“I have been abused…”
There is no handbook that tells you how to respond when you hear words like this from a child. In whatever way they tell you.
It's a shock. It's probably very scary. It may leave you flooded and hijacked by an emotional response.
It is unlikely that you will be thinking calmly and coherently if you are unlucky enough to hear those words.
But at the same time you have been incredibly lucky. Because there is a child that has trusted you enough to share with you the biggest secret they will probably ever have in their lives.
The courage it will have taken to ignore the mental and emotional pressure to keep the secret and actually speak out is equivalent to that of walking into something you know will cause you extreme pain.
And they have chosen you.
And you now have a chance that few people will get. A chance to respond and to help.
So what do you do?
1. Believe them. This is the most critical thing that you can do. Above all else, accept that what they are telling you it true. The very very small risk that they aren't telling the truth is worth it. And far easier to deal with the fact it was a lie than it wasn't and you didn't believe them.
2. Do not judge. When we are emotionally hijacked we can say crazy things we don't mean. I recently heard from a 50 year old man about his abuse as a young boy. His mothers response was "are you sure you didn't lead him on?". I am sure she didn't really believe that but can you imagine what that sounded like to the boy? Others I have heard of have felt so helpless they have asked the child what they expect them to do it about it. Do not judge. Do not say anything judgemental. A child is in the care of adults and is programmed genetically to do whatever is necessary to survive. Given free will and choice they would not choose to be abused.
3. Assess danger. Is the child in immediate danger? What can you do to get them out of that danger. This is pretty tricky this one. If you are a teacher at school the child will have to go home. If you are a parent and the other parent is the abuser you can't just walk out. Look at the options you have to minimise risk but whatever your options, let them know you are there and they can always talk to you and that you will do your best to help them. It is very likely they will be scared of repercussions. You are the adult - you can assess those more accurately than the child. In many cases the repercussions aren't what they have been led to believe. Honour their trust but don't let it stop you taking action.
4. Help them. There are a number of things that are likely to be bubbling in their heads. This may include : they brought it on themselves, if someone else knows about it they will blame them, it is their fault, it is shameful, their body responded so they must want it, now they've told someone then something will happen to people they love. There is an opportunity to stop these thoughts becoming facts that they live their lives based on. You can help them understand that it's the abuser to blame. That they have done nothing wrong. That our bodies are programmed to respond. That it is an adults responsibility to nurture and care for a child not the child's responsibility to please the adult. That it has no relationship to love.
Disturbingly, it is possible that a response to abuse can actually cause more long term emotional pain to a child than the abuse itself. Children try and make sense of their world. They take clues from the adults around them on how to do that. With our words we can either help them make sense and move on or we can create a ball of fear that remains locked inside them until they find help as an adult.
And if you are an adult who has been abused and still has the demons to battle because of it, know that it is always possible to overcome anything. You have been strong enough to get this far. There is help out there for you. Nothing needs to be the way it's always been.
If you think I can help you I would be honoured to have that chance. Just drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we can talk.