Parenting Children Surviving Child Sexual Abuse



Michael V. Merrick, MS, LMSW
Betsy Allen, MA, LMSW

Research shows that, generally speaking, abused children respond to their experiences in ways that are extreme and difficult for parents to handle.  Although there are individual differences in behavior some common responses have been noted.  For example, some children become withdrawn when they are abused.  They tend to hide and they don’t like to make physical or eye contact with anyone.  They don’t play, they don’t laugh, and they don’t move around a lot.  They prefer to be alone. They look depressed.  These children sometimes act like babies, sucking their thumbs or rocking themselves.  They may complain of stomach pains or headaches.  They may also hurt themselves, for example, cutting or scratching themselves until they bleed.  They may have trouble sleeping or have nightmares.  They may also have eating disorders. 
On the other hand, some abused children respond aggressively.  They kick, bite, or punch.  Instead of hurting themselves, these children may hurt others and they may also destroy property.  They fight constantly and are very difficult to control.  They always appear to be angry.

Another response that has been observed in abused children is that they may have a “spaced out” far-away look.  When these children become afraid or confused, they are often able to pretend that they are not there anymore.  This is a very complicated psychological process called dissociation.  Children who have been sexually abused often talk about not being inside their bodies, but rather describe floating on the ceiling and looking down.  This dissociation makes the sexual abuse experience harder to remember.  Along similar lines, some children who are abused can put parts of their bodies to sleep, so that they do not feel the pain.  While these responses are difficult to understand, they do occur, and it helps to know about them if one is going to help abused children.
One last behavior is worth mentioning.  Sexualized behavior has been noted in some sexually abused children.  Because they have been taught to be sexual, they may act in sexual ways with other people, adults and children.  Most adults do not know how to respond to this behavior.  Be sure to set appropriate limits, but to set them in a gentle way.  Do not ignore or punish the child for this type of behavior.  It is not the child’s fault.  If the child touches your genitals, tries to give you a long kiss, or touches his or her own private parts, make simple statements:  Say, for example,  “ It’s not okay for you to touch the private parts of my body and I won’t touch yours,” or “I can see that you want to get my attention, and there are other ways to do that”(and give examples).  These simple statements set limits on behavior that is not okay, while at the same time giving the child to express feelings.
One of the most common lessons that abused children learn is that people who love you hurt you.  Children who begin to feel cared about may expect to be hurt again, and this may make them feel vulnerable and afraid.  In addition, abused children often suffer from low self-esteem.  These children must be given new messages about who they are and what they have to offer.  Whenever possible they should be given a chance to do things for themselves.  It is important for the parent to reward and compliment children for the things they do well.  Having a parent who is supportive and protective of the child surviving sexual abuse is key to a positive prognosis and successful future.  The purpose of this article is to give parents general information on how the sexually abused child may perceive their world and to give the parent practical suggestions to  assist the child surviving sexual abuse.
The World of the Sexually Abused Child

In order to assist children who have been sexually abused, parents need to be aware of the messages children receive in the environments in which they were sexually victimized. Obvious messages include:
Children are suppose to please adults
Children please adults when they behave in a sexual way
Children are not allowed to talk about the sexual things that happen
Children’s feelings do not count
Children are powerless
The world is a frightening place
Adults have the right to do whatever they want to children
If adults do not get what they want, they may abandon or hurt children
Parents do not protect children
Children can not feel or express their feelings.
These perceptions need to be disrupted by giving the child surviving abuse the opportunity to live and thrive in an environment void of abuse and exploitation. It is only through the experience of living in a healthy family environment that children unlearn the destructive messages of earlier life and begin to grasp how a healthy family can function. Hopefully, through parental support, along with professional intervention when necessary, the sexually abused child will internalize new messages such as:
Adults meet their needs with other adults, not children
Adults do not use children to get their needs met
Children can be children, not substitute adults
No one in the family uses force or bribery to get children to do things
Adults take care of children.
Children do not have to take care of adults
Everyone’s feelings count.
It is okay to talk about feelings
Sexuality is okay. It is different for adults and children.
Some behaviors are appropriate in private but not in public.
Are All Children Affected Equally by Child Sexual Abuse

