Responding to your Child after the Interview & Possible Behaviors to Expect
Finding out that your child has been abused may be one of the most stressful/emotional experiences that you have. Many parents are shocked, angry, upset, and feel they do not know what to say to their child. They want to help them to feel better, but don’t always know the best way to do this. Every child responds to abuse in a unique way, but having a supportive caregiver is very important to the child’s healing process. Here are some helpful tips on ways to respond to a child who discloses abuse:
One the most helpful things you can do is to believe the child. Many children who have been abused have been told that they will not be believed or that there will be consequences if they do tell.
Reassure the child they have done the right thing in telling and they are not in trouble for doing so. Give them age appropriate information about what will happen next. Ensure they know that adults will take care of things. Be careful not to make promises you can’t keep, such as not telling anyone else.
Take immediate steps to ensure the safety of the child, as well as the safety of other children who may be exposed to abuse. This may involve contacting Child Protective Services or local Law Enforcement.
Seek support for yourself
Services are available to provide support for children and their families who have experienced abuse. It is most helpful for children if the adults in their lives remain calm and in control through this difficult period. Seeking support for your own distress will be helpful in being able to best support your child. We are here to help you with this.
Moving forward: Will my child need counseling?
Some children do and some don’t. Every child is unique in how they cope. Some may not need counseling now but will need counseling down the road. Maybe you need counseling more than your child to help you cope with everything that has happened. What we do know is that children who are believed and protected from continued abuse are able to do quite well. In most cases, it is important to provide your child with an opportunity to talk with a professional. It’s best to address issues and concerns now, rather than years later. We can provide you with referrals if needed. Just let us know.
The impact that abuse has on children
It is important to recognize that all children respond to abuse and other traumatic events differently. Many children will show that the abuse has impacted them through their behavior. Here we have included some of the ways that your child may behave after a disclosure of abuse.
- Further disclosures: Once a child has made a disclosure regarding abuse, if the reaction was calm and the child was believed, often further disclosures follow. This may be further detail regarding one incident or details regarding other incidents of abuse.
- Regression of behaviors to previous developmental stages such as: A return to behaviors such as thumb-sucking, speech difficulties such as stammering, and toileting issues such as bedwetting or daytime incontinence.
- Increased emotional needs such as: Increased clinginess to parents and caregivers, increased separation anxiety, increased fearfulness, including fear of the dark or being out of sight of their parents.
- Increased emotional vulnerability: Emotional outbursts may be more common including: tearfulness, anger, aggressive behavior toward self or others, reduced capacity to calm down or self soothe, and depressed mood.
- Difficulties with sleep: Difficulty getting to sleep, night terrors/nightmares, fear of sleeping on their own.
- Difficulties with social situations: Withdrawal from others including friends, nervousness around large groups and fear of strangers.
- Difficulties at school: School avoidance, reduced capacity for concentration and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.
- Other difficulties: Impulsive behaviors, under achievement, aggression, misbehavior, sexually reactive behaviors.
- Physical complaints: Headaches or stomach aches.
How to Help your Child Through this Process
Following the disclosure of abuse, children may experience a wide range of emotions that may include relief, fear, guilt, anger, sadness and worry. Children should be encouraged to express and explore these emotions in ways that are appropriate for their age. This may include play and drawing with younger children, or open discussion with older children.
Following the interview at the Children’s Advocacy Center, some children may feel relieved that they talked about their abuse and act normal, while others may feel sadness or fear and display behavioral concerns. You can certainly ask the child how things went with the interview, but don’t press for specific details. The interview process is set up so that the child doesn’t have to keep repeating the discomforting details of the abuse. Asking things like what the room was like and if the interviewer was nice are perfectly comfortable questions. It shows you’re interested in their experience, but respect they may be uncomfortable about giving you too many details. We typically debrief with the non-offending caregiver after the interview process, but if you have further questions about what was disclosed, please ask us.
Parents and caregivers can help children to manage their reactions by responding to children’s emotions and behaviors with tolerance, patience and understanding.
• Be understanding. This experience is like no other. It may bring out reactions and behaviors that leave both of you feeling angry, uncertain, or out of control.
• Be patient. For a time, the child may feel unsafe and insecure in the world. As you gain resources and information, you can help to restore a sense of safety.
• Be loving. Spend time with the child, doing things that they enjoy, without any pressure. Reassure them of your love and respect.
• Keep it simple. For a time, you and the child may find it difficult to concentrate. Even simple things may be hard to remember. Do not make any major life changes or introduce unnecessary challenges.
• Keep it real. Whatever you and the child are feeling is normal and understandable. Help the child understand what to expect as their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors change over time.
Children should be given clear guidelines about when, where and with whom they can speak about the abuse. Identifying safe adults at home, school and other environments that the children can speak to and gain support if they need, can help reduce anxiety and increase children’s sense of safety.
The routines and structure of family life provide a sense of security and safety for children. So as much as possible, normal family rules and routines should be resumed as soon as they can. Adjustments may be made such as extra attention at bedtime or reduced workloads at school initially, but general family values and expectations should be maintained.