Your worst nightmare as a parent has come true. You have learned that your child has been sexually abused by a trusted member of your family circle. Your mind is racing as you question yourself. “Why didn’t I see the signs? How come my child didn’t tell me what was happening? Why did he choose my child? Are there other people who are also hurting my child now? How do I help her?”
Now that you learned what happened to your child you have a million questions but mostly you want to make sure your child is ok. As tempting as it may be to get all the details about what happened this can actually backfire. By asking to many questions you may actually frighten your child more. Part of it has to do with the intensity of the way parents usually ask these questions. Your own feelings come out and your child senses this and it actually makes them feel afraid. Interestingly enough when they feel fear it actually sends a signal to their Stress Response System, the same mechanism used to help them cope during the trauma itself, so they began to shut down because their brain sends the danger signal.
The best thing you can do is make your child feel safe and secure again. This means making the environment feel safe, making yourself be a safe person (by staying calm and attuning to her needs), and listening to them if they do decide they want to talk about what happened (while staying calm and letting them know that believe them). You also need to help your child also not feel blame or shame for not sharing what happened sooner, by validating their feelings of fear.
The Stress Response System
One of the hardest things for parents to contend with is understanding how trauma has all ready changed their child’s Stress Response System. When a person experiences something so horrific that they feel intense fear, this signals the Stress Response System to kick in and deploy coping mechanisms to ensure survival. This system is also known as the fight-flight-freeze response.
A person can effectively move through all three stages, 2 stages or just 1 in order to protect themselves. The first thing to understand is that the decision to act in a way that ensures optimal survival is not done on a conscious or cognitive level, it’s purely reflexive. The reason is that by the time you make a pro-con list you could be dead, at least on an evolutionary basis. So this system kicks in within seconds and has the power to shut down the cognitive part of your brain before you even realize it. (To learn more in depth about this system check out this blog here)
So when your child was being sexually violated the brain’s Stress Response System kicked in and your child froze. During this stage body heart rate decreases, their bodies become immobile and for many they feel a sense of detachment (dissociation) from their body. Like they are floating above or sitting next to their body and watching whats going on. When these attacks happen repeatedly her brain became sensitive to the different patterns that signal the assault is about to happen. It takes in information from the five senses, shift from day to night (sight), laundry soap or cologne of the abuser (smells), the creaking of the bedroom door (sound), the touch of a hand on their back (tactile), and taste (didn’t want to give an example as it could be too graphic) and pairs this with the child’s rising fear.
The result is that when any one or a combination of these factors comes in at the same time as a fear response, your body immediately signals “it’s about to happen again time to protect you”. So even long after the abuser is gone when multiple stimulus like this are paired together your child responds reflexively. This can make learning a challenge or even discipline a challenge since they are easily triggered.
Part of healing is going to be breaking down these pairings and effectively rewiring your child’s brain. Now for the sake of this article I made this all sound over simplistic and also a little complicated all at the same time. But the truth is that once you integrate techniques and create your own pattern it’s a lot easier to make changes.
Check out the 5 steps below to learn these tools that can help your child sexual abuse survivor.
5 Steps to Help Your Child Heal and Recover From Sexual Abuse
Step 1: Attune. One of the core things you will need to do is attune to your child’s needs. This means being able to read their body language as well as listen to their verbal communication. Think back to when your child was a baby. When you first brought her home you didn’t know what every cry meant. So you tried many things. You would feed her, change her diaper, rock her, etc. anything to help her calm down. Over time you learned her cues. You learned which cry meant she was hungry and which one meant she was overly tired but I’m fighting sleep. It’s the same thing with your little survivor. Sometimes they will engage in avoidant behavior because they don’t want to do something, while other times they are truly afraid and you’re yelling only makes them feel more afraid so they shut down (Stress Response System thats sensitized due to trauma). So now it’s time to relearn your child’s behaviors and how to best help them feel calm and safe so they can continue on with what they need to do.
Step 2: Name and validate their feelings. You want to help increase your child’s emotional capacity by helping them put words to how they are feeling. Often they do not even know thats how they feel and if you ask them directly they might say I don’t know. This isn’t always a cop out, and assuming you’ve done step 1 then you will be able to tell when your child is really having a tough time. When they are triggered they honestly don’t know. They don’t have the words, they just have the instincts to behave a certain way. So your job is to notice it and say something like, “you look like your afraid right now. I know it can be scary to do______, but I know you can do it. I’m right here with you as you do it.” This can also be applied to other behaviors you notice your child exhibiting. In this moment you want your child to calm down so they can actually move out of their trauma reaction and back into their cognitive functioning , where they have more control and awareness of their behaviors.
