To hear that your child may have been abused is the kind of news that can knock you to your knees. Maybe your child said or did something that made your alarm bells go off, or the school called you to discuss some inappropriate behaviour or even worse there is evidence that your child may have been exposed to sexual or physical abuse. You immediately want to know who did it, when did it happen and how can you protect your child. It’s a panicked feeling of fear anger and confusion that can lead to serious problems in your relationship with your child and family. This is such a sensitive time for your child and your reaction could set the tone for all of the processes to come.
How would you know if your child has indeed been a victim of abuse? Is there signs or symptoms that will indicate abuse? The short answer is yes there are, but the signs can be very subtle or even very direct. When your child asks a question or makes a comment, behaves in a way that shows knowledge of sexual activities that you know are not age appropriate it might be due to exposure to sexual abuse. If your child’s behaviour suddenly changes and he/she becomes withdrawn or aggressive, or if your child wants to avoid certain places, people or situations that they were OK with before, it could be because something has happened to them. If your child has bruises, bleeding or discharges from their private parts it may be due to sexual abuse or strange wounds where their explanation doesn’t fit well with the injuries- it could indicate physical abuse. Emotional changes such as depression, regression, being very tearful or clingy, self-harming or suicidal tendencies could all indicate exposure to abuse. In some occasions a child may directly try to tell a parent or a teacher of what has happened to them. Most of the time your child may have only opened a tiny window to what has actually happened, and there may be much more to the event. All of the above are possible indicators of abuse but the important information about the context and nature of the abuse may not be very clear from these indicators.
This is the time where my best advice is not make any allegations or to corner your child with a barrage of who what when and where questions, but to reach into the depths of your strength and say to your child “I believe you and I’m going to do all I can to help you”. My next suggestion is to get professional help. Children that have been abused may be very scared to say what happened due to threats from the abuser, fear of not being believed and even worries about the effect of their disclosure on the family. Talking to someone who is trained in forensic interviewing techniques will help to gather the most important information about the current exposure and future risk to your child. It is also important to get support for yourself in this very challenging time. There are many processes that may have to be followed from making statements to the police, going for medical examinations, legal procedures and court appearances if the allegations seem true. I would recommend the following to you;
Stay calm – don’t get angry or have a severe emotional reaction. This may frighten your child into silence.
Provide emotional support to your child – it takes tremendous courage to tell anyone about abuse, tell your child that you love him/her and that you believe them.
Limit exposure – the main priority is to keep your child safe. If your child mentioned the perpetrator; avoid all and any contact with them – you don’t have to give an explanation to the alleged abuser or tell them about the allegations. If you don’t know who it is avoid exposure to all people except the closest family and then be very observant of your child, determine if they show any reaction to the remaining people.
Face the facts – disbelief and denial is a normal and common reaction but staying in denial can have dire consequences for your child and your relationship with him/her. It will take courage to face the facts and to come to terms with the new reality after your child has disclosed possible abuse. Internationally children are far more likely to say that nothing has happened, when in fact they have been abused than lie about abuse happening. Believe your child and ACT to protect them
Don’t confront – if you suspect someone or your child has mentioned someone by name, don’t confront them. Chances are that they will deny it and then you would have tipped them off that the secret is out. Confronting them could jeopardise any further investigation into the allegations.
Get help (for your child) - your child would need to speak to a professional who can help them make a more comprehensive disclosure of what happened to them and to evaluate the risk your child may still be exposed to. The focus is on fact finding and support initially. After all of these processes are completed your child will need therapy which focuses on healing and recovery, but therapy is a secondary proses.
Get help (for yourself) - this would be uncharted territory for you and you will need the right guidance from someone who knows the legal procedures and pitfalls as well as someone who can help you through all of the questions and worries you may have. Find a reputable and knowledgeable professional- either a social worker, psychologist, counselor who is trained in forensic interviewing techniques.
Stay the course – finding the right professional, going through the whole fact finding process and supporting your child through possible court cases and police investigations are very daunting. I would urge you to commit and stay the course. It will help your child when they see that you support them through the whole process and it will help potential future victims if the right procedures are followed and perpetrators are reported and brought to book.
A forensic investigation and assessment will assist your child to make a more comprehensive disclosure in a way that is safe for your child but that will also hold up to scrutiny if this information has to go to court. This professional will also be able to advise you about the next steps and procedures. It is a very difficult road but your child can get through this with your help emotional support and commitment to their well-being.
At Vita Nova we have the expertise and the right services to guide you through it all.