What Should a Parent Do

What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Is Being Sexually Abused

Don’t overreact. It is up to you as the parent or caregiver to stay calm and seek help. Trauma treated within 48 hours of occurring is most successful at managing long-term effects. Remember that the child is already upset and afraid so you need to alleviate his/or her fears by staying in control and being strong. Your reactions will have a powerful influence on the child.

When you react to disclosure with anger or disbelief, the response is often:

  • The child shuts down.
  • The child changes his or her story in the face of your anger and disbelief when, in fact, abuse is actually occurring.
  • The child changes the account around your questions, so future tellings appear to be “coached.” This can be very harmful if the case goes to court.
  • The child feels even guiltier.

It is important that you realize, before abuse occurs, that almost all reports of abuse by children are true. If the child seems confused, remember that he/or she has experienced trauma and it is very brave of the child to tell.

If the abuse was discovered by you or someone else who told you, it is very important to realize the child is deeply ashamed and may even try to protect the abuser out of fear or a false sense of having caused the incident.

It will help the child if you:

  • Tell the child you believe him/or her
  • Praise the child for telling
  • Even if the abuse was discovered without cooperation from the child, make sure the child knows you don’t hold him/or her responsible and you are now going to take care of him/or her
  • Listen well and encourage the child to talk. Make sure you don’t ask leading questions or make comments that the child can interpret as scolding. Don’t rage against the abuser for the child has probably accepted false responsibility for “participation” in the crime and may feel your anger is directed toward the child.
  • Seek immediate help from a trained professional who will then report the crime to the proper legal authorities. Don’t wait! For legal purposes in convicting the criminal as well as for the recovery of the child, prompt professional treatment is important.
  • Provide assurance to the child that he/or she will be protected. A strong, confident, approach will help convince the child that the abuser is less powerful than the parent or caregiver who is protecting the child.
  • Report and seek help for the child for abuse that happens without or within the family.

Child Sexual Abuse Is a Crime

Know the legal requirements for reporting. All fifty states require that professionals who work with children report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. Some states require that anyone with suspicions report it. Information about each state’s requirements is available at the Child Welfare Information Gateway: www.childwelfare.gov.

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Linda Settles-Zeboskey