It can be extremely difficult to hear that your child has been abused or sexually assaulted and you may feel a lot of different emotions as a result – anger, shame and guilt are common. If your child is telling you that they have been hurt by someone else, even if it’s someone you trust completely, the most important things you can do are:
- Listen to them
- Believe them
- Continue to offer unconditional support and love
- Be patient with them
- Encourage them
- Reassure them that their feelings are normal
- Give them choices
It is also really important that you look after yourself at this time – supporting a loved one who has experienced sexual violence can bring up a lot of complex feelings for you as well, it’s important that you take note of these and have a safe space where you are able to express them.
This guide is for family and friends supporting a person of any gender or sexual orientation, who has been affected by sexual violence, recently or in the past.
Things may feel different, and knowing something so traumatising has happened to your child can be extremely upsetting and difficult to manage. Things might not be the same as they were before, but with the right support, healing is possible. Cambridge Rape Crisis offers advocacy, counselling and email and telephone support.
Whatever you are feeling is ok. There is no right or wrong way to respond. Be kind to yourself.
- You may be feeling guilt for not realising sooner, for bringing the abuser into your child’s life or simply for trusting the abuser. You have nothing to feel guilty for, abusers will deliberately work gain the trust of everyone around that child, and to cover up what is happening however they can.
- You may be feeling angry with the abuser, with yourself, or even with your child for not telling you sooner. These are all very normal things to feel, but it’s important to remember the only person who has done something wrong is the abuser. It can be helpful to talk through these feelings with someone trusted and/or an organisation such as ourselves.
- You may be feeling a loss. Very often it is someone trusted and even loved who perpetrates these crimes, the loss of that person from your life can be a very difficult and complex thing to deal with. It can bring up a lot of mixed feelings and again it can be helpful to acknowledge these feelings and talk them through.
When something bad happens it is normal for us to try and rationalise it by thinking about what we could have done to stop it. However, the perpetrator is the only one who should and could have done something differently. You and your child are not blame for the abuser’s actions.
Perpetrators of sexual violence are very manipulative and don’t just groom the survivor, but will groom families and even whole communities into trusting them so that they are able to sexually abuse. The perpetrator made the decision to lie, manipulate and abuse. The betrayal of trust can be immensely painful.
Grooming is when someone builds, or uses an existing emotional connection with a child to gain or exploit their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking. Children and young people can be groomed online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone they know – for example a family member, friend or professional. Many children and young people don’t understand that they have been groomed or that what has happened is abuse. (NSPCC)
The abuser will try to be seen as trustworthy by families and communities, to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to believe they might hurt someone. This is often part of their grooming process.
No, it is a myth that people who have been abused become abusers themselves. This is often used to try and excuse those who perpetrate sexual abuse. If you think about it, the majority of survivors are women and girls, and the majority of perpetrators are men and boys, so this just wouldn’t make sense.
Around a third of people who abuse a child are under 18 themselves, and in much younger children especially they might not realise that their behaviour is harmful to others. It can make it hard to know how to react, and that’s ok as it is outside the realm of what we would expect. It is still very serious and should be treated as such.
The abusive adult will often convince the child that they won’t be believed or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse and will be punished for it. The child may care about or feel protective of the person who sexually abused them, for example it may be a parent or other close family, and will likely feel they’d be betraying this person by telling about the abuse. They may also be told that if they tell the non-abusing parent/carer it will ruin their life in some way, so children will often keep the secret so as to protect the non-abusive parent/carer.
Sometimes, a child may be confused if they experienced positive physical pleasure, arousal, or emotional intimacy from the abuse. This confusion can make it difficult for the child to speak up.
A child may feel that they permitted the abuse and should have been able to stop it. Remember that there are no situations where a child is responsible for any sexual interaction with a more powerful child or adult. (Stop it Now)
Abusers will often use a combination of gifts or treats and threats about what will happen if the child says ‘no’ or tells someone. They may scare the child with threats of being hurt physically, but much more often the threat is about what will be lost if they tell e.g. the family breaking up or someone going to prison. To stop the child from telling anyone, the abuser will use the child’s fear, embarrassment or guilt about what is happening, often convincing them that no one will believe them or that the child will be punished. Sometimes the abuser will tell the child that they enjoyed it and wanted it to happen and this can be very confusing and upsetting.
Any reason an abuser gives for abusing a child is just a justification. The real reason people abuse children is because they have the power, control and have created the opportunity to abuse. It is very normal to want to ask the abuser why they did what they did, but it is very unlikely that any answer you receive will be either honest or helpful.
Children who are sexually abused may:
Stay away from certain people
- they might avoid being alone with people, such as family members or friends
- they could seem frightened of a person or reluctant to socialise with them.
- Show sexual behaviour that’s inappropriate for their age
A child might become sexually active at a young age
- they might be promiscuous
- they could use sexual language or know information that you wouldn’t expect them to.
Have physical symptoms
- anal or vaginal soreness
- an unusual discharge
- sexually transmitted infection (STI)