You are vital in helping your child heal from sexual abuse
In this article, you'll find answers to questions like:
1. How should I react?
2. Who can help?
3. What about the physical side?
If your child falls victim to sexual assault or abuse, your urge to get justice might become an obsession, no matter if the culprit is a stranger or family friend.
However, experts say what's more important is to focus on healing your child as your family works through traumatic emotions.
1. HOW SHOULD I REACT?
First, let your child tell their story at their own pace, says Anne-Marie Brown, senior trauma therapist of the Childhood Trauma Response Program at Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach Gardens.
“Do not push them, do not threaten them, do not punish them or try to coerce them with toys or treats or rewards if they don’t tell you what you want to hear,” she says. “Believe the child. Children do not lie about sexual abuse.”
Children may have been intimidated or threatened not to tell, so reinforcing your love is vital, says Nancy McBride, former executive director of Florida Outreach for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
“Be careful not to over-question or demand details,” she says. “Under-reacting or minimizing the information, panicking or overreacting, or criticizing or blaming the child should be avoided. Providing respect for their privacy, supporting their decision to tell, showing affection and love, and reinforcing your child did nothing wrong are all important ways to help your child heal.”
Be supportive, accessible, reassuring, non-judgmental and remind children they’re not at fault, says Dee Rohe, former licensed therapy coordinator of the Palm Beach County's Victim Services and Certified Rape Crisis Center.
“It is very tempting to want to focus on why or how this happened, but this only reinforces blame, guilt or shame,” she says. “Recovery takes time and is a fluid process. There will be ups and downs, and not everyone responds the same way. Be patient and respect your child’s healing process.”
2. WHO CAN HELP?
McBride recommends seeking professional help from a well-trained child trauma specialist and ensuring everyone in the family is part of the healing process.
“Avoiding or acting as if nothing happened will not help your child,” she says.
Her organization’s Family Advocacy Division helps connect parents with mental health professionals. Visit missingkids.com/Support.
Brown suggests parents reiterate they believe the child when the child speaks about the abuse. Establish a sense of safety but keep daily activities consistent.
Feeling safe with people is the key to mental health, Rohe says. “Continue to be responsive to your child’s needs and provide rules, limits and boundaries as you have been doing to maintain your child’s sense of security and dependability. Provide reassurance that the way you think and feel about your child is no different than before the terrible event.”
Give your child permission to express their emotions, she says. And brace yourself.
“Difficult behaviors such as tantrums, arguing, defensiveness, opposition, irritability, withdrawal and anger outbursts are all common reactions to traumatic stress,” she says.
The ability to realize triggers depends on the child’s age, so look for changes in behavior, Brown advises.
“People, places, things, foods, scents — anything can be a trigger, and it’s important to really figure out what those triggers are and to avoid them as much as possible,” she says.
3. WHAT ABOUT THE PHYSICAL SIDE?
Try playing together to help calm physical tension.
Although it can be scary, make sure a pediatrician trained in physical trauma treats your child, McBride says. Explain what the doctor will do and why.
“A lot of this is about getting the parents comfortable with talking about sexuality and talking about the abuse and using the appropriate terms for body parts,” Brown says.
Parents should encourage the child to report any pain or discomfort, she adds.
Mindfulness, relaxation exercises and yoga are excellent ways to soothe the physical and emotional reactions from trauma, Rohe says.
“Emotions come and go like waves in the ocean,” she says. “Mindfulness is a way to surf difficult feelings without being overcome by them. Help your child recognize that difficult feelings are common and they don’t last for long.”
Rohe recommends for the child to practice grounding skills by taking in her surroundings with all of her senses. “Have her sit or stand still and name three things she sees, three things she hears, and three things she smells,” she says. “Have her take three deep body breaths, encourage her to feel the cool air flowing into her nose and then the warm air flowing out with each breath.”
Books, apps and games
Carefully chosen books may help your child begin to process traumatic events and heal mentally and emotionally. Brown recommends these for younger children:
- "Please Tell: A Child's Story About Sexual Abuse" by Jessie
- “Do You Have a Secret? (Let's Talk About It!)” by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos
- "I Said No! A Kid-to-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private" by Kimberly King
Relaxation games or apps also can help kids heal physically. Rohe suggests these for young children:
- “Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame” smartphone app
- “Stress Relief for Kids: Taming Your Dragons” by Martha Belknap
- “A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles” by Thich Nhat Hanh
For teens, Rohe suggests these apps:
- Headspace: Guided Meditation & Mindfulness
• Nancy McBride, former executive director of Florida Outreach, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
• Dee Rohe, former licensed therapy coordinator, Palm Beach County's Victim Services and Certified Rape Crisis Center
• Anne-Marie Brown, senior trauma therapist, Childhood Trauma Response Program, Center for Child Counseling
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A nonprofit organization based in South Florida that educates adults and children about sexual abuse prevention through in-school curricula, awareness campaigns and speaking engagements and helps survivors heal with guidance and support786-288-5045 Website Email
Center for Child Counseling
Mental health services in Palm Beach Gardens for families, specializing in play therapy for children who've experienced trauma1-800-480-1899 Website Email
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Reporting center for issues related to the prevention of and recovery from child victimization, offering a 24-hour hotline to report a missing child and a CyberTipline to report child sexual exploitation800-843-5678 for hotline and CyberTipline Website Email
Palm Beach County
Victim Services — help for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and other violent crimes, including therapy and a crisis hotline561-355-2418 or 24-hour crisis hotline at 866-891-7273 Website Email
Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County
Individual and family counseling561-616-1222 Website Email