When Children Say They Have Been Sexually Abused

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Emotional availability is the key phrase for adults when children tell them about being sexually abused. Adults are helpful only when they respond to the children with empathy and compassion.

The focus is the children. No matter how emotionally upset adults may be, they must under-react. Afterward, adults can scream and cry and do what they want to do, but in the presence of the children, their demeanor is one of alert concern.

Children are more likely to talk when adults allow children to express themselves in their own words in their own ways. It is important for adults not to show a great deal of emotion, such as shock, disbelief, horror, gushes of sympathy and compassion. What works is to be calm, quietly compassionate, and above all, to listen.

If adults communicate, verbally or non-verbally, that sexual abuse is the most horrible thing and the abused person is damaged and hurt forever, this is harmful. In addition, adults harm children if adults blame themselves for not protecting children.

Many children will become concerned about the adults’ suffering and push their own to the side. Such adult reactions hurt children and can make the sexual abuse a more serious liability than it already is.

Focus on Children Not on Your Own Emotions

Furthermore, in their concern for the children or their own guilt, adults sometimes quiz the children, or give them the “third degree,” which is a series of poorly-timed questions that demand immediate responses. It is important not to insist that the children talk, but rather give them a safe place in which to talk about their experiences and to explore the meanings and implications of their experiences.

Some people think the children wanted the abuse if they seem to have found it physically pleasurable, or if there was orgasm and/or ejaculation involved. In actuality, human bodies respond to sexual stimulation, which is pleasurable to be body. Sexual stimulation is pleasure to body and mind when there is mutuality and consent.

Sexual pleasure under conditions of sexual abuse is confusing to children because it typically is confined to the body while the children’s thoughts and emotions are fearful and confused.

Adults often cannot help child survivors who experienced bodily sensations because adults are unprepared to deal with the reality that children’s bodies may respond to sexual stimulation that children do not want or seek.

A balanced message is that sexual abuse is a painful, difficult situation that children can learn to manage well with the help of adults. Finding an askable, available, kind and listening other person to talk to helps children work out the trauma.

Children need to know what the legal implications are and what the police may expect them to do. If children are assured that adults will be with them every step of the way, then this becomes an important part of the children’s recovery. Children can cope with adversity when adults are consistently there for them.

What to Say

The following are some general guidelines for listening to children who have experienced sexual abuse.

1. Sit on the same level with the child.

2. Speak in a calm voice.

3. Regulate eye contact: Don’t stare or avoid the eyes, although in some cultures not looking into the eyes of others is a form of respect.

4. Sit at a comfortable distance from the child

5. Echo the last word of the child’s statement

6. Reflect back what you just heard to check to see if you heard correctly

7. Use the 80/20 formula-adults do 20% of the talking

8. Repeat a key word 9. Nod your head when you agree.

10. Use the words the child uses, not only the slang but other words, too.

This is an example of using the same word:

Child: “He put his thing in my craphole.” Adult: “He put his thing in your craphole.” Here is another example: A 9 year-old girl, whose grandfather sexually abused her for six years, cringed every time she used the word “weiner,” which was the term she knew for “penis.” the interviewer used the word in a matter of fact way. Eventually, the little girl relaxed as she used the word.

11. Don’t put words in the child’s mouth. 12. Be warm and accepting. 13. Use simple, concrete language.

Adults can improve their skills in talking to children about sexual abuse by using their imaginations. They can imagine how they would feel if they had been used and abused, if they can imagine what it is like to trust someone and have that trust betrayed, to feel shamed and stigmatized by events over which you had not control but thought you should have had control, or even believe that you did have control.

Child sexual abuse is a major traumatic life event that requires sensitive responsiveness.

The following are some examples of what to say when children are talking to adults about being sexually abused. Adults can adapt these examples to fit their own situations. Children test adults and often being by telling them just a little bit. If adults pass the early tests, then children are likely to say more.

“Sexual abuse is hard to talk about. I’m glad you can trust me.” Children already know how hard it is to talk about sexual abuse. When an adult acknowledges this, children typically feel encouraged to go on.

“Uh huh” and “I see.” In conversations with you, children may be testing
the reality of their experiences. As a general principle, anything a particular child feels is valid for that child. So, a simple “Uh huh” or “I see” could suffice to validate the child’s experience and encourage the child to go on.

“You seem to be uncomfortable. Would you like to stop now?” When children start to talk about the abuse, there is a point at which it may be wise to stop. Children sometimes become overwhelmed with emotion. They might want to be held, or go to a playground, or spend time alone at the computer. The pacing depends upon the children. When adults encourage children to take breaks, trust can grow.

“It is ok to love the person who abused you.” Many children have long-term relationships with the persons who sexually abuse them. They feel attached to these persons, may have happy memories of the good times together, and they may have enjoyed the attention. This is an important part of children’s experience of abuse, and children benefit when adults acknowledge such experiences.

“Yes, what happened is confusing. I understand that you didn’t like the sexual parts of what happened. You liked the person but not what he or she did to you.” With some possible exceptions, children did not like the sexual abuse, even if they experienced physical pleasure. Children, however, need to make these statements with little or no prompting for adults.

“You may have heard sexual abuse is not your fault, but a lot of kids think it is. What do you think?” Most children believe the sexual abuse is their fault. One little girl said of six years of abuse that her grandfather perpetrated, “I never told him not to do it.” If adults attempt to assure children that the abuse is not their fault when the children believe it is their fault, then adults are ignoring children’s perspectives and invalidating their perspectives. Helping children see where the fault lies requires careful, sensitive conversations over time.

“The perpetrator took advantage of you.” This is a message most sexually abused children can benefit from hearing, but the timing of when to let children know this is important. There is no set of rules or procedures that pinpoint the absolutely right time. Adults must depend upon their judgments about children’s readiness to hear such an important message.

“Is there anything else?” Often children will say only parts of their stories. When the conversations appear to be ending, adults can ask, “Is there anything else?” Often children then disclose a great deal more.

Disclosure Can Take Time

One woman who was abused as a young teenager was in her thirties when she felt safe enough to tell another person that she had extorted money, clothes, and even a car from her stepfather who had sexually abused her. That was her payoff for not telling anyone.

Talking to children about their own sexual abuse is a set of skills that adults can learn only if they understand child sexual abuse and have capacities for empathy and regulation of their own emotions.


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