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Mom discovers child has been sexually abused. What now?

Dr. Laura,
I recently discovered that a relative has been abusing my elementary-school age son for some time now. We are seeing a counselor but I'm wondering how best to help my son deal with his experiences, how to support my husband who is devastated that he did not protect his child from abuse, how to stop blaming myself, and how to provide a positive environment for my younger children while dealing with this trauma. Thank you.

I am so sorry about this tragedy in your family. I know your heart must be broken. No parent should ever have to deal with discovering that her child has been abused.

I know this is an overwhelming time for you and your family. Don't feel you have to deal with everything at once.  Do what you can now, and know that there will be opportunities over time to continue to heal yourself, your son and the rest of your family.

 How to best enable your son to deal with his experiences?

He needs help from a counselor who is experienced in helping kids who've been sexually abused.  Such a counselor will know how to help him begin to talk about the shame, pain and guilt he is carrying.  The counselor will offer your son support for his pain, while helping him discover that he is still whole.  You cannot expect your son to speak completely openly with you about these issues right now, given the natural desire of a child not to upset  a parent. He needs a safe place to process his feelings where only he matters. When kids are not given such a place, they often "act out" their tangled emotions on others. You'll want to explain to him that he needs to be open with his counselor, no matter how embarrassed he is. If there is something he wants to censor, it is important to share that exact thing. Sharing these shameful feelings and thoughts is how we heal from our shame and guilt.

As far as supporting your son on a daily basis, make it safe for him to talk to you about this but don't push him to.  Over and over, communicate to him: "I'm sorry that this happened. I'm so glad this is finally stopped. You did not deserve this. It was not your fault. I love you and I am here for you and we will heal from this together."

Most kids assume that they somehow caused the abuse, so be sure you tell him over and over that your relative is emotionally sick and that no matter what your son did, it was not his fault.

Most kids also feel dis-empowered, victimized, voiceless, and worthless.  Be sure that you give your son as much respect and self-determination as possible.  Listen to him, acknowledge his feelings, and use only positive discipline.

How to support your husband?

Naturally he is devastated that he did not protect his child; that is a parent's primary responsibility.  But all of our children can be victims of things we can't prevent. Your husband also needs to hear that this was not his fault.  You can support him by letting him talk, rant, or cry, and simply being fully present.  You will need to do a lot of breathing and self-calming in order to simply let your husband discharge his feelings.  Don't judge, evaluate, negate or argue with him.  Simply reflect what he says: "I know what you mean.  It feels so awful."

Your husband probably also needs counseling, at least short-term, but I suspect even more that the two of you need some time with a counselor as a couple to talk about this.  That way you can use this as an opportunity to learn to support each other through difficult things and come out closer.  You will also be able to discuss how to nurture your whole family through this crisis.

How to get past blaming yourself for not noticing warning signs?

This is probably something you will need to work with in your own therapy.  But I suspect that your anger at yourself is actually a defense against the pain.  In other words, you're in such pain about this that you can't bear it.  So you fend off that pain with rage at anyone you can blame -- even yourself.  If you will let yourself simply sit and cry, and cry, and cry -- and breathe -- and cry some more, without getting caught in thinking about this, or any story at all about it, you will notice the pain begin to lessen.  As the pain lessens, so will your anger at yourself.

Another way to lessen your self-blaming is to use this experience to help others.  Write down the warning signs that you missed, and post them anonymously onto this site, and any other parenting sites you frequent.  I guarantee you that someday some mom will read those signs and recognize one and will be able to stop her child from being abused.  In other words, don't let this experience be for naught. Use your hard-gained insights to help another child.

How to deal with having your safe, normal family turned upside down? I think the closest analogy is a death in the family.  Obviously, there will be sadness and anger and a lot of other feelings.  At the same time, kids need to have as much normalcy in their lives as possible. Make sure to spend some private time with every single kid, every day, just to let them talk about what's on their minds and snuggle with you.

It is likely that your younger kids are also completely traumatized by this.  As I'm sure you know, they are also at risk from their relative, who could act out sexually with them, or at the very least act out his rage against them.  I would advise you to use this trauma as the impetus to create a very open, honest, and supportive family life.  What do I mean?  Well, let's pretend that your son had been injured in some other way -- for instance, had run in the street and been hit by a car.  I am sure that you would lose no time in educating your younger kids about streets and cars. And, because there is no substitute for supervision with young kids, I am sure you would be 100% on top of any exposure your kids had to streets or cars. 

