Supporting children and teenagers who have experienced sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse harms children and teenagers mentally and physically, now and into the future. But children who’ve experienced sexual abuse can and do heal if they get support.
Support helps children feel safe, secure and less distressed.
Support can come from family, other carers and professionals.
Family and social support for children and teenagers who have experienced sexual abuse
If your child or the child you’re caring for has experienced sexual abuse, there are things you can do in your everyday family life to support and help them.
- Stick with regular routines for mealtimes, bedtimes, and school, kindergarten or preschool.
- Take notice of any changes in your child’s behaviour – for example, eating or sleeping differently or avoiding activities or places they used to enjoy.
- Share meals together regularly as a family. Talk about the things you’d normally talk about, like what people have been doing during the day.
- Spend time together as a family and with people your child likes and trusts. For example, play family board games, go for walks, watch TV together and so on.
- Make time to talk with your child one to one – for example, while you’re reading a book together before bed or driving to a sports game.
- Help your child to set small, achievable goals – for example, trying a new hobby or going to sports training every week.
- Praise your child’s progress and improvements in all aspects of their life.
Relationships and feelings
- Tell your child that you love them and will always be there for them, no matter what.
- Show affection in the way that your child prefers. For example, your child might prefer a high five or fist bump rather than a hug or kiss.
- Be patient if your child seems angry or frustrated. When your child is sad, distressed or worried, comfort and reassure them. Let them know their feelings are OK.
- Encourage your child to talk about their emotions and then label them together. You could say, ‘How are you feeling this morning? You’re smiling – it looks like you’re feeling happy’.
- If your child is young, try using ‘feelings’ pictures, posters, cards or toys to help your child understand and express their feelings. Books about feelings can also help.
- If your child is older, suggest a diary or journal. Sometimes it’s easier to write things down or draw them than say them aloud.
- If your child has trouble talking about feelings, they might find it easier if you ask them how someone else might feel in this situation.
Talking and listening
- Give your child space, time and opportunities to talk about what has happened.
- Let your child know that you’re there to listen and talk about anything whenever your child is ready. Nothing is so awful that your child can’t talk about it with you.
- Actively listen to your child’s concerns and feelings.
- Talk about being safe, feeling safe and having the right to feel safe. For example, you could talk about people your child can go to for help if they feel unsafe.
- If you’re getting professional support for your child, let your child know what it will involve, how it will help, and how you’ll work through it together.
- Talk about sharing information about the sexual abuse. Your child might prefer you to be careful about who and how many people you tell.
There will be good and not-so-good days. Keep giving your child as much support as you can, even on the not-so-good days. If you’re not sure how to support your child, check in with the professional working with your child. Together you can work out how to respond.
Professional support for children and teenagers who have experienced sexual abuse
Professional support can help your child heal from abuse. For some children, this support will involve working directly with professionals. For others, particularly young children, the support might involve you working with professionals and learning strategies to help your child at home.
The first step is to visit your GP to ask for a referral to a professional or specialist service for your child. Depending on your child’s needs and available services, this could be a psychologist, social worker, advocate or a service providing individual or group programs.
You can ask your GP for help to find the right service or professional for your child. You might want to look for someone who:
- specialises in working with children
- has experience in working with children who have experienced child sexual abuse
- is the gender your child prefers.
Professionals can develop a treatment and support plan to help your child. They can also help you to understand the steps you need to take in your situation.
You might be able to arrange a trial appointment to see whether the professional is a good fit for you and your child.
Support services differ from state to state. Many states have specialist funded child sexual abuse services for children. Some private clinics and professionals also specialise in this area. These helplines and services can be good places to start to find out what’s available in your area.
Working with professionals to recover from child sexual abuse
If your child is working with a professional to recover from child sexual abuse, your family will probably be involved too. But the way you’re involved will depend on the program and approach the professional uses. It’s a good idea to ask the professional about this.
When you visit the professional, you could ask:
- What will a typical session look like?
- What strategies and activities do you use with children who’ve experienced child sexual abuse?
- How long will my child need support? How many sessions will my child have?
- Will there be opportunities for other family members to be involved in some sessions?
- How can I support my child between their sessions?
- How will you monitor and let me know about my child’s progress?
Looking after yourself when your child has experienced sexual abuse
If your child or the child you’re caring for has experienced sexual abuse, you might experience a range of feelings. You might feel overwhelmed, pressured, confused, angry, horrified, disgusted, sad, betrayed, guilty or grief-stricken. Your family and your friends might feel this way too.
It’s important to remind yourselves that you’re not to blame.
It’s also important to look after yourself. Looking after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally will help you meet your child’s needs.
And it’s OK to ask for help. You can talk with trusted friends and family, but check beforehand with your child about sharing information. And also be clear that you want friends and family to respect your child’s privacy. Or you could talk with your GP, who can refer you to a counsellor or psychologist. Your child’s professional might also be able to recommend someone experienced in working with parents, carers and siblings.
You don’t have to cope alone. When you seek support, it’s good for you and good for your family.