My child has been sexually abused

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse is any sexual activity that is performed with a child by an adult, an adolescent, or an older child. Child sexual abuse involves sexual contact- by force, trickery or bribery -- where there is an imbalance in age, size, power, or knowledge.  Sexual abuse may consist of a single incident or many acts over a long period of time.  Boys and girls of any age can be victims of sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse can include the following:

  • Sexual touching or fondling.
  • Exposing a child to pornographic materials, adult sexual activity, or genitalia.
  • Having a child pose, undress, or perform in a sexual fashion.
  • "Peeping" into bedrooms or bathrooms.
  • Oral sex, intercourse, or the attempt to engage in these activities.

Talking With Your Children about Sexual Abuse

It is important for your child to know the appropriate rules for safety in regards to sexual abuse.  Make them clear to your child and review them often.

  • Children should learn about appropriate touch.
  • Know that it is not okay for them for people to touch them in inappropriate places.
  • Know the proper names for all body parts from the earliest years.
  • Know that touching secrets are never OK.
  • Discuss family boundaries. All members of the family must respect rights to privacy in dressing, bathing, and sleeping.
  • Understand how to say “NO” to touching and how to respond if someone tells them “no”.
  • Let children know that an abuser could be someone they know, not just a stranger.
  • Talk to your child at eye level so that it is easier for them to ask you questions.
  • Use your child’s own words whenever possible and ask your child to explain words that are unclear.

What Can You Do If a Child in Your Family Has Experienced Child Sexual Abuse?

  • Believe the child!  Children very rarely report false claims of sexual abuse.  Research suggests that only 1-4% of sexual abuse claims are fabricated.
  • Immediately take action to protect the child from further abuse.  This may mean leaving the home with the child, discontinuing contact with the abuser, and/or a disruption in the child’s and your schedule.
  • File a report with Child Protective Services or the police.  This may be difficult if the abuser is a family member or close friend but it is important to protect both your child and other children the abuser may have contact with.
  • Seek counseling for both you and the child. 

 Reporting Child Abuse

If you have reason to believe that a child is abused…

· DON’T try to investigate

· DON’T confront the abuser

· DO report your reasonable suspicions

Professionals must report and any citizen may report, when there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is being abused.

It is not up to you to determine whether your suspicions are true or not.  A trained investigator will evaluate the child’s situation.

Even if your report does not bring decisive action, it may help establish a pattern that will eventually be clear enough to help the child.

To make a report:

· Call the abuse and neglect hotline at 1-800-252-5400

· Be specific - tell exactly what happened and when.  Include in your report any dates, known specifics about the child (age, gender, address, etc), parent’s names, information related to the person you suspect is abusing the child.

Will they know I reported it?

If you are not a mandated reporter, you can remain anonymous.  Your report is confidential and not subject to public release.  The law provides for immunity from any liability for innocent persons who report even unfounded suspicions, as long as your report is made in good faith.  Your identity is kept confidential.

What Happens After the Abuse Has Been Reported

In most cases, once a report of sexual abuse has been made, a sexual assault exam will be completed.  The exam will be completed by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner or physician in a local hospital or advocacy center.

After an exam has been completed, a licensed child counselor will conduct a forensic interview.  During the interview the counselor will talk with the child in a safe environment and ask non-leading questions.  The entire interview will be recorded, protecting the child from having to re-tell their experience of abuse during the investigation and court preparation.

Once the child and other witnesses have been interviewed there may seem to be a period of inaction.  In reality, law enforcement and the district attorney’s office are further investigating and preparing the case.

In most cases, the abuser will arrange a plea agreement with the court and no trial will take place.

Many parents fear that a report of sexual abuse will result in removal of their child from the home.  In actuality, CPS avoids removing the child from the non-abusing parent when possible.  If you take action to protect your child by discontinuing any contact between the child and the abuser and there are not other concerns regarding the child’s safety, it is highly unlikely that you will lose custody of your child or children.

Helping a Traumatized Child

Do not be afraid to talk about It

Children do not benefit from “not thinking about it” or “putting it out of their minds.”  If a child senses that his or her caretakers are upset about the event, they will not bring it up.  In the long run, this only makes the child’s recovery more difficult.  When the child talks about the topic don’t avoid discussion.  Listen to the child, answer questions, provide comfort and support.  You may not have answers for the child, but listing and not avoiding or over-reacting to the subject and then comforting the child will have a critical and long-lasting effect.

