What to Do When You Discover Your Child has Been Abused

My daughter was three when it happened. Someone hurt her in the most horrible way.

I was terrified. I felt the weight of it. I have to deal with this. I have to take care of it. I have to take care of her. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to clean up a mess I didn’t make. With less than a year of sobriety under my belt, I was just getting good at cleaning my own messes. But it didn’t matter. There was nothing to do but grab a mop.

This is the article I wish I had 10 years ago. This is what I wish I wasn’t an expert in. I am not a professional trained in this area–this is my personal experience. What do you do when you discover your child has been abused? What are the very first steps you need to take? What are the steps that will stretch you years into a future bent toward healing? How do you ensure the safety of your child and take care of yourself in the process?

If this is your reality right now, I am so bleeping sorry. There aren’t adequate words for the suffering you’re experiencing. But I am here to say that you are not alone. And that there’s hope on the other side.

Get Her Out of There

The very first thing you need to do, if you haven’t already, is to remove the child from the abuser. Not only the abuser, but anybody who could potentially put the child in contact with that person. Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. This is where things get tricky–especially if you don’t have custody. At the time that it happened with us, there was no custody order in place. She was in my care when I found out, so according to our state law, I was able to make up the rules I needed to keep her safe.

If you don’t have that, do the very best you can. Fight for your child. Try to trust in the judicial process. I know it’s flawed. Let doing everything you can be enough.

What To Believe

Let me back up. I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, then you believe your child. But, if that’s not the case, then I need you to hear this: Don’t brush it under the rug. It may be impossible to imagine the supposed abuser would do something so heinous. I get that. And sometimes people do lie about this stuff.

But sometimes they don’t.

Look at the evidence. Be as unbiased as possible. If you’re really not sure, take some time to get quiet and listen to your intuition. Examine not only the facts, but also at what your gut is telling you. Talk to someone you trust and make the best decision you can. If you have to err, err on the side of the child. I’m not saying false accusations aren’t a serious problem. But look. If I have to choose between putting my kid in danger and defaming someone’s name, I choose to keep her safe. I don’t make the decision lightly, but I make it, regardless.

What I’ve often seen is parents not handling this stuff well, even when it is clear that the abuse occurred. Honestly, I have a hard time with that. I was kind of close to rock bottom when it happened. So I feel like if I can do this, anyone can.

I think the truth is that people don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to help or how to be an advocate. The problem is that we really don’t have the option. I was 24 years old and I had a criminal record. I had to figure it out!

I want to encourage you that it’s never too late. And I say knowing sometimes it is too late. But, healing, no matter how long it’s been, is possible. And it’s possible to not have handled it correctly and to start today. But you have to start today.

Who Needs to Know

The next step, after you determine to the best of your ability what really happened, is to tell the people who need to know. For me that included her doctor, close family and friends, my boss, and every teacher she had for the first several years of school. I went a little overboard, maybe. But I needed them to be aware of what had gone on so that they could do everything in their power to keep her safe. Be wary of anyone who refuses to believe that the abuse took place or who defends the abuser. This gets complicated when family is involved. But the safety of the child should always take precedence.

Get Professional Help

After the immediate threat has subsided, it’s time to explore counseling. We found a counselor trained in Play Therapy, which is an incredible option for little ones who don’t yet have the ability to articulate what happened. We were lucky. Through Medicaid, ours was completely covered. Look into programs in your area.

After your little one is in counseling, find some therapy for yourself. This doesn’t have to be actual counseling, although it can be. For me, for a while it was fried cream cheese sushi from my favorite Japanese restaurant every Wednesday while my daughter was with her therapist. Eating my feelings wasn’t the healthiest solution, but it was better than drugs.

At some point, though, go to a real counselor. This is likely not something you’re equipped to deal with on your own. It’s particularly difficult when sex is used as a weapon to hurt someone you love–especially if it’s a child. It may be hard to see it as anything but that for a while. That’s where counseling comes in.

Gather Your Tribe

When you’re able, rally the troops. I was intensely lucky for this part. Family, friends, and co-workers I barely knew rallied around me and my girl, creating a little cocoon for us to learn how to feel safe again. I have always been overly trusting. I have always been quick not to judge. But after it happened, I began to hate people. I began to hate men. I desperately needed to know that there were people in my life I could trust. It felt essential to our healing.

Be prepared for the stories. I was kind of shocked at how many people approached me to divulge painful details about their own abuse. I know now that this is an epidemic. According to the Center for Disease Control, one out of five women in the U.S. has experienced rape. Of those women, 42% were minors the first time. For many complicated reasons having to do with the way our culture and our society is set up and what we teach our young boys and young girls, this problem is rampant. And that can be overwhelming.

Stay With Them

Try to be as present as possible with your child. You may just want to go numb and block out everything. Cling to love. But also, try not to give into the desire to let them have anything they want. That was hard for me. She’d been through so much. It felt impossible to say no to her. So I didn’t. And for a while what I had on my hands was a very unhappy child who desperately needed boundaries. Learning how to give her those was better than any sweet treat in the world.

It may help to define your own boundaries. Your knee-jerk reaction will probably be to shelter him from everything. Come up with a plan that you feel comfortable with–map out decisions like who you trust to be around your child, where he is allowed to go by himself, etc. Again, trust your intuition.

The New Normal

When it’s time–and you’ll know when it’s time–gather the courage to move on. For us, this was literal. Nine months after I found out, we moved to a different state. This is not always possible or necessary or good. And there were other reasons for us to move besides what had happened. But we all must endure the process of figuring out what life looks like after abuse. We all have to find our new normal.

I didn’t smile for two weeks after I found out. I couldn’t fathom joy. I could see that my daughter wasn’t herself–she had changed from a bubbly, out-going child to a sunken, withdrawn one. It devastated me. But, through Play Therapy and the love that surrounded us, slowly, she came back. Even more slowly, I figured out how to shift from shock and crisis mode into a space of hope and healing. It didn’t happen overnight. But it happened.

At some point down the road, it may be necessary for the child to go back to counseling. We’ve gone back a couple times over the years. As I write this, my amazing daughter is a young teenager struggling with mild depression. It’s hard and it’s messy, but I trust myself and I trust her–we are strong enough to get through even this. You are, too.

Brandy is a freelance writer, teacher and speaker making light out of the dark stuff on brandyglows.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.