So I am suggesting that you use this opportunity to educate yourself and your kids about sexual abuse so that they understand it is nothing to be ashamed of and is not anyone's fault, and that they aren't powerless to prevent it -- in fact, they CAN prevent it happening to them. For all kids, I recommend the book My Body Belongs to Me by Jill Starishevsky, an Assistant District Attorney in New York City,  who you can find online at

I want to close by saying that as with any other trauma, this kind of tragedy can destroy a family, or it can make it stronger. You will definitely need help and courage, but your son, and the rest of your family, can recover and lead a happy life. I wish you every blessing.

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TryingtobeStrong commented on 31-Jan-2012 10:55 AM
Thank you both for one, having the courage to post this and two, giving such heartfelt advice. Im onviously searching the web for some sort of "help" with the same situation. Our oldest son just informed us that one of his, so called, BEST friends had
been sexually abusing him and 3 other friends on a regular basis. This friend of his was a few years older and i saw no wrong in this because the mothers and fathers of all these children were my husband and my best friends. We are only in day 3 of this, it
really does feel like a death that i may never be able to get over. My child is very passive about all of this but only bc this other child has made it be so "normal" for him that we have some intense therapy for him starting tomorrow. My husband is angry
and quiet, my other children are confused and begging for attention bc they are very small, and as for me im a mess. Thats my baby even at 10 that this sick person has tried to sickened im balling when i wake up, holding it in through out the day then
again balling for hours at night. Im vomiting at every thought. We had this all investigated and the child is going to be going away for a LONG time. They also had told us that this is one of the worst child predator cases our county has ever seen. The details
are very disturbing. Im sorry for my ramble but i need hope right now and i need to find out how to be strong because no matter what i need my child needs ME. Thank you both
Susan Johansen commented on 16-Mar-2012 01:24 PM
BeenThere - I lost 10 yrs of childhood to sexual abuse - under my mother's nose. I'm now a 56 yrs old adult woman. If I may, I'd like to offer a little advice. Please remember to tell the child what happened is not his fault. Tell this child how cherished/important
he is to you and that your love for him hasn't changed and never will. Ask the 'child what HE needs', what HE wants and how HE feels. It'll demonstrate how your focus is on your sons well being -- because that's the last thing his abuser ever thought of. It
will subconsciously tell your child volumes about how much you care about him! Do NOT make this about YOU!! Be the Strong & Powerful Parent your son needs!!
candis commented on 20-Mar-2012 04:03 PM
Thank god I have never had to deal with this with my children but I too was a victim at age 12 of a boyfriend my mother brought home one day, Susan your comment is chilling because I thought of how my mother acted as though it was her and only her that
had been traumatized even going as far as to say that I enticed him and I stole her boyfriend. It was along road to overcome the guilt and disgust I felt for myself. I am now an adult with kids of my own and my daughter who just turned 11 reminds me of myself
at that age a bit of a tom boy and kinda shy and I think what kind of monster could look at her as anything other than just a child playing barbies and running around the yard??? I think of my mother seeing me as an intruder on her relationship with this man
she barley knew. I guess the hurt never truly goes away. Your advice is right on though to the family this has happened to my heart goes out to you and I hope you take the advice that speaks to you, hold that child in your arms and even when they try to let
go you just hold tighter let them know it wasn't any of your fault these people have a disease and are pretty much constantly looking for a victim just make sure they know they are loved and they're feelings no matter what they are, are valid and important.
I think the most important thing is to try to make them understand they are not alone and as a family you will over come this terrible tragedy.
ascrogg commented on 01-May-2012 06:05 AM
I just learned less than 24 hours ago my daughter was sexually abused by a family friend over the weekend. I am so sick, angry, mad, and anything else you can think of. My daughter has been so strong and brave through every thing so far. We talked with
a counselor and police and she wanted to sit down as a family to talk about it. I told her from the moment I found out that I love her, it's NOT her fault, and I am here for her. I feel so guilty that I didn't protect her, but we never expected it from him.

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