Sexual Assault & Abuse
What adults need to know
It is often difficult for children to tell someone they are being sexually abused. Some never tell anyone and carry the secret their whole lives. Most child survivors are abused by people they know and care about. This can make it more complicated for children to reach out for help. It takes a great deal of courage for them to reach out to an adult.
Sometimes children start to disclose a very small amount of information to see how you react. It could be something as simple as “I don’t like going to this person’s house” or “This person is gross.” Pay attention to comments like these and ask the child to tell you more. Sometimes children tell us something is wrong by the way act. It’s important to know what the warning signs are and how to help keep the child safe.
When you feel a child is reaching out to you, it’s critical to let them know you’re ‘hearing’ them and will do your best to help them.
Respond in a Calm Manner: You might have feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness or fear if a child tries to tell you something that’s happened to them. It’s very important not to show them these feelings. She or he will be better able to feel safe to tell you if you listen calmly and respond with care and compassion. That is what they need from a safe adult.
Listen, Believe and Support: Most children do not lie about sexual abuse. When a child chooses to open up to you, give them your undivided attention. At first you may have a hard time believing that a person you or your family loves or trusts could do something like this. It’s rare that children make up these kinds of stories. Believing them from the beginning helps them to heal from the abuse. Let the child know that you will do whatever you can to support them.
Don’t pressure the child to talk: If a child discloses sexual abuse to you, try not to ask leading or suggestive questions. It’s best just to listen and to encourage them to say more by saying things like “Then what happened?” or “Tell me more about that.” Never pressure the child to talk if they don’t want to.
Tell the Child It’s Not Her or His Fault: Just like with adult survivors, it’s is critical to let children know it is not their fault. It’s likely you will need to tell them this many times. Children often feel that they could have stopped the abuse or that they are “bad” and that’s why this happened to them.
Protect the Child from Future Harm: Sexual abuse is a crime and safety issue. If a child discloses abuse to you, you should not try to handle the situation yourself. Keep the child away from the abuser and reach out to either the police or Children’s Protective Services (CPS) for help. After you have made a report to either law enforcement or CPS, they may arrange for a forensic interview of the child. Many areas in Michigan have a Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC). This is a child-friendly place where they conduct the interview. They also can provide or refer you to counseling services for the child.
Remain Hopeful: Children are very resilient, especially when they have a safe and loving relationship with a trusted adult. Many child sexual abuse survivors grow up to live healthy and happy lives. Supporting them now is an important step for their healing into the future.
Caring for Yourself is Important Too: As a protective parent or caregiver, you will have many feelings about what’s happened to the child. These can range from sadness to fury. It’s important to process through your feelings and have support from other caring people. Also, try to think of things you do that bring you joy and energize you and practice them as often as you can. Many Children’s Advocacy Centers and sexual assault services programs provide counseling services for family and friends of survivors too.
Other Options for Help
Child Advocacy Centers: Many Michigan communities have child focused organizations that work with police, prosecutors and Children’s Protective Services to respond to child sexual abuse. These organizations may provide services such as forensic interviews, medical evaluation, victim support, and advocacy and counseling.
Local Sexual Assault Services Programs: Many Michigan communities have local sexual assault services programs that provide free and confidential crisis support, legal advocacy, medical advocacy, counseling, groups and/or therapy. Some of these programs also operate sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs or refer to nearby SANE programs. You can search for services in your local community online with an interactive map or you can call the Michigan Sexual Assault Hotline about these options in your community.
Reporting abuse: You can report child sexual abuse to the police. You can also report it to the Michigan Children’s Protective Services by calling 855-444-3911.