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
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
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.