In cases of abuse, children are often powerless and need a trusted adult’s support and intervention to help stop the abuse. So if a child discloses what happened, here is how you can respond effectively:
- Trust: Children do not fabricate stories of painful experiences. It's important not to overreact (for eg, "Oh my god! That can never happen") or thrust your opinions (for eg, "But uncle is so loving..."); stay calm and listen to what the child has to say.The most effective way to respond is to give them a hug and acknowledge their courage ("I’m so proud of you, you are so brave for talking about this to me").
- Listen: What the child has to say is very important and will determine your next course of action. So, without making it sound like an interrogation, take the child to a distraction-free environment and ask them to describe what happened exactly in their own words. Try not to respond emotionally (crying). Some children may take a lot of time and may not reveal all of the details. That is okay—all you need to do is listen with a patient ear!
Also read: Child sexual abuse: Myths and Facts
After abuse: Building resilience for better emotional health
- Be honest: In some situations, it might be necessary to share what happened with others (for eg, the doctor, counselor, trusted family member or friend) to stop the abuse or seek help. So instead of saying you will keep this a secret, explain to the child that some other trusted adults will also need to know. Use your discretion – with whom, what and when to share!
- Reach out: If the child has any signs of physical injury, it is important to seek immediate medical attention. In a very sensitive manner, explain to the child that they will be meeting a doctor to make sure they feel okay. Ask for a counselor’s advice if needed. It may also be necessary to neither clean the clothes nor ask the child to wash up. Doctors may sometimes use samples for evidence. Child sexual abuse can be very traumatizing for both the child and their loved ones. Reach out to people in the mental health field (for eg, child psychologists, counselors). If needed, seek counseling for yourself.
- Reassure: Reassure the child that they are not at fault and it is okay for them to have shared with you. Address any concerns they may have in the best possible way you can (for instance if they ask, "Will I be punished for sharing this?"). Over a period of time, frequently reassure the child that it is not their fault and make sure they know they have all your support.