 Provide a consistent, predictable pattern for the Day

Make sure that the child knows the pattern.  When the day includes new or different activities, tell the child beforehand and explain why this day’s pattern is different.  Don’t underestimate how important it is for children to know that their caretakers are “in control.”    It is frightening for traumatized children (who are sensitive to control) to sense that the people caring for them are, themselves, disorganized, confused, and anxious.  There is no expectation of perfection, however, when caretakers are overwhelmed, irritable, or anxious; simply help the child understand why and that these reactions are normal and will pass.

Discuss your expectations for their behavior and your style of discipline with the child

Make sure that there are clear rules and consequences for breaking these rules.  Make sure that both you and the child understand beforehand the specific consequences for compliant and non-compliancy behaviors.  Be consistent when applying the consequences.  Use flexibility in consequences to illustrate reason and understanding.  Utilize positive reinforcement and rewards.  Avoid physical discipline.

 Be nurturing, comforting, and affectionate, but be sure that this is in an appropriate context

 For children traumatized by physical or sexual abuse, intimacy is often associated with confusion, pain, fear, and abandonment.  Providing hugs, kisses, and other physical comfort to younger children is very important.  A good working principle for this is to provide this for the child when he/she seeks it.  When the child walks over and touches, return in kind.  On the other hand, try not to interrupt the child's play or other free activities by grabbing them and holding them.  Do not tell or command them to “give me a kiss.” or “give me a hug.”  Abused children often take commands very seriously.  It reinforces a very negative association linking intimacy/physical comfort with power.

Talk with the child

Give them age appropriate information.  The more the child knows about who, what , where, why, and how the adult world works, the easier it is to make sense of it.  Unpredictability and the unknown are two things which will make a traumatized child more anxious and fearful.  They will be more active, impulsive, anxious, aggressive, and have more sleep and mood problems.  Without factual information, children speculate and fill in the empty spaces to make a complete story or explanation.  In most cases, the child’s fears and fantasies are much more frightening and disturbing than the truth.  Tell the child the truth—even when it is emotionally difficult.  If you don’t know the answer yourself, tell the child.  Honesty and openness will help the child develop trust.

Protect the child

Do not hesitate to cut short or stop activities that are upsetting or re-traumatizing for the child.  If you observe increased symptoms in a child that occur in a certain situation or following exposure to certain movies, activities, and so forth, avoid these activities.  Try to restrict or limit activities that cause escalation of symptoms in the traumatized child.

Watch for signs of reenactment, avoidance, and emotional reactivity 

(i.e., anxiety, sleep problems, behavioral impulsivity)

Traumatized children usual exhibit some combination of these behaviors in the acute post-traumatic period and sometimes for years after the traumatic event.  When you see these behaviors, it is likely that the child has had some reminder of the event; either through thoughts or experiences.  Try to comfort and be tolerant of the child’s emotional and behavioral problems.  These behaviors may fluctuate; sometimes for no apparent reason.  The best thing that you can do is keep track of the behaviors and emotions you observe and try to find patterns.

Give the child some sense of control

When a child, particularly a traumatized child, feels that they do not have control, they will predictably get more symptomatic.  Present consequences as a choice for them:”You have a choice—you can choose to put the game away or you can choose to have the game put away for the rest of the weekend.”  Again, this simple framing of the interaction with the child gives them some sense of control and can help defuse situations where the child feels out of control and therefore anxious.

Adapted from The Child Trauma Academy. by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

Helping Yourself

Parents usually feel quite emotional when they learn of the sexual abuse of their child.  Anger at the offender or guilt over feeling they did not do enough to protect their child may occur.  Sometimes they may realize that there were signs they did not pick up on and feel bad that they did not realize what was going on.  Remember that you most likely did not have the full picture.  Most important is your reaction once the abuse was disclosed and your actions to protect the child.

The sexual abuse of a child is very traumatic for both the parent and the child.  It is important to take time for yourself to cope with your own feelings and reactions.  Many parents find it helpful to talk to a counselor to cope with the feelings after discovering their child was abused.   Joining groups might also be helpful because it allows an environment in which a parent can discuss their feelings and experiences with others who have had similar experiences.

Remember that you are not responsible for the abuse.  The abuser is the only one to blame.