By: Angie Brower, MSW, LCSW
Abuse is a multi-headed animal. Each head has a painful issue that needs to be dealt with. The innocent mind of a child can’t comprehend the ramifications of what is happening to him or her; they just emotionally and psychologically react the best way they know how to protect themselves. This can lead to serious traumas affecting many aspects like trust, relationships, self-worth and more. How this is dealt with is CRUCIAL and will determine whether harm of healing occurs.
Where Do You Start?
At face value, I want to stress that while there are right and wrong ways to respond to a child who comes to you to disclose abuse, (and we’ll definitely talk about those), the first thing to do after receiving their disclosure is to find a way to get them professional help. The way in which details are shared can either hurt or heal. It is possible to retraumatize the child if details are pulled from them like teeth or received poorly.
An important note is not to force them to share details with you. Conversely, if they want to talk and are a fount of information, shutting them down can be viewed as another form of rejection. An intuitive heart and listening ear are your biggest assets in this scenario. Nothing you say will be as powerful as your willingness to listen without judgment. But for further help and in depth treatment, don’t set yourself up as their helper. The unpacking of the abuse, without the right training, can do further harm. That being said, let’s talk about an unsolicited disclosure and the best way to help that child.
When Surprised by an Unsolicited Disclosure
I can’t over-exaggerate the number of adults who have said to me over the years that they never told anyone about their abuse, because they were ashamed (and on some level) continue to feel shame about abuse suffered in their childhood. Even when they can recognize “in their heads” it was not their fault, they feel the burden of blame and shame just the same.
Now apply the level of understanding and comprehension to what a child would have, and you can quickly see how convoluted their thinking might become. A child almost always finds a way to internalize trauma and somehow make it their fault. Their world is very small and one of their biggest fears is “getting in trouble,” so telling an adult that something bad has happened is extremely scary for them.
The primary thing to understand when someone you care about has been abused and honors you by choosing to share it with you is that, on some level, they may still be afraid of your disapproval or rejection. Your reaction can be real, shocked, horrified even; but guard against anything that could hint of blame or disapproval.
Avoid the Temptation to Ask Condemning Questions
Often, one of the first questions asked is, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” or more specifically, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Immediately, they detect a hint of wrong on their part in this question. By not telling someone, they believe they’ve somehow taken an active role in the abuse continuing. But abusers always find a way to create an atmosphere of fear in a child. The fear of getting in trouble, the fear of their parents not loving them anymore, sometimes the more direct fear of someone else getting hurt (threats against loved ones) and even the fear of their abuser not choosing them anymore.
Preying on the Vulnerable with Fear
That last one can be hard to hear, but abusers know how to work the vulnerable. They seek those who need their attention or those who will be easy to control and create a dependency on themselves. In this way, not only is the child afraid of being in trouble, but in some cases, they are afraid of getting their abuser in trouble. This is especially true when the abuser is a family member.
If you care about a child who has been abused, be prepared to empathize with things you don’t necessarily understand. Resist the temptation to correct their thinking if they try to protect their abuser. Leave that to a professional and simply say they have nothing to prove with you. They don’t have to earn your love. They can tell you anything. You don’t scare easily and above all, you don’t blame them.
Overcoming Ownership of Fault and Guilt
I have sat in sessions with kids who argue with me about the things they did to “make it their fault.” I have calmly repeated the mantra, “It’s not your fault” until they are angry with me. Angry they can’t convince me, angry I won’t give them credit… angry they are a victim. And being a victim is hard, but it is the start to seeing yourself as a survivor.
So, if you are seeking to help a child that has been abused, remember the things mentioned above that might be floating around in their heads, and do your utmost not to reinforce any of those misplaced ideas. Let them know you are listening and that you care about them, and that whatever happened, you don’t blame them. Reinforce it certainly doesn’t change who they are to you. Remember to direct them to a trained professional for further help.
Always thank them for trusting you with their story. This can start to build some positive self-worth regarding their abuse story. Finally, treat them as the kid you have always treated them like, so they can see themselves that way again too.