Supporting the Child Who Was Harmed
Disclosure is the word used when an act of sexual violation becomes known to others. Usually this happens when the person who was violated decides to tell their story. No matter when or how disclosure happens, it is traumatic for everyone involved. For most parents, disclosure–the moment they discovered that one of their children sexually violated another– is their primary shock and trauma.
This page is focused on how to support a child who was sexually violated in the days, weeks, and months after disclosure, whether they are still a child or now an adult. Click here if you also need to know how to support the child who crossed the line and caused sexual trauma for their sibling.
Many survivors say that disclosure and the events surrounding it are as difficult to deal with as the abuse itself. The process following disclosure can bring many reactions and changes that the survivor doesn’t want or expect. It’s common for children of any age to retract, or take back, all or part of their story when they realize it has split their family and upended their world. If this happens, it is important to trust the child’s first report. It is also important to reassure the survivor that they were right to tell their story, and remind them that they are not responsible for other people’s reactions to it.
On the other hand, the story of sexual trauma may emerge little by little. A survivor may tell a bit to test the waters, and tell more only if they feel safe and supported. Memories of sexual trauma are often recalled in bits and pieces and may come out over time or through the therapy process. In those cases, a child’s initial report may be incomplete.
It is very common for survivors to disclose in adulthood. To tell the story they have hidden for so long, survivors must step back mentally and emotionally to the age when the trauma actually happened. They may speak and act and feel as they would have as a child of that age. This is not something they are choosing to do; they may not even be aware of it. If their words or actions seem immature, go back to your memories of them at that age. Painful as it will be, it may help you gain empathy.
Parents’ reactions are very important to a child’s experience after disclosure, no matter the age. Be aware that, even if you do everything perfectly, disclosure is going to be difficult. Your child may blame, criticize, or lash out at you. They may believe that you knew what was happening and didn’t stop it. Even if you have already reacted in ways you regret, you can keep the guidance below in mind as you move forward.
The best things parents can do to support a child of any age after disclosure:
Believe: Focus on the child and listen carefully. Just saying “I believe you,” perhaps repeatedly, can be very reassuring. Other helpful phrases: “Thank you for telling me,” “You did the right thing to tell us,” “No matter what happens, I’m glad you told me.”
Give Them Control: No one has control when they are being sexually violated. As much as possible, give the survivor control of their story. Allow them to choose how much they want to disclose, to whom, and when. If the child is a minor and if you need to take action to protect them, you may have to override their personal wishes or cede control to legal authorities. When you can’t leave choices in their hands, at least do your best to let them know what to expect and to let their voice be heard.
Support: Allow time for silence and opportunities to talk about feelings and to tell more. Continue listening patiently. Keep focused on your child. Ask how they are feeling or what they want from you. Offer physical comfort, such as hugs or backrubs, but ask first if they want it. Advocate for your child to receive qualified treatment or therapy as soon as possible.
Protect: Reassure them that it was not their fault. If they are still in the same household, keep the siblings separated or at least supervised. Provide multiple layers of protection when you are asleep or away. Protect the child not only from further abuse, but from possible physical and emotional retaliation. Protect their privacy by not re-telling their story without permission, unless necessary for legal or safety reasons.
Control Your Emotions: Try hard to remain as calm as possible on the outside. Breathe deeply, focus on your child or even a particular point on their face. Take a break if you need to. If you “need to go to the bathroom” to get a private place to cry, go ahead. Do your best not to add to your child’s stress by expecting them to comfort you, or giving them a reason to worry about your welfare. You definitely do need support, but it needs to come from other adults. Start looking for it now.
Parents of Survivors with Disabilities: Voices of Change 2018
If reading this is causing you to regret how you have already reacted, you're not alone, and it's not too late.
Caution: Many resources for parents of children who have been sexually abused are not written with sibling sexual trauma in mind. They often assume the person who offended was an adult or someone outside the family. Some of the content might be inappropriate for situations in which where your child or teen caused the trauma. There are important differences between children or teens who cause sexual harm and habitual adult offenders. It is appropriate for you to continue to love, support, and be concerned for the welfare of all your children. Continue to explore this site for information specific to sibling sexual trauma.
The following 2 minute video is aimed at therapists working with adult survivors, but has an important message for parents to hear about the dangers of minimizing a child's words.
Stop It Now! What Should I Do After a Child Tells?
Mel Langston, PhD, Mosac.net: How to Respond to Disclosure, for parents
Mel Langston, PhD book: What Do I Do Now? A Survival Guide for Mothers of Sexually Abused Children
Younique Foundation eBook: Supporting Hope| Helping a Loved One Through Their Healing Journey from Child Sexual Abuse
Brad Watts, LPC, CSOTP: Sibling Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Confronting America’s Silent Epidemic
Parents of Survivors with Disabilities: Voices of Change 2
What's OK Resource List for Teens safe sources of online information for questions about sexuality
Fennell, Karen, MSW, LISW-CP Straying Towards Truth: A Personal Story and Professional Guide to Healing after Sexual Abuse This is a therapist’s account beginning with her son’s disclosure of sexual abuse by an uncle, told through the eyes of herself as a therapist, herself as a mother, and her son. While it does not touch on the circumstance of sibling sexual trauma, or even mention the possibility, it is invaluable for its insights on a family’s journey after disclosure, from all three perspectives. It demonstrates that even a therapist who had experience counseling sexual assault victims was taken off guard by her son’s disclosure of childhood sexual abuse.
Preparing Children to Testify in Court video from Miami-Dade County Kristi House