What happens when a child tells someone about abuse will impact on their later recovery from the whole experience.
Children need to feel listened to, believed, cared about and safe after they have told.
As you listen, remember that the responsibility for abuse lies solely with the person who did the abuse, and it is rare for children to make up stories about sexual abuse.
If a child chooses you as their ‘safe person’ and discloses abuse, the following guide might help:
- Be calm – trust that you and the child will get the help you need to handle the situation.
- Stay emotionally connected to the child and their emotional needs – if you do feel panic, shock or anger, put this to the side for now to allow you to meet the child’s need to trust you and feel safe.
- Listen to what the child is telling you and take it seriously. Accept what they tell you.
- Reassure the child that it is not their fault and that you will get them safe now, and praise the child for their bravery in telling.
- Don’t ask much about what has happened, even though parental instincts might mean you want to know every detail. It is best to leave it for a trained expert to question them at a later time.
- Tell the child that there are other people that you will need to talk to in order to get help.
- Ensure that the child is safe now – if not, call the Police or Oranga Tamariki.
If you are reading this after a child told you about abuse and you didn’t know to respond this way at the time, then go back and offer the child praise, reassurance and safety.
- Seek professional assistance
- Protect the child’s privacy in the family or community – only tell professionals and others who need to know
- Offer continuing love and support
- Seek support for yourself.
If you’re not sure
Sometimes what a child says might seem like a disclosure of abuse, but you are not sure. Apart from being shocking, sexual abuse can turn everyone’s lives upside down so people often want to have good grounds before they take action. Children can pick up on what they think an adult wants them to say, so if you think it is necessary to ask questions, do so carefully, using a tone which conveys care and concern. Ask open questions like:
- Is something bothering you?
- Has someone done something you didn’t like?
- Who did that?
- When was that?
If a child hasn’t said anything, but you are concerned, do what you would normally do when a child is upset or behaving differently – ask the child what is worrying them, be patient as they answer, if they don’t answer let them know that it is good to share feelings because sometimes adults can help fix problems, and let them know that you care about them and how they are feeling. A child who has been abused might disclose in answer to your questions, or they might not at this time, but tell you or someone else later.
Supporting a child who has been abused
Keep them feeling safe – if the abuser is someone in your family or local environment, prioritise the child’s needs to not be around the person. If it was a sibling who hurt them, have the sibling stay with an aunt, a grandparent or other trusted adult while things get sorted.
Let them know that they are loved. People who sexually abuse children often blame them or tell that they won’t be loved if they tell. It’s important to counter these messages so children can heal.
Respect their feelings. Children might seem more emotionally “needy” for a time – this is because they are, so meet these needs as best as you can in ways which don’t undermine age-appropriate developing independence.
Let them process the experience – they might talk about what happened or you might see it in their drawings or play. Allowing this validates what happened and how they felt so pause here and assist them to also bring that play or those drawings to the place of safety they are in now. Call us for help if this is hard for you to do, or you think your child is not moving forward.
Keep life as normal as possible – same routines, normal activities, same rules about good behaviour. You may understand why your child is acting the way they are, but as well as showing compassion, you can still let them know if their behaviour is unacceptable.
Get help if you or your child needs it – if they are having nightmares, have gone back to an early age of functioning, are sexually acting out with other children, or have persistent anxiety, anger or low mood. If you are finding it difficult to know what to do, are having strong feelings about what happened, are so frightened it will happen again that you don’t know what to do, or are having a hard time with other people’s opinions about what happened or what you should do.