Step 3: Help them feel empowered. Give them the chance to say yes and say no to things. Let them have the experience of feeling the power of their voice and that their voice will be respected by adults. This is something they did not have before and it really hurts. It’s also very scary and contributes to them feeling powerless, a feeling that can persist into adulthood. You can start with something so simple as “do you want chicken for dinner or hamburgers?”. If you notice them not eating you can gently ask them why. If they say they don’t like it then give them an alternative. It may be more work and I know your worried about “spoiling them” but these simple tasks help them feel in control and as they recover they really need that experience. Think of it like this, you’re combating their past experiences of having no control and having someone take their power away. So see what you can try to give them power and control over that isn’t harmful to themselves or to you, in order to prevent them from getting stuck in power struggles.
Step 4: Use a lot of verbal communication. I do this a lot with my clients when I ask them what they want to do in session. Here’s a classic example (using a fake clients name):
Me: Sarah, do you want to do art or play with dolls today?
Sarah: hmmmm….dolls. What do you want to do?
Me: Well I like them both, but I think this time we will do what you want to do.
Sarah: yes ok
Me: It feels good to be able to choose what to do
This may seem so silly but it just reinforces what your all ready doing above. You’re helping your child feel empowered and in control by giving them a choice and respecting that choice. At the same time your also helping them tap into how they are feeling, noticing what feels good to them (attunement and validation-steps 1 & 2 listed above). So you can do this with almost anything.
Step 5: Asking permission to provide physical touch and making sure others who are in your childs life to the same thing. Now first things first. Many an adult survivor has shared with me that after their parents found out what happened they never talked about it again and that hurt them. They felt more shame about being sexually abused because of it. For others they are happy that it wasn’t discussed with others. So this is a really tough call that I would say depends on your family and your child.
Either way ask people in your family, strangers, and teachers to always ask permission before touching your child. Whether it’s a hug, a high five, or a kiss, they need to ask your child. If they accidentally go in before asking you can gently remind them by saying, “please ask before giving my child a _______”. Do it in front of your child if possible. I say this for two reasons. #1 you’re modeling how to communicate appropriately with others which is always a plus and #2 you’re showing your child that you got their back. That you respect their wishes and you will advocate for them. Now this isn’t something you will have to do forever, but the hope is that your child will be able to say it’s ok if grandma hugs me but it’s not ok if my teacher hugs me. You want them to again feel empowered and have their wishes and body respected. You’re providing them with a contrasting experience that they didn’t have before.
And additional resource if you notice your child is really struggling or you want additional support as well.
Why Therapy Is So Important For Children
Therapy with a trained mental health professional can help your child feel safe to express what happened to her. Many children, especially when it’s prolonged sexual abuse, develop sexualized play which can be upsetting for adults to see. As caring adults who see the children we love engaging in upsetting behaviors we react in a way that makes the child feel ashamed. The sexualized play is your child’s way of trying to process what happened to her. They often don’t have the words but the trauma is trapped in their body, itching to get out. They are trying to make e sense and find some resolution about what happened. When a child is using doll on doll sexualized behavior, although upsetting, it is a lot less risky than play where they insert objects inside of themselves or engage in sexualized play with other children (which can also be traumatizing to other children). By working with a therapist they can find a different outlet to release this traumatic energy where they are not at risk of harming someone else or themselves.
Another part of therapy thats helpful is that the therapist can help give you the tools you need to help your child. One of the amazing buffers that helps children from developing full blown PTSD or long term effects, is having a positive, safe, and supportive relationship with caring adults. Although you may think your relationship with your child is rock solid, I’m going to ask you to suspend that belief and open your mind to other things you can do to make sure this is what your relationship is like with your child.
Helping your child feel safe means that you’re going to have to check your own emotions.
Learning that your child was sexually abused caused a ripple your family. You feel guilty and angry.You’re worried about your child’s well being and how you can help her. When you read about the long term effects of abuse you worry about your child more. But there are things you can do to help your child heal and recover now.
If you’re a parent or there is a child you care about who expected sexual abuse, that you want to get help for please feel free to reach out to me at: https://jessicalangtherapy.com/child-sexual-abuse-survivor-treatment/ to learn more about how I work with children and families online. Healing and recovery are possible for sexual abuse survivors.