When the Secret Comes Out

by from S&F newsletter

So your child tells you one day that she has been sexually abused or assaulted. How can you deal with this? How do you cope with the many feelings that come to you, while still being sensitive and helpful? If your child or adult child has disclosed this information previously, can you as a parent improve your response and helpfulness after the big disclosure? This article is designed to answer these and other questions that relate to abuse disclosure and beyond. Here are some guidelines which may be useful. The use of the female gender word 'she' is interchangeable with 'he.'

  • Don't ask leading questions. 'Did he hurt you?' 'He didn't threaten you if you told, did he?' 'Did it happen a lot of times?' These are examples of leading questions which influence how the story comes out and its accuracy. Even though you may be very upset, and even though your child has a hard time talking about it, leading or rapid-fire questions are often later regretted. She needs to take it at her own pace. Also, leading questions an influence or distort the memories of what actually happened.
  • Safety is first. Take steps to ensure that the person telling you is safe both physically and emotionally, as well as other members of the family. Make sure no one is vulnerable to further abuse, and not vulnerable to threats or intimidation. This is very important even if you are not sure about the accuracy of the report. It is important to the survivor to know that her words do make a difference, and that prompt action is being taken. Consult with a professional if you are not sure how to ensure complete safety.
  • Be open and empathetic. Agreement or disagreement with the disclosure is not the issue at this time. Fixing things other than safety matters may be premature. Empathetic listening with lots of caring is vital to the survivor's emotional well being, especially during the initial disclosure. Reflective listening is a learnable skill which will go a long way towards creating an atmosphere of safety and support for the discloser.
  • Be sensitive but matter-of-fact. Emotionality and reactiveness may hinder the disclosure. She needs a calm, encouraging and accepting response.
  • Never blame. Survivors often or usually feel that they are to blame for their own abuse. This is often a reason for non-disclosure. Even though a child is never to blame for her own abuse, the comments or questions often inadvertently add to the large loads of personal guilt the survivor feels. Many questions sound like blame: 'Why didn't you tell me (sooner)?' 'Did you tell him to stop?' 'Did you make it clear you didn't like it?' or 'Maybe you were seductive.' are all questions that fairly drip with blame and are to be avoided.
  • Personal guilt. Many parents feel a heavy load of personal guilt for letting such a thing happen, or for not being aware, or for not taking adequate precautions. These feelings on the part of the parents can interfere with objectivity, which may then interfere with really hearing the child accurately, with believing the child, or with following through in the best way possible. These are feelings that may be best worked out privately with a friend or therapist, and not with the child, at least initially. Survivors are often caretakers and too easily let go of their own healing work when they see a parent in distress. Responsibility is a separate issue from guilt and blame. The ability of parents to genuinely accept responsibility when appropriate is often a key factor in the healing process, and can be a pivotal issue later on in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.
  • Accept the feelings. Feelings are not facts. Listening, validating, and accepting her feelings is not the same as agreement. Acceptance and validation are vital in the recovery process even if what the child says seems strange or bizarre. This requires some skill which may be gained or improved with counseling.
  • Denial and minimization hurt! Statements like: 'Forget it now and get on with your life,' or 'It's all in your head,' or 'Things like that don't happen in good families,' or 'Nobody's childhood is perfect,' or 'You'll just have to make the best of it,' or 'It's not that big a deal,' are usually very alienating and detrimental to discovery of the truth (a first step in the healing process). The disclosing person needs time and perspective and support to discover if or what abuse happened and what damage was done if it did occur. The survivor often does not want to believe it or face it herself; minimization from the parent can put her back into that mode, thus preventing recovery.
  • Respect the privacy: If the survivor of abuse is an adult, she holds the power and should decide when, to whom, and how any further disclosure should be made. Pushing ahead before she is ready, or pulling back can be harmful to the process of recovery. An objective, third person such as a professional therapist can help in preparation and timing of the steps necessary.
  • Give her the responsibility and choices. Encourage her to make choices that are in her best interest. For instance, don't try to get her to confront if she is not ready. Respect for the survivor's confidentiality, wishes, emotions, and choices can go a very long way toward helping her recover lost perspective and self-esteem.
  • Don't treat her like damaged goods. She may need assurances that she is still lovable and attractive. If you find yourself obsessing about the details or feeling strongly negative, it may be best to work these feelings out with a professional therapist rather than displaying this to the child. Maintain your normal methods of expressing affection. Even though touching and holding can be especially comforting, ask permission before making any contact, and respect her wishes, especially with an older child or with an adult child.
  • Follow up. If nothing is ever said or done about the disclosure, it may feel to the survivor that it has been 'for nothing' or useless. This adds to any feelings of powerlessness. Being believed or validated is the first step which empowers a child, but further action also helps return the power and space lost during abuse. Support future disclosures.
  • Be prepared for consequences of further disclosure. Families are often torn apart by the aftermath of wider disclosure or of pressing charges legally. Although parents often need to take these difficult steps, getting perspective, considering alternatives and options, getting prepared, and getting good support are vital to the family and to the survivor in the healing process.
  • Get professional help. There are literally dozens of issues that need to be worked out in the aftermath of an abuse disclosure, both for you and for the survivor. Some therapists specialize in working with people on these issues. Group therapy can also be very helpful, even the 'treatment of choice' in some situations. Often group therapy is used in conjunction with individual therapy. It is very important to work on your own issues as your success and well-being can be pivotal to the recovery of the survivor.