Child Sexual Abuse – For Family & Friends
To discover someone you care about has been sexually abused can be a significant shock. Like any shock it can produce a range of emotions and be hard to cope with. The information presented here is designed to help you help the survivor of the sexual abuse as well as cope personally with the disclosure.
For some of you the survivor will be a young person who has recently experienced sexual abuse. For others the survivor will now be an adult who has disclosed abuse that happened when they were a child. This is commonly referred to as historical abuse. The information below tends to be relevant in both cases.
If you would like more information, please contact us.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is when another person uses a child for sexual gratification. This can be exposure, showing pornography, touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, or any other sexual act.
Child sexual abuse usually involves the use of threats, coercion, manipulation, bribery or force. Frequently children are emotionally dependent on the adult who abuses them. Some offenders take a considerable length of time to develop the child’s trust before starting the abuse. All offenders take advantage of children’s powerless position in the world.
While it is difficult to gain accurate figures on the prevalence of child sexual abuse in New Zealand (see Research & Statistics), we do know that it effects girls and boys across of all ages and racial groups, whether they are rich or poor, attractive or plain, disabled or without a disability. We also know that around eighty five per cent of offenders are known to the child.
What can you do if someone discloses abuse?
It can be difficult to know how to support someone who has been sexually abused. There is no ‘right way’ to provide support, however you may find the following suggestions helpful.
- Listen. Allow the survivor to express their feelings. Do not pressure them into talking. Just let them know you are available to listen if and when they want to talk.
- Remain calm. While most people feel a mixture of emotions (e.g. anger, sadness and shock, or a sense of disbelief and failure) it is important to try and stay calm so that the survivor does not have to deal with your emotions as well as their own, and feels safe to talk to you about the abuse.
- Believe them and reassure them that you believe them.
- Tell them that you are sorry that the abuse happened.
- Do not judge them. Reassure them that it is not their fault.
- Do not try to overprotect or distract them from the reality of the assault. This can cause the survivor to deny the effects of it.
- Ask them about their needs. The survivor is the expert on how you can help them at this time. Do not tell them what they should do as it is important that they make decisions that feel right for them at the time. *
- Reassure the survivor that they can “get better” and recover from what has happened.
- Encourage the survivor to seek out other support in addition to yourself, e.g. counselling (you can offer to find out what is available locally). However, accept their decision if they choose not to do so at this stage.
- Respect an adult survivor’s decision regarding going to the Police or not.
- Do not hide your feelings and vulnerabilities from the survivor. Let them know you care and are hurting with them, but do not expect them to look after you.
* When it is a child that has disclosed abuse to you it is particularly important to ensure their safety. While there is no mandatory reporting in New Zealand you should consider contacting Child Youth and Family or the Police to discuss the disclosure. This can be done anonymously if necessary. Keep the child informed of where information about their disclosure goes. Talk to them when you need to tell someone else about the abuse, and your reasons for doing so (e.g to help keep them safe). Don’t make promises you cannot keep. Also, don’t accept the offender’s assurances that it won’t happen again. It usually will.
Understanding The Survivor
Finding out that someone you care about has been sexually abused as a child is always a shock. But it is important to remember that, however, shocked or angry you may be, the feelings of the survivor are most important. From the moment the survivor tells you about the sexual abuse, believe and reassure them, stay calm, and do not panic (or at least not in front of them). If you can do this, the survivor will begin to feel safer and the recovery process will be off to a good start.
Telling, or having someone find out about the sexual abuse is a moment when the survivor is especially vulnerable. Strong support and reassurance from family and friends at this critical time can help their recovery.
Family and friends are often so shocked that they find it almost impossible to believe the survivor at first. In spite of the fact that people rarely lie about sexual abuse, you may still have difficulty believing that someone known and trusted by the survivor (more common than stranger abuse) could be guilty of sexual abuse.
It is, however, vitally important for you to believe the survivor once they have taken the enormous step of telling. If survivors are not believed, they either go through the trauma of trying to find someone who will believe them, or retract their report, which may mean they are forced back into the power and influence of the offender.
The survivor’s feelings
People who have been sexually abused as a child have lived – often for a long time – with fear, guilt, loneliness, and confusion. They have learnt to cope in different ways with their isolation. When they finally tell, or when the sexual abuse is discovered, they can react in different ways – sometimes in ways that you may not understand. Some survivors are obviously frightened and upset; others may appear calm, cold, and unaffected. You need to be wary of reacting less sympathetically and giving less support to a survivor who does not react in the way you expect or think appropriate.
