The NSPCC explains what parents can do if their child reveals they have been sexually abused. How should we react? What do we say? How do we report abuse?
There is never a right or wrong way to feel when your child has told you they have been abused. Quite often it will be a mixture of shock, anger, horror, disgust and helplessness.
The most important thing is to find a way of processing your feelings so you can fully support your child.
Encourage a culture of speaking out
One in three children who have been sexually abused or assaulted don’t tell anyone until well into adulthood, while some never speak out. That is an awful lot of people shouldering a burden no one should experience, let alone be expected to carry it alone through life.
Often, when children do reveal the abuse they feel like they did something to deserve it. It’s never a child’s fault they were sexually abused and it’s important to make sure children and young people know this.
Another concern held by some young victims of sexual abuse is that even if they do speak out nobody will believe them. This belief may have been reinforced by previous attempts to disclose abuse being disbelieved or ignored. It is, therefore, the responsibility of all adults to make sure children in their care feel comfortable talking openly and honestly about the most private, sensitive and difficult things.
Without this culture of openness, we are going to see another generation of children only revealing they were sexually abused later in life.
How your child will feel
It can be very hard for them to talk about what’s happened to them. They might be worried about the consequences or that nobody will believe them. They might’ve told someone before and nothing was done to help them.
Sometimes they might not know what’s happening to them is abuse and struggle to share what they’re feeling. Some children don’t reveal they’re being abused for a long time, some never tell anyone.
How to manage your reaction
If your child reveals they have been or are being abused it will be distressing to hear. Here are some tips to help you navigate this difficult time:
Listen carefully to what they’re saying
Be patient and focus on what you’re being told. Try not to express your own views and feelings.
If you appear shocked or as if you don’t believe them it could make them stop talking and take back what they’ve said.
Give them the tools to talk
If they’re struggling to talk to you, encourage them to draw or write it down.
Childline’s letter builder tool uses simple prompts to help them share what’s happening and how they’re feeling.
Let them know they’ve done the right thing by telling you
Reassurance can make a big impact. If they’ve kept the abuse a secret it can have a big impact knowing they’ve shared what’s happened.
Tell them it’s not their fault
Abuse is never a child’s fault. It’s important they hear and know this.
Say you’ll take them seriously
They may have kept the abuse secret because they were scared they wouldn’t be believed.
Make sure they know they can trust you and you’ll listen and support them.
Don’t confront the alleged abuser
Confronting the alleged abuser could make the situation worse for the child.
Explain what you’ll do next
For younger children, explain you’re going to speak to someone who will able to help.
For older children, explain you’ll need to report the abuse to someone who can help.
Report what the child has told you as soon as possible
Report as soon as possible after you’ve been told about the abuse so the details are fresh in your mind and action can be taken quickly.
It can be helpful to take notes as soon after you’ve spoken to the child. Try to keep these as accurate as possible.
What happens when you report abuse
It’s normal to feel anxious and nervous about reporting abuse.
If you’re not sure who to turn to first, then contact the NSPCC helpline. They are there to take that worry away from you and guide you through the next steps.
A counsellor will speak to you about what your child has said and advise you on what needs to happen next. If the child is at risk of harm they’ll:
- Ask you to share their name, age and address and any information you have about the alleged abuser
- Take detailed notes
- Share this information with children’s services and, if necessary, the police
- Give you advice on any other support available.
No matter the outcome of your contact, an NSPCC practitioner will always encourage you to get in touch again if you need to. They’ll pass on any further information you or anybody else shares about the child or young person you’re worried about.