What if a child in your life chooses you as his/her trusted adult? What can we do if a child reports abuse? First and foremost we can listen and believe, because the best chance for a positive outcome begins with that! With proper, early intervention, healing can, and does happen. Every day that passes between the event and the starting point of the healing process exponentially increases the power and the negativity of the abuse.
Disclosing abuse is monumental in the life of a child, but please remember – disclosure is a process:
*Children tend to test the waters by telling a tiny piece of the story, gaging your reaction and either proceeding forward or shutting down.
*Disclosure may take place over a period of hours or days, or even weeks, and it is our job as the trusted adult to be comfortable in the silence and let the child disclose at his own pace, in his own time.
*Many children disclose to siblings, but mothers are the family member most likely to be confided in.
*Teachers are the professional most likely to be confided in, but again, over time and not with one long, detailed story.
*The worst thing we can do if a child reports sexual abuse is to fail to believe him. Conversely, believing her gives the best possible chance for a healthy, positive future.
*Listen and believe, even if your first inclination is to feel skeptical. Don’t react until you’ve had time to reflect on the issue at hand. Children so seldom lie about child sexual abuse that the official statistic is “less than one percent.” Hopefully, that staggering fact gives you more than enough reason to listen and believe.
While disclosure is a process, child sexual abuse can be prevented, so to that end, let’s keep a few prevention tips in mind:
*Talk about it! The more we talk about sexual abuse, the more light we shed on the topic. In doing this, we give less power to predators who count on our silence, our shame, our help in keeping this crime hidden in the shadows.
*Minimize opportunity, because 80% of child sexual abuse happens in isolated, one on one situations. Making sure that every interaction with the children in our lives is observable and interrupt-able goes a long way in protecting our children.
*Set healthy precedents. This means that if we don’t want children to do something with a predator, then we shouldn’t ask them to do it with us. It means not putting ourselves in one on one isolated situations with children in our charge. Some easy examples of this would be: being stuck at practice waiting for a late parent to pick up his/her son or daughter and getting that parent on the phone until he/she arrives. If asked to take a child to the bathroom at Sunday school, take another child along, preferably a talkative child who would be comfortable speaking up about inappropriate actions. If you need to talk privately to a child you coach, sit on a bench in an open space where everyone can see you. Be creative. Think on your feet.
Listen to the little hints that children drop and be attentive to what they could possibly be trying to tell you. Disclosure is a process, for sure, but if we aren’t willing participants in the process (through negative reaction, disbelief, etc.) we can delay that process far into adulthood for the trusting little in front of us.
Editor, Ask Lala
Laura Fogarty writes “Ask Lala” for the Stop Abuse Campaign. She is a mother, an advocate and the author of two children’s abuse prevention books: I’M THE BOSS OF ME! and WE ARE JUST ALIKE!