To understand the survivor’s feelings and reactions, it helps to consider what they may have been through. Offenders use many threats and tricks to keep children silent. Offenders say things like: “I’ll kill you if you tell”; “I’ll kill your mother”; “You’re no good, who will believe you”; “It will be your fault if the family breaks up”; “If you tell they will send you to prison”.
In subtle, and not so subtle ways, offenders make the child feel responsible for what has happened, and responsible for protecting the rest of the family from the knowledge as well. When the offender is a close family member (e.g. parent, step parent, sibling), the threats, tricks and deceptions used by the offender have even more impact.
As well as worrying about the reactions of their families, survivors also worry about what other people will think when the abuse is uncovered. “Will everyone know?”; “Will anyone talk to me?”; “Will they think it is my fault?”
Girls worry that they will be branded as “bad”; boys often worry that people will think they are “gay”.
Of course, these are only a few of the overwhelming feelings survivors have to cope with. However, they highlight the fact that survivors can react differently to the abuse and also demonstrate why children may struggle to disclose the abuse as soon as it first happens.
Common Reactions For Supporters
Just as survivors of child sexual abuse experience a range of effects as a result of the abuse, so to do those close to them. Everyone’s life can be deeply affected.
For most the first reaction is shock.
“I just sat, not knowing what to do, what to say, where to go. It was like the bottom fell out of my world that morning.”
The initial shock often gives way to anger. Sometimes, in confusion, this anger can be directed at the survivor rather than the offender.
Those close to the survivor will often feel guilt that they should have known or followed up on suspicions that things weren’t quite right. Hindsight can put a different light on past events and provides the missing pieces that complete the jigsaw but the reality is that offenders are generally very good at covering their tracks. No one but the offender is responsible for what happened.
Feeling isolated and different from others is also a reaction common to supporters.
“It is though there are two worlds – one out there where everyone is getting along much as they always do, and one in me that is full of darkness.”
Grief and loss are closely linked. Often survivors and their supporters will experience both of these emotions. There is the grief for what has been done to the child but there can also be grief over what has been lost with the relationship to the offender (remembering that most offenders are family members, family friends or well known to the survivor); loss of peace of mind; loss of the ability to enjoy happy memories of any good times their may have been with the offender. The whole past relationship with the offender can seem an illusion.
Siblings to the survivor, especially if the offender is a parent, can be particularly affected by loss. It is important to not overlook other children in the family when child abuse is disclosed.
Other common reactions for supporters include, numbness, fear, confusion, betrayal, embarrassment, divided loyalties and disbelief. All of these feelings are normal and it will generally help if supporters also seek help and talk about what has happened.
Support for Supporters
Many family and friends feel they need to be there for the survivor but do not look at what support they need for themselves. Some suggestions that you might want to consider are:
Counselling – a person trained and experienced in sexual abuse counselling can help you to go through what you are feeling about the disclosure of abuse. Contact your local sexual assault support agency to find out what counselling services are available in your area.
Support services – Many sexual assault support agencies offer general support for survivors as well as families and friends. This support can be someone at the end of the phone to talk to when you need to, through to someone to accompany you to the police, court, medical examinations and so on.
Friends & Family – Sometimes it can help to talk to people that you can trust to provide support, including family and friends. However, some people may not understand about sexual assault and their reactions may be unhelpful. Talk to people whose judgement you trust, who will not gossip, who will listen carefully to you and who will not judge you or your child.
Libraries – there are a number of books written on child sexual abuse. Try your local library or contact your local sexual abuse centre for recommended books.
Relax – do whatever helps you normally to relax, e.g. exercise, music, hot bath, gardening. Make sure you have some “switch-off” time.
Whatever supports you choose is up to you but try and ensure you do have some “time-out” options in place, otherwise you may find your own health and wellbeing being seriously affected by the disclosure.
Below is a short list of books that other supporters and survivors have found useful. All should be available through bookshops or libraries.
Adams, Caren Helping Your Child Recover From Sexual Abuse
Browne, Marie & Browne, Marlene 2007 If the man you love was abused. Avon, MA: Adams Media
Davis, Laura 1991 Allies in healing: When the person you love was sexually abused as a child. New York: Harper.
Daugherty, Lyn B For Your Child’s Sake: Understanding Sexual Abuse
Dympna House 1990 Facing The Unthinkable: A survival guide for women whose children have been sexually abused.
Graber, Ken 1991 Ghosts in the Bedroom: A Guide for Partners of Incest Survivors. Florida: Health Communications.
Mather, Cynthia 2004 How long does it hurt?: A guide to recovery from incest and sexual abuse for teenagers, their friends, and their families. Rev ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bassey.
Saphira, Miriam Sexual Abuse of Children