Why Don’t Kids Tell? Talking to Your Children About Sexual Abuse

“Not talking about sexual abuse for twenty years”. “I was sexually abused as a child but didn’t tell anyone”. “Sexually abused by my father”. “Personal stories of sexual abuse”. “Sexual abuse survivor stories”. “Adult survivors of child sexual abuse”. “Signs of sexual abuse in children”. These are just some of the terms people have used to search for information about child sexual abuse, and have been brought to this site for help and answers.

Being an adult survivor of sexual abuse, having been a victim as a young child, I understand why kids don’t tell and why sexual abuse is most often not disclosed until well into adulthood. There are many reasons why children don’t tell anyone that they were sexually abused. The most common reason why kids don’t tell is due to FEAR.

Why Don’t Kids Tell?

Children are afraid no one will believe them, because that is what many abusers brainwash and groom their victims to believe. Children may be threatened by the offender, or the child molester tells the victim that the parents or family members will be physically harmed or killed if the child tells anyone about the abuse. Threatening the lives of parents and family members was how my son’s abuser (a church minister and close friend of the family) kept him from disclosing abuse until many years later.

My son was sexually abused in the church we attended at that time. How many churchgoing families trust that their children will be safe while attending Sunday School classes, where children are often in another area of the church, while parents are in the main auditorium or seated in another classroom? If you were being sexually abused and were told your parents would be murdered right in front of you, would you tell?

Children also don’t tell because they feel guilty, embarrassed and ashamed, having been “groomed” by the offender over a period of time to believe they are just as guilty as the offender. Pedophiles use a variety of “grooming methods” to befriend and get close to families with children in order to molest a child. Children may feel guilty if they get an abuser “in trouble”, or are afraid they themselves will “get in trouble” for telling.

Fear of getting in trouble was the basis of my personal story of sexual abuse, and I kept the abuse secret until I became a full-grown adult, thus becoming a part of the statistics of nondisclosure. Children often feel they are somehow responsible for their abuse, and are often told by the abusers that they will be taken away from their home and family and will never see them again.

The victim of child sexual abuse is almost always told not to tell, and children tend to believe what adults say. If you thought no one would believe you if you told, and you knew that your offender would be extremely angry at you and threatened harsh punishment, would you have the courage to tell? What if your offender told you that you would go to jail because you were just as guilty as he or she is? The child who tells is incredibly brave and very rare. Most sexually abused children do not tell anyone they were abused, even when directly asked by parents or other authority figures.

Talking to Your Children About Sexual Abuse:

  • Educate your child about their own body and about their “private parts” (body parts that are covered up with a modest bathing suit).
  • Use the correct terminology (penis, scrotum, testicles, vagina, breasts, labia.) when talking about these parts of their body.
  • Talk about the difference between “good touch vs. bad touch” with words and phrases your child can understand, including the term “sexual abuse”. If children are not taught about “sexual abuse”, how will they know how to tell you they were sexually abused?!
  • Teach your children to say “NO!” very loudly to anyone who wants or tries to touch their private parts in a way that makes the child feel confused or uncomfortable, or if asked to touch an offender in an inappropriate manner.
  • If your child does not want to hug or kiss grandma or grandpa, don’t force them to hug or kiss people they don’t want to. It’s sending the wrong message to children, and teaches kids to ignore their confusing or uncomfortable feelings to the point where they do it anyway.
  • Teach your children to tell you or an adult they trust if anybody touches their private parts or if they are touched in any way that makes them uncomfortable. (However, most children will not tell anyway). Don’t leave your child where you wouldn’t leave a bag with a million dollars in cash.

What To Do If Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused

  • Remember, the person who abuses a child is to blame for the abuse, not the child! The prognosis for healing after being molested is better for children who are supported and believed when they do disclose.
  • If your child tells you or even hints that he or she has been touched inappropriately, stay calm. Your reaction may make your child feel more guilty or afraid, and they might have a harder time talking about it.
  • Some things you can say that will help your child: I believe you. I know it’s not your fault. I will take care of you. You did nothing wrong. Tell your child that you are glad they told you about it.
  • Tell your child that you will take care of things, and that you will need to talk to someone to figure out what to do next. The biggest mistake a parent can make is not reporting sexual abuse to the authorities.
  • Don’t allow any further contact between your child and the alleged offender. Don’t confront the offender yourself.
  • Call your local child abuse hotline or local police department and report the abuse. Failing to report the abuse may mean that other children might get abused, too. Don’t try to handle the situation yourself.
  • The child has the opportunity to get justice. It gives them satisfaction. Prosecution helps make sure that the abuser cannot strike again.
  • Seek support and comfort for yourself where the child can’t see or hear what you say. In order to avoid confusion, anxiety or guilt, children should not overhear conversations about their disclosure. Too much information or discussion can also interfere with the police investigation or prosecution.

