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.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids


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