In situations of child sexual abuse, children rely on others to be their voice. If a child does disclose sexual abuse directly, it is important to listen and be supportive by validating how scary it can be to talk about the abuse and that they are being very courageous in sharing this information. A person’s response to the disclosure can be key in helping children begin to cope with the effects of the abuse. No matter what your role is—parent or other family member, coach, teacher, religious leader, babysitter—you have the power to make a positive difference in the child’s life.
- Recognize the signs
The signs of abuse aren’t always obvious, and learning the warning signs of child sexual abuse could be life saving. You might notice behavioral or physical changes that could signal a child is being abused.
- Talk to the child
If you are concerned about abuse, talk to the child. Keep in mind a few guidelines to create a non-threatening environment where the child may be more likely to open up to you.
- Pick your time and place carefully. Choose a space where the child is comfortable or ask them where they’d like to talk. Avoid talking in front of someone who may be the source of the abuse.
- Be aware of your tone. If you start the conversation in a serious tone, you may scare the child, and they may be more likely to give you the answers they think you want to hear—rather than the truth. Try to make the conversation more casual. A non-threatening tone will help put the child at ease and ultimately provide you with more accurate information.
- Talk to the child directly. Ask questions that use the child’s own vocabulary, but that are a little vague. For example, “Has someone been touching you?” In this context “touching” can mean different things, but it is likely a word the child is familiar with. The child can respond with questions or comments to help you better gauge the situation like, “No one touches me except my mom at bath time,” or “You mean like the way my cousin touches me sometimes?” Understand that sexual abuse can feel good to the child, so asking if someone is “hurting” them may not bring out the information that you are looking for.
- Listen and follow up. Allow the child to talk freely. Wait for them to pause, and then follow up on points that made you feel concerned.
- Avoid judgment and blame. Avoid placing blame by using “I” questions and statements. Rather than beginning your conversation by saying, “You said something that made me worry…” consider starting your conversation with the word “I.” For example: “I am concerned because I heard you say that you are not allowed to sleep in your bed by yourself.”
- Reassure the child. Make sure that the child knows that they are not in trouble. Let them know you are simply asking questions because you are concerned about them.
- Be patient. Remember that this conversation may be very frightening for the child. Many perpetrators make threats about what will happen if someone finds out about the abuse. They may tell a child that they will be put into foster care or threaten them or their loved ones with physical violence.
- Report it
Reporting a crime like sexual abuse may not be easy, and it can be emotionally draining. Keep in mind that reporting abuse gives you the chance to protect someone who can’t protect themselves. Often, people may feel uncomfortable to report the sexual abuse of a child, but it is crucial that steps are taken to ensure the child’s safety. It is important to keep in mind that reporting can be done anonymously as well. In a situation where a child is in immediate danger, the best thing to do is to report to the nearest law enforcement agency at once. Another option in reporting child sexual abuse would be to call a local Child Protective Services (CPS) agency.
If there’s a relationship with the sexually abused child, it is essential that the child is informed about the need to talk to someone else about the abuse. If the child reports directly to an adult, and they aren’t informed ahead of time, the child will feel betrayed when an Officer or another person comes to interview them. It is important to prepare the child with all necessary information about the third party and possible questions that may be asked. In addition, the child should be reassured that reporting is for their own protection and done out of care and concern, not to get the other person (i.e., perpetrator) in trouble (although that may happen). Inform the child of all the processes involved and what may happen next.
If a child is in immediate danger, intervene, report, and request help. For advocacy, trauma and healing based organizations, click here.