There is a myth that all children who have been sexually abused are "damaged goods" and that the damage is for life. In fact, with guidance and support a child who has experienced sexual abuse can certainly recover and go on to live a happy, successful life with loving and trusting relationships. However, there are many factors which influence the extent of the child's trauma and subsequent healing process. Some of these are:
The age of the child when the abuse began
Children abused very early in life may carry body or sensory memories of the abuse but will not have the words to express their rage. One adult survivor of sexual abuse figured out, with the help of therapy, that the reason she became sexually stimulated when she heard and felt a room fan was because a fan had always been on when she was molested as a child. Children who are abused pre-pubescent, during the time when their sexuality is emerging, may carry greater effects of the abuse.
The relationship of the primary perpetrator to the child
A child's trust of his/her primary caretaker is central to their relationship. Therefore, when abuse occurs in this context, the betrayal is intensified.
How long the abuse occurred.
The longer the abuse occurred, the more likely the victim is to feel that he/she should have been able to stop it and thus he or she feels more "guilty."
Whether there was violence involved
In most cases where the abuse included violence or potential violence (that is, the victim was made to understand that without cooperation there would be violence) the child will have experienced additional trauma and therefore damage to his/her development
The social system available to the child at the time of abuse
The child who had someone to tell about the abuse will suffer less than the child who had no one to tell. And even in some cases where the support system is available, the child may choose not to tell for fear of the consequences. For example, the child may think, "If I tell my father that my brother is abusing me and he believes me, then my father may do something drastic like hurt my brother or send me to jail." When children reveal their secrets, the response of adults will vary. It is important to stay as calm as possible so as not to further traumatize the child. The rage you may feel is natural, but the child may perceive that it is directed at him or her. The child needs a safe, supportive atmosphere in which to talk. Children also benefit enormously from hearing that this has happened to other children, male and female.
Ego development of the child at the time of the abuse
If the child has a firmly established concept of his or her sexual identity, the abuse will have less impact. Children who are abused by a same sex perpetrator often have deeply felt fears about whether this means they are homosexual. One way in which parents can help allay this fear is to explain that our bodies have many nerve endings. If these nerve endings are stimulated, they will react. For example, if a bright light hits your eyes, your first response will be to blink or to shade them from the light. A simple concept to use with children is that of tickling. If a child is ticklish, he or she will laugh when tickled. It does not matter whether the person tickling is male or female; the child is reacting to the experience. If the perpetrator is of the opposite sex, questions of identity may also come into play. For example a boy who is abused by a woman and is not aroused, may doubt his masculinity. If he is aroused physically, but not emotionally, he may equally doubt his masculinity. The same identity issues for girls may hold true. If the child has a positive self-concept, that is, if he or she feels valued at the time the abuse occurred, there will be fewer repercussions. In fact, children with good self-esteem are more likely to feel they can say no and/or tell someone about the abuse.


Helping Children
As concerned adults, we want to protect children from sexual abuse, but we can't always be there to do that. We can, however, teach children about sexual abuse in order to increase their awareness and coping skills. Without frightening children, we can provide them with appropriate safety information and support at every stage of their development. We can provide personal safety information to children in a matter- of-fact way, with other routine safety discussions about fire, water, health, etc. Although even the best educated child cannot always avoid sexual abuse, children who are well prepared will be more likely to tell you if abuse has occurred. This is a child's best defense. In order to protect children, teach them:
To feel good about themselves and know they are loved, valued and deserve to be safe

The difference between safe and unsafe touches

The proper names for all body parts, so they will be able to communicate clearly

That safety rules apply to all adults, not just strangers

That their bodies belong to them and nobody has the right to touch them or hurt them

