How to respond if a child tells you about sexual abuse
If your child or a child you’re caring for tells you about sexual abuse, it’s normal to feel anger, shock or worry.
But you will need to put your feelings aside for a time so you can help your child feel safe and able to tell you about what has happened.
Here’s how to respond and help your child talk about sexual abuse:
- Try to stay calm, even if your heart is racing. Take deep breaths, and let them out slowly and quietly.
- Listen carefully to your child without interrupting. Let your child tell the story in their own words and at their own pace. Let your child know that you’ll listen, no matter what.
- If you need to ask things, use open-ended questions like ‘What happened next?’ Avoid leading questions like ‘Did he touch you?’
- Believe your child. Tell your child that you believe them, even if what your child is saying seems unreal or doesn’t make sense at first.
- Tell your child that it’s not their fault, they’re not to blame, and they won’t be punished, no matter what.
- Tell your child they’ve done the right thing by telling you. Your child has been brave to tell you about the abuse, so acknowledge your child’s courage.
- Talk with your child about how you can help them feel safe and loved. Be prepared to do what your child needs you to do.
Your child might not tell you everything at once. Your child might tell you more about it gradually over several days or weeks. Be patient and give your child time to share experiences and feelings.
It’s also important to be available in case your child wants to share more or needs you to be around to feel safe. This could mean staying at home with your child, taking time off work, picking your child up from school, and checking in with your child regularly.
Your child might ask you to promise not to tell anyone else. You can’t make that promise. But you can say that you’ll do your best to keep your child safe. You can say that keeping your child safe might mean you’ll need to talk to other people, but you’ll let your child know what you’re going to do.
All children have the right to grow up safe from abuse. Talking with children about sexual abuse and trying to protect them from sexual abuse is part of creating safe environments that help children grow and thrive.
Worried about sexual abuse: encouraging children to talk
Your child or the child you’re caring for might not have said anything to you, but you might be worried that your child has been sexually abused. You might have noticed physical or other signs of sexual abuse, your child might have asked you some questions, or someone might have told you that they’ve noticed something or that your child has said something.
You can encourage your child to talk by asking questions like ‘You seem troubled, is anything worrying you?’ or ‘Are you OK?’ You could also reassure your child by saying ‘Nothing is too big, too small or so awful that you can’t talk about it’.
You can encourage a young child to describe feelings by saying things like ‘Where do you feel funny/sore/upset?’ or ‘When did you feel funny/sore/upset?’ If your child has a disability and doesn’t use language, you could encourage them to draw or act out feelings.
To encourage a teenage child, you could say ‘I can see you’re struggling with something. I’m wondering what’s worrying you’. Your child might prefer talking to another trusted adult than to you. You could ask, ‘Is there someone you can talk to?’
After you’ve encouraged your child to talk, your child might ask questions or say things like:
- ‘Do I have to keep secrets?’ You could respond by saying, ‘No, you don’t. You should never keep secrets that don’t feel right’.
- ‘Is it OK for Mr Z to do weird things?’ You could respond by asking, ‘What does Mr Z do that’s weird?’
- ‘Do I have to go to music today?’ Before saying ‘Yes!’, you could try to find out why your child doesn’t want to go there. For example, you could ask, ‘What makes it not fun to go there?’
- ‘I don’t like the games cousin J plays’. You could respond by asking, ‘How do you play the games?’
It’s OK to ask for help with supporting your child or the child you’re caring for to talk about sexual abuse. For advice, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732.
What to do next: reporting child sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse is always a crime.
If you think that your child or the child you’re caring for has been abused or if you think there’s an immediate risk of abuse, you should report it.
Call the police on 000.
You might not be sure whether your child has been sexually abused, but you think something has happened. It’s still important to seek advice from professionals as soon as possible. You can talk to police, child protection officers, psychologists and doctors. These people are trained to know about child sexual abuse and how to relate to children who have or might have experienced it. And they can give you advice on what steps to take next.
Start by contacting the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service for advice on 1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732.
If you find physical signs that you suspect are child sexual abuse, it’s important to get your child examined as soon as possible by a medical professional, preferably someone with experience in child sexual abuse. The police or counselling service can help you with this.
It’s a good idea to make notes about what has happened so that you can give accurate details to the police. Your notes could include:
- what your child has told you
- what changes you’ve noticed about your child’s behaviour
- what you’ve seen happening between your child and the person your child says has done the abuse
- anything else you’ve noticed about that person’s behaviour.
Explaining the next steps to your child
Your child is likely to want to know what’s going to happen and who’s going to be told about what has happened.
You can explain to your child that you’ll do whatever you can to keep them safe. This means making a report to the police and talking with other professionals.
For example, you could say, ‘Today I called a place called Bravehearts and they explained what I need to do next. They told me that the police always need to know when things like this happen’.
Why children find it hard to talk about sexual abuse
Children can find it hard to tell parents or anyone else that they’re being sexually abused. This is because they might:
- not have the language they need
- be worried they’re going to disappoint or upset their parents
- be embarrassed or feel ashamed
- love or trust the person who’s abusing them and be afraid of getting that person into trouble
- not understand or be confused about what’s happening
- be worried that the abuse will get worse if they tell someone
- have been threatened or shamed into keeping the abuse secret
- think they won’t be believed.