support one child while protecting the other
- Losing faith in your abilities as a parent
- Practical fears about finances and day-to-day life once the perpetrator is removed
- Sense of loss for the family member who hurt your child as you begin to cut ties
How do I take care of my family when child sexual abuse happens?
Click here. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, click here.
I want to learn more.
- Bring a child to Our Kids
- How to recognize abuse
- How to talk to your child about abuse
- How to talk to your child about their body
- How to keep kids safe online
- How to prepare for your child to sleep away from home
- 4 key facts about child sexual abuse
- Tennessee law
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)