Help for Parents of Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused by Family Members
If you find out or suspect that your child has been sexually abused by a family member, it can take a toll on you as a parent. It’s important to find a way to manage your feelings, so you can focus on creating a safe environment for your child that is free from harm, judgment, and blame. It is imperative that when your child discloses to you, you continue to repeat the following messages through both your words and your actions:
- I love you.
- What happened is not your fault.
- I will do everything I can to keep you safe.
If your child is in danger, don’t hesitate to call 911. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to talk to someone from your local sexual assault service provider who is trained to help.
How am I supposed to react?
There is no “right” reaction to hearing that your child has been abused. You may experience a wide range of reactions and feelings that may impact different aspects of your life. Some common reactions from parents include:
- Shock. If you had no idea that the harm was occurring, you may be very surprised to hear what has happened.
- Anger. You may feel angry at the abuser for hurting your child or even frustrated with your child for not telling you. It’s also possible to feel angry at your child for disclosing the abuse. It’s not easy news to hear, but it’s important to remember it is not your child’s fault.
- Sadness. You may feel sad for your child, for your family, or for yourself. When a child discloses sexual abuse, it will cause changes in your life. It’s OK to be upset over the changes in your life that may result from this disclosure.
- Anxiety. You might be anxious about responding in the “right” way to your child or navigating the other relationships in your life, especially if you have a relationship with the abuser.
- Fear. Depending on your family circumstances, you may be afraid that the abuser will find a way to harm your child again or be concerned about taking care of your family on your own.
It is important to keep in mind that there is no one “right” reaction, and that all reactions and responses are normal. Having both you and your child talk to a professional about these thoughts and feelings can help sort through these issues. Professional support can also result in healthier long- and short-term results for both you and your child.
How do I manage these feelings?
Your child is counting on you for support. In order to put your child’s safety first, it’s important to take care of yourself. That means finding a way to work through your feelings and reactions to the abuse that doesn’t interfere with your child’s welfare. It may not be easy, but with the right support it is possible.
- Consider talking to a counselor one-on-one. Individual counseling gives you the chance to focus entirely on you and your concerns, without needing to worry about how your child will react to those thoughts.
- Develop your support system. It might be family and friends you trust, or it might be a support group that you didn’t have a connection with before.
- Set limits. Dealing with these emotions can be time- consuming and draining. Set aside time for activities that don’t revolve around the abuse.
- Practice self-care to keep your mind and body in healthy shape.
What if the perpetrator is part of my family?
Finding out that your child was hurt by someone you know and trust can present some additional challenges as a parent. You may be faced with a range of emotions specific to this situation that others can’t relate to. No one has the right to invalidate the way you feel, but it’s important to find a way to manage these emotions in order to prioritize the safety of your child. Some experiences of non-offending parents may include:
- Guilt that you didn’t know the abuse was occurring or for still having feelings for the person who hurt your child
- Losing faith in your judgement or abilities as a parent
- Anger towards the perpetrator for hurting your child and betraying your trust
- Anger towards the child for disrupting your family, especially if the perpetrator is your partner
- Sense of loss for the family member who hurt your child as you begin to cut ties
- Practical fears about finances and day-to-day life that may change when the family member who caused harm is removed from the family circle
- If it the person who harmed your child was another one of your children, you may feel conflicted about how to provide support to the child who was harmed while still trying to protect your other child.
What can I expect from my child?
The effects of sexual assault and abuse vary from person to person. The process of healing from sexual abuse can take a long time, and it’s understandable to feel frustrated as a parent. Survivors of child sexual abuse can react in a wide variety of ways. Some of these reactions could cause you discomfort or take you by surprise.
- Talking about the abuse all the time
- Not talking about it at all
- Confiding in someone who isn’t you
- Being angry at you for not protecting them
- Being angry at you for removing the perpetrator from the home
How can I report the abuse?
- If your child is in danger, don’t hesitate to call 911.
- You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to talk to someone from your local sexual assault service provider who is trained to help.
- Call the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 800.4.A.CHILD(4454) any time, 24/7, to be connected with a trained volunteer who can help you through the process of reporting the crime.
- You can learn more about mandatory reporting laws in your state by visiting RAINN’s State Law Database.
- Self-Care for Friends and Family
- If You Suspect a Child Is Being Harmed
- How Can I Protect My Child From Sexual Assault?
To speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.