Your child is telling you about something terrible that has happened to them. Not just that someone was mean to them at school or that they failed a test. They are disclosing (a term professionals in the field of child abuse use) about someone assaulting them, either physically or sexually. HOW DO YOU RESPOND?
As a mother of three children, this is a heartbreaking situation and one I deal with every day as a Forensic Interviewer at Alliance For Children. As a professional I am able to separate myself from the emotions in this situation but it is still very difficult.
As a parent or trusted adult in a child's life, a disclosure of abuse is something that can happen. What a gift to be that trusted person a child can tell. So what do you do?
My suggestion is to just LISTEN. Disclosure is a process not an event1. It is best if you just allow the child to talk about the situation on their terms. Please do not pepper your child with a ton of questions. Depending on the age and ability, it can confuse him/her or cause the child to think you do not believe them.
Be aware of your own feelings and reaction to the child telling you this hard information. The way you react will play a huge role in how much your child will tell you or if your child will feel comfortable telling you at all. Children naturally feel very responsible for other people's feelings, so don't make your own feelings their problem. Take a break and take care of yourself if you find you cannot stop crying or are becoming angry.
Understand that this information may be extremely shocking to hear. It is normal to initially not believe what you are hearing. However, you are responsible to get this child help and get the involvement of people that can help them! It is not a matter of believing or not believing a child. The critical point is a child is telling you something is happening and as an adult we are responsible to get children the help they need. Please do not make promises of any possible outcomes regarding the perpetrator as that may be outside your control.
Know that it has taken a lot of courage for your child to tell that someone is hurting them. If you react in a negative way, a child may shut down and not disclose fully or may recant the disclosure (take back what he/she said). Reassure the child how brave they are for telling about what happened and thank them for trusting you.
Most importantly, be the safe adult in a child's life. Allow your child to talk to you about anything. If your children can tell you about the good and the bad things in their lives without getting into trouble or feeling like they have made you feel a certain way, then they will be more likely and feel safer to tell you something they cannot tell anyone else. Just keep listening with an open mind and know what an honor it is for a child to feel safe enough to tell you the worst story they will ever tell.
WHAT TO DO
- Listen to your child without interrogating them.
- React in a supportive, non-judgmental manner.
- Reassure your child.
- Provide a safe space for the child.
QUESTIONS TO AVOID
- Why didn't you tell me before?
- What were you doing there?
- Why didn't you stop it?
- What did you do to make this happen?
- Are you telling the truth?
1 Sorensen, T., & Snow, B. (1991). How children tell: The process of disclosure in child sexual abuse. Child Welfare, 70(1), 3-15.
About the Author
Alexis is a Forensic Interviewer at Alliance For Children. The goal of a forensic interview is to gather information from children in a neutral, non-leading, and legally defensible manner. Since starting her role, Alexis has interviewed over 1,200 children and continues to be passionate about her work. Alexis has three lovely children and enjoys quality family time.