Project S.A.R.A.H. is committed to the principle that prevention is one of the most critical aspects of our program. Teaching our children to protect themselves from sexual and other forms of abuse begins with toddlers and never ends. As parents we know that the ability to effectively communicate with our children is the best way to help them understand their rights to personal safety and learn to make safe choices. Every parent and educator seeks to ensure that our kids feel comfortable coming to us when something makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Creating such an environment is one of the most powerful tools in alerting us to potential abuse and stopping it.
However, the unfortunate reality is that sometimes abuse does happen, even when the victims have warm relationships with their parents or teachers. What can we do to help our kids if, God forbid, they disclose incidents of abuse? How can we maintain a feeling of safety for the child when something has happened that totally undermines that sense of safety?
Let’s be honest. This is every parent’s worst nightmare. The natural response, therefore, is to freak out. Understandable. This response can make matters worse. It is imperative to remain calm when a child tell us things that are uncomfortable for them to discuss. Internally you may be in terrible distress, but remaining calm is the first thing s/he will notice, and it reassures the child that s/he will be safe with you. Sometimes children will make disclosures directly. Other times they will begin a process of disclosure, hinting to it indirectly in order to get the trusted adult to prompt them to disclose further details. Reflecting back to them what they’ve told you using their language shows them that you’re listening and understand, and will make them feel more comfortable to discuss this further. However, if the adult’s response is anything but calm, the likelihood that the child will actually disclose more details is very small.
Once you’ve shown the child that you will hear them out calmly, the next thing is to communicate that you believe them. Children rarely lie about being touched inappropriately. Not only that, but questioning the veracity of their disclosure only supports what perpetrators often tell their victims: “Don’t bother telling anyone because no one will believe you.” By responding to their disclosure by saying something like, “I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m glad you told me,” you validate the child, establish a sense of warmth and security, and begin to heal the emotional impact the abuse may have on the child.
Often adults struggle to make some sense of the events and will try to explain them away, inadvertently invalidating and discrediting the child. An important part of our response to a disclosure is never to blame the child. It isn’t uncommon for adults to place some responsibility, either explicitly or implicitly, on the child. This is especially true if the alleged perpetrator is a trusted friend, family member, or someone from the community. Guilt and shame are two of the most damaging emotional effects on victims of sexual abuse and can be greatly diminished if it is made clear at the outset that it is never the fault of the victim, especially if it is a child.
If a child comes to you with a disclosure, it means they are seeking your help and support. That takes a tremendous amount of courage, especially if they have conflicting and confusing emotions about the abuse. They should be praised for their courage, and thanked for placing their trust in you. Reassure them that you will do everything possible to help them, and be honest about what steps you will be taking to do that. Do not investigate. Once a disclosure is made, professional help should be enlisted and reportable incidents should be reported to Child Protective Services.
We all hope that this information will never be needed to be put into practice. However, knowing how to handle a disclosure is the first step in providing the support that is vital to victims of abuse at any age. The message you convey to them is that they are not alone. It is equally important for you, the parent, teacher, friend, rabbi, rebbetzin or anyone else to whom a disclosure is made to know that you are not alone: The team at Project S.A.R.A.H. is always available to provide support and counseling, and can be reached at 973-777-7638. To learn more about our services, please join us at the upcoming Project S.A.R.A.H. breakfast, Sunday, April 22, at 9:30 a.m. at Keter Torah.
By Yisrael Reich, LSW