Raising a child can be one of the greatest joys and privileges in life. With children comes a light and hope of a better tomorrow. Because of their boundless innocence, there is nothing more heartbreaking than discovering that a child in your life is a victim of abuse. Children can experience abuse directly when someone physically, sexually, or emotionally abuses them, as well as when they are bullied (which can be either or both emotional and/or physical abuse). They can also be harmed significantly by the indirect experience of abuse when they witness domestic violence in their home. In fact, an estimated 4.5 to 15 million children a year experience varying forms of abuse either directly or indirectly(1). Studies have shown that a child’s physical and mental health can be drastically affected when they are abused and also when they witness abuse of loved ones in their home through domestic violence. Any child who is traumatized by abuse needs to receive the support of a safe adult to process their experience and to heal. We know that thinking about this possibility is a parent’s worst nightmare. But please don’t let that stop you from gaining knowledge about the realities of child abuse, and preparing yourself to play a critical role in the life of the child who needs the safety and support you can provide.
Children depend on their mother, father, caretaker or any trusted adult to be their advocate when they have been hurt, mistreated and abused. The most important thing to do at the moment you realize that your child has been abused is to believe them (and even if you are not sure about the true facts of what happened, they must feel through your reassurances that you believe them). Assume that their story is true and communicate that. Responses like, “You are very brave to tell me that,” “I found out that you were hurt, and I am sorry you went through that. I’m here for you, and I love you,” or any phrase that reassures your love for them and that they are your priority is not merely helpful at the moment, but it can set the tone for how your child will move forward.
Many factors play into why parents and adults are hesitant to believe children about abuse, but studies show how crucial it is that we assume kids are telling the truth when it comes to being abused. For one, children are far less likely to lie about being abused than adolescents or adults but are more likely to be disbelieved(2). If a child is not believed, they experience Double Abuse. The M3ND Project coined the term, Double Abuse®, to describe the type of harm that takes place when a victim finally finds the courage to speak up or reach out for help, and in response they are not believed, or are silenced, minimized, blamed or ostracized. This secondary layer of harm is devastating because it comes from someone whom they trusted and expected to be their advocate. This new trauma exacerbates the symptoms a victim may already be experiencing from the original abuse.
To help assure your child that you are here for them and you believe them, avoid questions like, “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” or “How long has this been going on?” Although these might seem like natural or innocent or even caring questions, to the child, they feel like accusations and can cause them to blame themselves further and experience more shame. They need you to help them release their burdens. Tell them that it is not their fault and that they did nothing wrong. Questions like the above can communicate that you are more concerned about punishment or getting to the bottom of things than you are about comforting them and listening. Your priority is to show your child love, reassure them and express apologies that this happened to them. Focus your attention on them and what they need.
Sometimes, in these situations, the adult harmfully redirects the focus of the conversation by bringing up the abuser instead of talking about the victim about their experience. Be careful not to allow your surprise, anger, or the weight of the situation to skew your response. This will affirm their decision to disclose their situation to you and show them you are strong enough to handle it well. Know that it’s normal for them to avoid talking about it right away or to have a difficult time finding the words to express their feelings. As the safe adult in their life, we don’t want to pressure them to talk about it before they are ready. Keep the line of communication open by reminding them that you believe them, love them, and are there to protect them. It’s okay for you to make suggestions when they do not have the words to express or do not know what they need to make themselves feel better. If you need more information so you can report or evaluate the next steps, let the child lead this discussion knowing you may need to wait until they are ready by asking questions over time.
As advocates, we must help our children remove themselves from harmful environments and find safe spaces for them to heal. For example, as we shared in our holiday blog, you might support a child who has been abused by a relative or family friend who attends family gatherings by telling them the child that they do not need to attend the event and that you will do something special with them instead. You could also make arrangements to ensure the abuser will not attend the gathering and bring the child with the knowledge the abuser will not be present (3). By doing either of these things, you are protecting the child and making them feel seen, heard and validated. They would also eliminate the risk of abuse by the perpetrator and protect the child from the added anxiety caused when being forced to share the same physical space with their abuser. No matter what, as the adult, you are responsible for regularly communicating to the child that you believe them, love them and are on their side.
Additionally, please remember that grieving is an integral part of the child’s healing. Let them know that it’s okay to cry and be sad. Help them find healthy ways to express their anger. Mr. Rogers famously asked of children on his TV program, “what should you do with the mad that you feel?” and this can be a great starting point for helping the child to get out their emotions appropriately. On the Mr. Rogers show, for example, he reminded kids that it’s okay to run around in circles, bang on the piano, scribble a picture or even yell into a pillow. As a parent, you can help facilitate their grief by not punishing needed expressions of anger, but instead by facilitating anger’s release by suggesting healthy, non-violent ways to get it out. However it looks, holding a safe space for them to grieve is necessary.
To hear the first hand story of a victim of child abuse, watch Jamal’s Story. We know that being the parent of an abuse victim can be a difficult journey, and we don’t want you to walk it alone. For more information on how to talk to a child (or any individual) who has experienced abuse, refer to our Healing Model of Compassion. This is an excellent resource and an easy plan to follow when it comes to talking to victims. Working with a counselor or other professional is another good way to help your child process their feelings and find healing. Consider following our blog, Facebook or Instagram to receive regular encouragement and helpful resources on topics relating to abuse.
- O’Donnell, Jayne, and Mabinty Quarshie. “The Startling Toll on Children Who Witness Domestic Violence Is Just Now Being Understood.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 1 Feb. 2019, www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2019/01/29/domestic-violence-research-children-abuse-mental-health-learning-aces/2227218002/.
- Faller, Kathleen Coulborn. “Is the Child Victim of Sexual Abuse Telling the Truth?” South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence, South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence, May 2015, www.secasa.com.au/pages/is-the-child-victim-of-sexual-abuse-telling-the-truth/.
- The M3ND Project. “Supporting a Victim During the Holiday Season.” The Mend Project, The M3ND Project, 20 Dec. 2019, themendproject.com/holiday_season/.
Are you in Orange County California? Are you looking to connect with like minded organizations working to prevent abuse? Join The M3ND Project at The OC Youth Service Providers Consortium on March 6th. Due to the generous support of our sponsors, the Consortium is free to attend and includes a full lunch and opportunity drawings.
This years’ topic, the Blue Shield Foundations study “Breaking the Cycle: A life course framework for preventing domestic violence”, will provide a comprehensive and in-depth overview of the necessity and benefits of timely intervention strategies, and the need for a collaborative response from community partners.
To learn more and register today visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/2020-oc-youth-service-providers-consortium-tickets-92258859733?aff=erelexpmlt
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