One of the worst things parents can experience is learning their children have been molested. Your reaction can help your child heal.
1. Remain calm- Easier said than done, but a crucial first step. Your reaction sets the tone for how your son or daughter will begin to heal. If your child thinks that you can't handle the disclosure, she will feel shame and guilt both for the abuse and for telling you. This will hamper her recovery. Showing extreme anger or sadness makes children believe they must protect their parents from the abuser. Kids need to know this hasn't destroyed you-- that are strong enough to cope with their abuse.
2. Believe your child- Children, especially young kids, rarely (if ever) misinterpret or lie about inappropriate touch. Unless you have strong evidence to the contrary, assume your child is telling you the truth. Even if you believe your child has been coached and the abuse didn't happen, you need to proceed as if the abuse happened.
3. Praise your child- Your child just did the hardest thing she's even done, going against the perpetrator by disclosing the abuse. Saying, "I'm so glad you told me. Thank you." will demonstrate to your child that she's done the right thing. Reassure child you will protect her and that everything will be all right.
4. Reassure your child- After the initial shock of the disclosure, once you're in control of your emotions, sharing your tempered feelings of anger at the perpetrator, sorrow etc. is important. This will reinforce that your child's innocence. Avoid asking questions like, "You didn't you tell me sooner?" which can inadvertently make kids feel like the abuse was their fault.
5. Report to the police- Avoid doing your own investigation, or asking specific questions, but let your child know that you can handle what happened. This is to avoid impeding the investigation and/or prosecution of the perpetrator(s). Depending on the situation, you may not want to tell your child before calling the police. The police can refer you doctors and therapists familiar forensic investigations and court testimony if necessary.
6. Notify parents of potential victims- Child molesters often have multiple victims, particularly if they are in positions of responsibility like teachers, scout leaders, or coaches. If the police ask you to allow them to do the notification to avoid tainting witnesses, follow-up in a few days unless you believe children are in immediate danger.
7. Notify the molestor's supervisor/employer-
8. Seek professional help- Both you and your child may need professional support to help process the abuse, investigation, and prosecution.
Remember, this is not your fault--the responsibility lies with the perpetrator. As a parent, you need to take care of yourself and the pain it has caused you, so that you can be there for your child. Process your reactions with other adults.
Amy Feld, PsyD, MSW