That they can say "no" to requests that make them feel uncomfortable--even from a close relative or family friend

To report to you if any adult asks them to keep a secret

That they can rely on you to believe and protect them if they tell you about abuse

That they are not bad or to blame for sexual abuse

To tell a trusted adult about abuse even if they are afraid of what may happen

If a child trusts you enough to tell you about an incident of sexual abuse, you are in an important position to help that child recover. The following suggestions can help you provide positive support.
Keep calm. It is important to remember that you are not angry with the child, but at what happened. Children can mistakenly interpret anger or disgust as directed towards them.
Believe the child. In most circumstances children do not lie about sexual abuse.
Give positive messages such as "I know you couldn't stop it," or "I'm proud of you for telling."
Explain to the child that he or she is not to blame for what happened.
Listen to and answer the child's questions honestly.
Respect the child's privacy. Be careful not to discuss the abuse in front of people who do not need to know what happened.
Be Responsible. Report the incident to the Department of Human Services or to the police. They can help protect the child's safety and provide resources for further help.
Arrange a medical exam. It can reassure you and the child that there has been no permanent physical damage and may verify important evidence.
Get help. Get competent professional counseling, even if it's only for a short time.
DON’T Panic or overreact when the child talks about the experience. Children need help and support to make it through this difficult time.
DON’T Pressure the child to talk or avoid talking about the abuse. Allow the child to talk at her or his own pace. Forcing information can be harmful. Silencing the child will not help her or him to forget.
DON’T Confront the offender in the child's presence. The stress may be harmful. This is a job for the authorities.


The sexually abused child may misinterpret the behavior of others. To minimize problems and reduce anxiety for the child, the parent can:

Make rules clearly understood and logical.

Label sexualized behaviors you observe rather than saying, “What are you doing?”

Remember normal developmental milestones for children and what is normal sexual development for children. It is not uncommon for children to engage in self exploration or masturbation, but they need to be directed on what is appropriate for the setting that they are in.

Teach the child appropriate touching. Encourage all family members to ask permission (verbal and non-verbal) before engaging in physical affection. Even though touching and cuddling may be clearly non-sexual to you, it may not be to the child. Go slowly, using the child’s comfort level as a cue. Respect the child’s right to give or receive physical affection.

Discuss rules pertaining to clothing, touching, privacy, bathrooms, bedrooms, language, secrets, supervision, and safety. Discuss the rule, related behaviors, consequences, and the reasons why.

Provide clear, age-appropriate information on sexuality; correct words for body parts and sexual behaviors, boundary issues, including with whom and when it is appropriate to share certain behaviors, feelings, and information. Children may indiscriminately share details of their abuse. Feelings are normal and okay, but one does not choose to act on all feelings.

Discuss safety and prevention information, such as, “No, Go, and Tell”.

Avoid physical punishment, aggressive horseplay, teasing, and suggestive language.

Knock before entering bedrooms.

Give school-age children responsibility for washing, dressing, and toileting themselves.

Remember, bedrooms, bathrooms, bathtime, toileting, bathing, and dressing or undressing may carry sexual and/or aggressive messages for abused children. All adults may be potentially threatening to some children; others may fear only male or female caregivers.

Children should not share beds, and opposite-sex children out of infancy should not share bedrooms. Children should not share rooms or beds with adults.

Other children should be told that the sexually abused child may do inappropriate things because of past abuse. Tell them what to do if this happens, and to tell adults they trust.

Assure the child’s safety. Let the child know they have the right to be safe and that you will help to protect them. Seek medical care when necessary and report any abuse immediately to local authorities.

Encourage the child to express their feelings appropriately. Let the child know that whatever they feel is okay. Let them know what ways they are allowed to express their feelings. Respect the child’s silence regarding the abuse they experienced. The child may be afraid that you won’t want him/her if you know about everything, and the child may feel guilty or responsible for the abuse. You must earn the child’s trust.

