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Violence against women

Sexual assault
Learn about rape trauma syndrome, date rape, and the impact of rape on relationships

Domestic violence
Learn why it happens and how to get help.

Child sexual abuse/incest
Learn how to spot child sexual abuse and how to report it.

Child sexual abuse/incest

If a child has confided in you…

Women's Web gratefully acknowledges the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (UASAC) for granting us permission to reprint its materials and resources on our website. Be sure to visit the UASAC website for additional information, resources, and link to other sites.

If you have been sexually assaulted, be sure to go immediately to your local hospital or police detachment. If you are unable to get to a hospital, call the police, your community sexual assault center, or your community's 24-hour crisis line.

Sexual assault is a serious crime. Compassionate support is available and such crimes must be reported to the police.

If a child confides in you that he/she has been sexually abused, it's important for you to listen and to believe his/her story. The incidence of false reporting of incest and sexual abuse is very low—about 2 percent. This suggests that nearly all reports of incest, rape, and child abuse are true. It's your responsibility to listen, to be compassionate and to ensure the child gets proper help.

Children who disclose their abuse have had to struggle with fear and shame (see The Effects of Incest/Child Sexual Abuse). They may fear retaliation by their abuser. The child has placed great trust in you—reassure him/her that his/her abuser will not harm him/her for having disclosed the abuse. Children may also fear rejection and ridicule. Reassure the child that he/she did nothing wrong and that your love and support are unconditional. Stay with the child and comfort him/her. Ask if he/she would like to be hugged or if he/she would like you to hold his/her hand. If the child welcomes "good touch", follow through. If not, respect the child's limits. He/she is likely still very frightened and confused. It's important to reassure him/her that telling was the right thing to do.

Your reaction to a child's disclosure will impact that child forever. It's important to know how to listen, what to say, and how to react. Below are a few tips and suggestions.

When a child confides in you, his/her disclosure will very likely take you by complete surprise. Pause. Take a moment to collect your thoughts before you respond.
Be clear that you want to help.
However you respond, reassure the child that he/she is safe in telling you and that you want to help. Reassure the child he/she can tell you anything and that he/she is safe in telling you.
Be honest.
Expressing shock, although understandable, is not advisable. It will reinforce a child's sense of shame, guilt, and fear. Instead, express loving concern and encourage the child to tell you more. You can say something like, "I'm so sorry this happened. Would you like to tell me more about it?"
Don't breach trust.

The child has placed enormous trust in you and is also asking for your help. He/she may fear you will reject or hate him/her after he/she admits to sexual abuse. Make it clear that disclosure is the right thing and that your love and respect for him/her have only increased.

You've been selected as a confidant—be honored. Show that you're worthy of such a confidence by never minimizing the child's experiences.

Talk about options and ask questions such as who, what, where, and when. Present the child with options from which to choose. This will help him/her feel in control of the situation. An example would be, "Would you rather we tell your mom or your dad about what your teacher did to you?"

Tell the truth.
Don't lie. If you've promised to keep a secret, consider the child—if investigators and child protection workers come to the child's home, he/she will feel you've betrayed him/her. If the child wants you to swear to secrecy, explain that your concern will not allow it. Express loving concern—he/she disclosed in the hope you would help them. Explain this is what you want to do; most children will accept this.
You don't need to have all the answers.

It's okay to admit that you don't know everything. You can tell a child you don't know the answer to his/her questions. You can say, for instance, "I don't know, but how about I talk with someone who knows more about this? Then you and I can talk more about what that person said."

Find an expert and get advice. Do not handle this on your own. Abuse crisis centers, therapists, and lawyers are all source of advice and help. Don't be afraid to seek them out.

Make this a priority. Nothing is as important as protecting a child.

Seek advice.
Immediately contact an attorney, a therapist, or an abuse crisis center. Get advice and facts. Many areas require that those in whom children have confided abuse report what they've been told. Learn your legal obligations.
Work to help the child.
Work closely with experts to help the child. Steps taken will depend on the severity of the abuse and who the perpetrator is—a parent, a relative, a teacher, a coach, or a neighbor.
Reassure the child you are his/her ally.
Be sure the child understands you will stand by him/her no matter what. As more people become involved in the investigation and in helping the child, the child may feel overwhelmed. Continue to focus on the child and reassure him/her that you will be there. Work closely with experts to minimize the trauma to the child.
It is never the child's fault.
Re-examine your attitudes and beliefs to ensure the message you're sending is one that reassures the child that fault lies entirely with the perpetrator and not—even in the slightest way—with the child.
Disclosing is a good thing.
Thank the child for confiding in you and for giving you the opportunity to help him/her. Reassure them you will always be available to give love and support.

Child sexual abuse/incest

Web resources

These are third-party resources and links will open a new browser window. As these are third-party resources, Women's Web claims no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information provided.

Little Warriors
Little Warriors is a charitable organization with a national focus that educates adults about how to help prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. Little Warriors also provides information about the prevalence and frequency of child sexual abuse and information about healing and support resources.

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