Responding if Your Child Discloses Child Sexual Abuse

Child Abuse Basics

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What would you do if your child was being sexually abused or if you discovered that he was a sexual abuser?

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare and the discovery can come in many different ways—but it is almost always unexpected. And tragically, some disclosures are even missed.

Whether your daughter discloses she was molested by a cousin, or you walk into a room and see an older sibling molesting another, the shock and emotional roller coaster will challenge the wits and sanity of any parent.

But what should you do?

While high-profile child abuse cases have helped increase the awareness of child sexual abuse, common-sense advice for parents is often still lacking. For example, in the case of Josh Duggar, Stacy Thompson, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Centers of Arkansas has stated that “We must involve the authorities to protect our children.” The executive director of National Children's Alliance also pointed out that many states require parents to report abuse, even if it involves their child.

Steps to Take if You Discover Abuse

What would you do? Here are some practical steps to take if you ever suspect or discover abuse:​​

  1. Take a deep breath and keep your emotions in check. You are clearly going to be upset, angry, and generally crazed. Do your best not to show it. If you find your son abusing another child, beating him with a belt is not going to help the situation. If your daughter makes a disclosure, over-reacting with too many questions, anger or denial can lead her to shut down and not tell you or the authorities everything that happened.
  1. Don’t ask too many specific, open-ended questions. The key to many sexual abuse investigations is getting an unbiased, non-leading history from the child. While parents want to know exactly what happened, unfortunately, they often can ask inappropriate, leading questions like “did Johnny touch your privates with his finger?” This may or may not have happened, but children often want to give the perceived “right” answer to adults. That's why yes/no and leading questions must be avoided.
  1. Be supportive. Your child’s willingness to disclose the abuse to you indicates that he or she trusts you, feels safe with you, and believes that you will protect him or her (which means that you must be doing something right as a parent!). Thank your child for telling you, and let him or her know that you believe them, love them, and will do everything you can to keep him or her safe (but don’t promise something that may be out of your control). Children with supportive parents are much more likely to have positive health outcomes.
  2. Seek professional help from the authorities. Making a report to child protective services or the police is the first step in helping keep your child safe. You cannot “fix” this problem on your own. Not reporting abuse to the police or Child Protective Services (CPS) is a big mistake. You are not being disloyal by calling the police on your teen who is abusing other kids. The majority of child offenders are not placed in jail and prosecuted, but referred out for treatment— which is what they need. Calling the authorities will start the process of getting abuse victims the evaluation they need and keeping them safe from the perpetrator. A delay in calling the authorities can keep abusers in contact with victims and make a bad situation even worse.
  1. Make sure your child gets a comprehensive multidisciplinary evaluation. A team of expert police, social workers, and doctors should be involved in any sexual abuse evaluation. If the sexual abuse occurred within 3-5 days, the best location for an evaluation and collection of forensic evidence is at a designated sexual assault center. If the abuse occurred in the more distant past, there is no need to take your child to an Emergency Room, although that is often a parent's first instinct. Your child is best served in a Child Advocacy Center (CAC) – a local resource where all professions work together to provide high-quality forensic interviews, medical exams, and coordination with prosecutors and therapists who treat sexual abuse victims and perpetrators. A list of certified CACs can be found at National Children’s Alliance. Remember, the goal is to avoid repeated exams and interviews whenever possible.​
  1. Mental health treatment is very important. While some victims of sexual abuse may suffer no long-term adverse effects, other victims of child sexual abuse are at a higher risk for a large variety of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and promiscuity. Specialized, trauma-informed treatment is best for victims to mitigate the effects of the abuse. Child abusers need long-term specialized treatment and supervision, too, both to stop the abusive tendencies and prevent future victimization.

With a lifetime prevalence of 30% of women and 15% of being sexually abused as children and over 60,000 reports a year, child sexual abuse is a possibility in any family. Since the perpetrators are most often people known to the victims, parents need to be prepared for the possibility that their child may be abused or an abuser.

Your pediatrician can also be a good resource to help make sure that you and your child are not going through this alone. There are even pediatricians with extra training that can evaluate children who are suspected of child sexual abuse or who have been abused, although they are likely to only be found in larger hospitals, specialty child abuse clinics, or associated with your local child advocacy center.


American Academy of Pediatrics. Guidelines for the Evaluation of Sexual Abuse of Children: Subject Review. Pediatrics Vol. 103 No. 1 January 1, 1999 pp. 186-191

American Psychological Association. Child Sexual Abuse: What Parents Should Know. Accessed June 2015.

Finkelhor, D., “The Prevention of Childhood Sexual Abuse,” Future of Children, 2009, 19(2):169–94.

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