Don’t assume how the child feels about the perpetrator of their abuse. You may expect that the child will hate the perpetrator, but if the perpetrator is a family member, the child may still love them.

Continue treating the child normally!  Do not give the child special treatment or special limits.

Remember that all people have potential and abilities to cope constructively with the most distressing circumstances.

Abused children have many fears and need to be calmly and frequently reassured: “You are safe now. We will take care of you and protect you.” Reassurance that nightmares are not real, even though the child may think they are, will assist the child to recognize the present reality of their safety.

Appropriate discipline for the sexually abused child can be very difficult. The child may experience deep anger and may try to manipulate you. You may feel deep pity for the abused child. Spanking is not an appropriate choice of discipline for the abused child as it only reinforces negative feelings and power differential. The child may become violent toward others or may inflict self-harm. Gently restrain the child if necessary and say, “I cannot allow you to do that.” Encourage the child to hit a pillow when angry or redirect the child to another appropriate activity that allows the child to safely express their feelings. Discipline that is consistent and appropriate will help to normalize the child and assist in desensitizing the reminders of past abuse they have experienced.

Take care of yourself too. People experience a range of feelings. Your feelings are okay too. People find it helpful to cry, yell, write, rest, exercise, or talk about it. It is important to find supportive people to share your feelings with about this difficult topic. Taking care of yourself makes it less likely that you will take out anger and/or sorrow on the child who has been victimized.

Helping a sexually abused child experience positive self-esteem is not an easy task, but it is very important to the child’s prognosis. Although you may disapprove of some of the child’s behaviors or choices, the child is worthwhile. When setting limits, describe the behavior, not the personal characteristics of the child (“Please make your bed.” not “You are a slob!” or “I really appreciate it when you come to the table with clean hands.” not “I don’t like it when you are dirty.” Be specific. “You took a dime.” not “You’re a thief!” Differentiate between feelings and behaviors. “It is okay to be angry, but you cannot hit your brother.”

Remember, the existence of a significant caretaker (parent) who is supportive and protective within the family system is very important in the prognosis of a child surviving sexual abuse. While there are community interventions to assist the child who has been abused and their family, it is the daily interaction between the child and his/her parents that is the key to the child surviving and thriving .

Books and Articles

Below are suggested books and articles available at bookstores or at your local library for:

Something Happened and I'm Scared to Tell: A Book for Young Victims of Abuse. Patricia Kehoe, Carol Deach (Illustrator) / Paperback / Parenting Pr., Inc. / February 1986
Laurie Tells . Linda Lowery, John Eric Karpinski (Illustrator) / Paperback / Lerner Publishing Group / July 1995
My Body Is Private . Linda Walvoord Girard, Kathleen Tucker (Editor) / Paperback / Albert Whitman / September 1992
Eyes of a Child . Richard North Patterson, Ken Howard / Audio / Random House, Incorporated / May 1997
Your Body Belongs to You . Cornelia Spelman, Teri Weidner (Illustrator) /Paperback/ Albert Whitman / August 1997
The Right Touch: A Read-Aloud Book to Help Prevent Child Sexual Abuse. Sandy Kleven / Hardcover / Illumination Arts Publishing Company, Incorporated / March 1998
Parents of Children Surviving Sexual Abuse:
When Your Child Has Been Molested: A Parent's Guide to Healing and Recovery . Joyce Case, Kathryn B. Hagans / Paperback / Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers / January 1998
A Better Safe than Sorry Book : A Family Guide for Sexual Assault Prevention . Sol Gordon, Judith Gordon, Vivien Cohen (Illustrator) / Paperback / Prometheus Books / March 1992
No More Secrets for Me: A Book for Adults to Share with Children . Oralee Wachter, Jane Aaron (Illustrator) / Paperback / Little, Brown & Company / July 1984
Child Lures: What Every Parent and Child Should Know About Preventing Sexual Abuse and Abduction . Kenneth Wooden / Hardcover / Summit Publishing Group / May 1995