There is a number of definitions of child abuse and neglect (medical, psychological, social-protective, legal). Defining the meaning of child abuse and neglect, it is important to take into account two assessments: parental/carer behaviours on one, and impact on the child on the other hand. Child abuse includes everything individuals, institutions or processes do or fail to do, which directly or indirectly harms the child or imposes risks for his/her healthy and safe development into adulthood.
Disclosure of a sexual abuse is a process. Sexually abused children rarely tell the whole story at once. They tell parts of the story because they are not sure if it is safe to tell more. They need to feel that they are trusted before they disclose more details. Children are pretty good at recognising if it is safe to talk to adults. However, sometimes children will talk even when they do not feel safe and when adults are trying to convince them of the opposite.
While deciding whether it is safe to talk, children may deny that anything has happened or minimise the event. This is the reason why it is important to repeatedly tell them they are trusted and that it is all right to tell what has happened to them.
Children may be scared of giving details because they remember the perpetrator’s threats. They remember that the perpetrator told them he was going to kill them if they disclosed their secret to anyone. Adults often fail to understand how these threats influence children and therefore they do not provide sufficient understanding.
If they use defence mechanisms like dissociations or not remembering, children sometimes do not remember the abuse clear enough. Children’s memory is different from the adults’ so they can be confused about the time and date. Still, every time they talk about it, they repeatedly experience the feelings they experienced during the abuse. This makes the disclosure very painful and children may resist talking about the abuse over and over again.
Children are often under pressure to withdraw what they have told. If parents do not believe children, they may suggest that children have made the story up. Even if they do believe them, it may be tough on the child to talk about it with professionals. Sometimes the child may feel it was easier to suffer the abuse than to cope with all the problems that have arisen after the disclosure.
If the child confides in the parent or other adult, it is important that they say:
- they trust her/him, even though it may be hard
- they do not judge the child regardless of the circumstances
- they know how difficult it is for the child to talk about it
- they are happy the child told it and confided in them
- they are sorry it has happened
- nobody is entitled to abuse children
- even adults need help in order to be able to better cope with the problem
They may also say: ‘I see how you feel and I will help you through it.’
It is important not to give promises which the person can not keep, e.g. you can not promise not to tell anyone, nor that the perpetrator will not go to prison. It is important to stay calm, not to get angry. Sometimes it is very difficult. If the person talking to the child gets angry with the perpetrator, s/he should be careful not to make the child feel that the anger is directed at her/him.
What to say to the non-abusive parent:
The parent who has just heard from the child that s/he has been sexually abused by other parent or the parent’s partner, or a family member or friend, will probably be shocked. S/he will probably experience a whole spectrum of emotions: denial, fear, anger, shame, guilt, betrayal. Life will dramatically change in only an instant. For the next couple of days it is going to be very difficult to cope. Perhaps s/he will not be able to sleep or will oversleep. S/he will be forgetting important things and feel confused not knowing what to do next or will feel incapable of doing anything. S/he may feel helpless, may immediately trust the child or may need a couple of days to accept that the child is not lying. Some parents may be incapable of trusting their children even after a couple of days. They may ask themselves why the child did not tell them first or may feel anger because the child told someone else before telling them. This is not unusual. They may be angry with the perpetrator. They may feel betrayed, even jealous of the child, or feel sorry for the perpetrator and think alcohol was the cause of his/her behaviour. They may wish to tell someone in order to get support. They may want professional help or they may want that nobody ever finds out. They may feel shame and ask themselves what the people are going to think. They may feel worthless as persons, parents or partners.
These are all powerful emotions, but they are not unusual. The parent is not a bad person if feeling so. Besides all these feelings, many new people enter the parent’s life. Social workers, police officers and psychologists will ask them many questions. Everybody will then expect them to be strong, so they will need the support right away. It is good to talk to family members or friends who will support and listen without judging.