The headlines are filled with horrific accounts of childhood sexual abuse. Behind every headline are children and their parents, families grasping for help and hope through devastating news. We have received many emails from parents who recently discovered that their children have been sexually violated. While we grieve with you, we also want to equip you. Sexual abuse should never happen! While it can’t be erased from a child’s memory, it can be processed in a way that minimizes future trauma and anxiety.
Dr. Debi Grebenik has devoted her professional life to helping traumatized children and their parents. We asked her to share her wisdom with parents and grandparents who need a starting place.
When You Discover Your Child Has Been Abused
by Debi Grebenik, PhD, LCSW
Your worst nightmare just happened. While fixing dinner tonight, your child told you that he/she was touched by someone at daycare, school, or in the neighborhood. The details may vary; however, the horror of those uttered words is impossible to process. How could this happen? What do you do? You feel confusion, shame, guilt, and a firestorm of anger. You are overwhelmed, but in your outrage you realize you need to do something.
First things first: provide comfort to your child through touch, words of affirmation, and by telling him/her thank you for telling the truth. Your child will be looking for clues from you that they are safe. This is not the time to dwell on the occurrence or to lecture your child. Believe what they say even when the facts do not appear coherent or actual. Focus on providing a calm and safe response; this builds trust so they are more likely to come to you again in the event of other challenges or stressors as they mature and grow. Your job is to re-establish safety so that your child begins to feel some control over their circumstances. Your job is to notice the cues from your child that will help you re-create safety for them. They may make unusual requests such as sleeping with the lights on or in your room with you. Allow them to make these requests to create their own safety. It is also vital that you respect their privacy.
Another tendency is for a parent, in their own confusion and pain, to tell their child how to feel. We do this by saying things such as, “Don’t be sad; it wasn’t your fault” or “Quit crying, you are safe now.” When we do this, we are dismissing their emotions and discounting their pain. Rather, we need to validate their emotional duress. Be present in their pain without pushing it away. When we comment and evaluate how the child should feel, we may begin a trajectory of shame in the child’s life. Shame imbeds the message, “I am not good enough,” into the brain’s memory.
Nightmares are a common consequence after sexual abuse, so parents should be aware of that. Do what is necessary to help your child feel safe. Another common consequence is excessive masturbation (to the point of rubbing themselves raw, humping motions on furniture, talking obsessively about private parts, etc.). Do your best not to come from a place of shaming as you talk with your child about these behaviors. “Pleasure pathways” were opened before they were supposed to be. He or she is likely not mature enough to stop these behaviors that naturally feel pleasurable. Think of masturbation as a symptom, not a problem. This is just part of your child’s way of figuring out what is happening.
Next, call the authorities to report the alleged abuse. It is imperative to keep in mind that your role is to support, not investigate. Let trained professionals do the interviewing with your child. You can actually taint the process if you ask too many questions, which could keep the truth from emerging.
Finding a Children’s Advocacy Center in your local area can be a tremendous resource for parents. Visit the National Children’s Advocacy website and use the “Find a CAC” tool to locate a local CAC using your zip code.
Sexual abuse of any kind creates trauma for your child. Trauma impairs the brain’s willingness to trust, to connect and to feel safe. As parents, our job requires us to provide a safe and calm place where our child can begin the healing journey. Brains heal when there is consistency, predictability, and no judgment.
Parents will benefit from talking to others so that they can continue to show up for their child with a sense of calm. Focus on the Family’s network of Christian counselors is a great tool to help you find a Christian therapist in your area. They also provide a complimentary one-time phone consultation with a trained Christian counselor on their staff. When looking for a therapist for your child, you want to be sure you are working with a Christian trauma informed care specialist with experience in abuse.
As I’ve walked with parents through these difficult circumstances, I have seen God’s grace where I least expected it. Your job is to deal with your own pain, fears, and anxieties so you can be there for your child. God will give you wisdom. He will give you His peace and heal your heart as well.