What to do, who to tell, how to feel, and more information for parents dealing with child abuse
Saying and doing the right things are critical to your child’s recovery
Children need reassurance that you believe them, love them, and will continue to support and protect them. Here are some frequently asked questions and information for parents dealing with child abuse.
How should I treat my child after physical abuse, sexual abuse or trauma?
Children do not always know what is happening to them when they are being abused. Abusers most often gain their trust and the family’s trust before abusing them. Children may feel something is not quite right, but may not be at an age where they can identify the problem.
The sexual abuse and events that happen following disclosure can be very confusing to children, especially young children. They may interpret emotions from you as something they did wrong.
Children are just not old enough yet to separate strong emotions directed at the abuser or the situation from something directed at them. Children are attuned to reactions adults display in response to their behaviors, which makes your response to child abuse and neglect critical.
Instead, children often “tell” about abuse without words. They may act out, become aggressive, become passive, change their eating patterns, regress to habits of an earlier age (like sucking a thumb), and alter their sleep schedule. All of this is because they may not have the developmental capacity to speak about the issue. These actions are their way of releasing emotions in a physical way.
Try and be attuned to these changes. If you see your child gravitate toward a security blanket, stuffed animal, or other treasure from earlier in their childhood, they may be trying to deal with the physical or sexual abuse through those familiar, comfortable objects.
How do children learn to identify and name their emotions?
Children learn to name their emotions in age-appropriate ways. For instance, when children enter school, teachers help shape their emotions in socially acceptable ways, like talking instead of hitting someone when they are angry. But abuse and sexual abuse are far beyond a child’s ability to understand. Physical and sexual abuse creates a cluster of emotion no child has the experience necessary to cope with.
Help your child attach a word to their feelings. When they seem afraid, talk about fear. When they act out with aggression, talk about anger. Share times you were afraid or angry and how you felt, what you did to react or overcome, and how it’s a normal part of being a human. This helps channel behavior into a preferred and acceptable behavior.
How can I discipline an abused child?
You will still need to discipline your child. Be fair, consistent, and have a plan. If discipline has been loose in the past, build in discipline predictably. If a child gets away with some things some of the time, it sends the wrong signals and makes discipline harder to achieve. Tell them what they can expect so they can learn limits and expectations.
Hitting, slapping, spanking, or otherwise touching a child in pursuit of discipline has a lot of cultural connotations and tradition for many people. However, children who experience pain form physical abuse, loss of control from sexual abuse, or pain from other trauma may redevelop risk factors from physical discipline. Favor non-physical discipline such as sitting still, taking away a toy or phone, and verbal communication.
Who should know about my child’s abuse?
You are in control of who knows. Everyone at the CAC and in the criminal justice system will work to maintain strict confidentiality. But parents of younger children may find it helpful to tell a teacher, a principal, or a coach some details. You can make a judgement about that decision. But a teacher who knows about the abuse may be able to provide more support through the school. A coach may be able to understand the child’s behavior, such as how they handle loss and defeat after a game, or react to physical contact.
For older children, consider how they will feel about certain people knowing. Discuss it with them and make decisions with their feelings in mind.
When and how should my child share information about their abuse?
You need to help your child decide who is appropriate to discuss their abuse with. Therapists, teachers, and maybe church leaders, but not everyone at school or distant relatives, for instance.
They may need your help in learning how to deflect or share information. They may also need help becoming a resource for other children who themselves are being abused and are trying to disclose. It is not uncommon for child abuse and neglect victims to open up to a friend of the same age before approaching an adult. Explain to your child how they should react by identifying trusted adults such as yourself.
How do I respond when others ask me about my child’s abuse?
If other families are involved in the investigation, you should wait until the investigation is over before talking details with them. It can harm the case otherwise.
Recognize this is a difficult and challenging conversation and most people who ask how to help are themselves trying to show support in a difficult moment. However, you don’t have to answer anyone’s questions unless they have a reason to know, like your local child protective agency caseworker or siblings.
If you do decide to answer questions, recognize they may become emotional. They may cry, get angry, or feel immense stress. Use your judgement if they tend to become over-emotional or have a condition. And if you do tell someone else, you have every right to ask they keep it confidential.
How do I deflect questions about abuse?
If you do not want to discuss the situation with someone, simply say, “I’d rather not talk about that right now.” In many cases, you may have to in order to protect the investigation. This is most common when a family member is involved as an alleged perpetrator.
Your mental health as a caregiver matters, too.
You may feel shock, anger, guilt, fear, denial, shame, and many other perfectly normal emotions. But they are not always an accurate attribute or contribution to the situation. Blame and shame for the abuse falls on the offender. Express your emotions apart from your child.
Don’t be afraid to cry, talk, express anger, and laugh.
Find time to relax and exercise.
Stay busy with family and friends and work.
Accept things you cannot change.
Focus on positive things in your life
Ask for help. Your victim advocate can connect you to adult-friendly mental health providers in your area.