Further Reading:

Signs and Symptoms of Child Sexual Abuse
Identifying Characteristics and Behaviors of Child Molesters
Child Sexual Abuse: Facts vs. Myths
Launching the Child Safety and Child Sexual Abuse Series
Sexual Abuse Books-Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse-Healing Sexual Abuse

Were you a victim of sexual abuse, and have not yet disclosed that the abuse occurred? You are not alone. If you would like to share your personal story of abuse, you may do so by leaving a comment below. Finding the courage to speak out, telling perhaps for the very first time, is the first step towards healing the wounds. Even if you personally have not been sexually abused, but wish to convey your support and encouragement to victims and family members, please do leave a comment below.

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30 Responses to “Why Don’t Kids Tell? Talking to Your Children About Sexual Abuse”

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  1. Lin says:

    KT Mama, my heart goes out to you. As hard as it is to consider the possibility of your daughter having been abused, it’s important for her sake now and in the future that you do everything possible to find out the truth, put a stop to the abuse if it has occurred, reassuring your daughter that it’s not her fault and you believe and love her. Be very careful not to assume this is a case of sexual curiosity; 4 year old children don’t typically know about such things unless something has happened to create that curiosity. Finding out the what, where, when and how is crucial for her well-being. Hopefully your social worker friend will be able to help in this situation, and/or will be able to direct you towards someone experienced in sexual abuse cases to get to the bottom of it. Good luck K.T.

  2. Mary Wallace says:

    While I worry for your daughter, KT Mama, I also read somewhere about raising girls that there are a few moments when little ones are sexually precocious. The book I read was about raising daughters and their interactions with their dads, their not understanding how to act but trying to be mommy. Very uncomfortable stuff when I read it, little girls can sit on daddy’s lap and squirm around. My little one is now 10 and I talk explicitly with her about how her actions, and mine for that matter, are perceived . Its great to have sexual awareness but we don’t live in a world where its safe to express it without a good parent to look out for and protect you. So I’d call your pediatrician and ask for advice. It could be from overheard conversations, songs on the radio, TV, as well as abuse of some kind. Best wishes to you, my dear! You are wonderful for getting on this as quickly as you did!

  3. Emily says:

    I am a 23 year old woman and I have thought for years that my older brother had been abusing me when we were very young, but I have trouble remembering what really happened. Now I am worried that my niece, the Daughter of my brother, may be abused by him. Because her mother and father are no longer together, he has had Partial custody of her for years, and she has recently told her mom that she doesn’t want to go to her dads anymore, that they are mean to her and she always cries or becomes withdrawn when faced with a situation that involves him. Any advice on talking with her?

    I always thought that the things that happened when we were young were just because he was a sexually curious pre-teen. But now I wonder if this is an on-going problem, and I may be the only person who suspects a problem. I want to do what is best for my niece, but I am so afraid of causing major problems in my family

  4. Lin says:

    Hi Emily, this situation with your niece is obviously a difficult one, and I understand your fear of causing problems in the family by voicing your concerns.

    I’m not sure who you mean by “they are mean to her”, but I’m assuming you mean your brother has remarried and you mean your brother and his wife? I’m also not sure of your niece’s age, but I’m guessing she’s probably quite young.

    Getting a child to disclose any kind of abuse, especially sexual abuse, can be very difficult. The fact that your niece has mentioned to her mom that she doesn’t want to go to her dad’s anymore, that is in itself an opportunity to gently ask questions to help your niece talk about what things go on in the home that would make her not want to be there.

    Depending on her age, you and/or the mom could respond to her comments by asking her questions like “why don’t you want to go to your dads house?”, “Is there anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or confused when you’re there?” If so, What?

    Since I am not a child psychologist, but having been a victim myself as a child, I know there are a number of books written for children that help them realize the words to use to describe if they’ve been sexually abused. I’ve seen coloring books for children that talk about sexual abuse in a way that helps them know how to tell if they’ve been abused. I just haven’t seen any reports or studies as to whether these books and coloring books have been proven to help get kids to tell/disclose or not. But they’re definitely worth a try. If nothing else, perhaps a child/family counselor may be able to help determine if there is reason for concern and may be able to help in getting your niece to clearly express why she doesn’t want to go to her dad’s. I wish you and your niece much luck, and hopefully it won’t be what you’re suspecting.

  5. Lin says:

    Emily, I did some quick searching and I’ve got a link for you to help direct you towards books and coloring books etc that can help you and your niece determine what is going on for sure, and if necessary help your niece talk about and tell what is going on in her dad’s home.

    Books to help children talk about being abused

  6. Emily says:

    Thanks for your response. I feel like I now have a lot of ideas for ways to talk with her about some of the emotions she is having, and what I can do to help. The link you gave me had a lot of books and resources, which I didn’t know were available.

    She is only 10 years old, but has already begun puberty. I think that could explain some of the mood swings and emotional sensitivity. Her dads home situation includes his step-wife (who is extremely ‘abrasive’ and even offends many adult members of our family) as well as a younger half-brother, 3 years old, who loves her dearly and enjoys her company.

    Thanks for your help. I hope I will be able to do the right thing for everyone involved.

  7. Dom says:

    hi there

    i was sexually, physically, amotionally, and verbally abused, by my mothers ex husband from the age of 5 to 11. he also told me that if i told anyone, he would kill my mom, and since she was my only parent (i didn’t know my dad) i was terrified, and i did not want to be the cause for my mother dyin. i am 21 this year, and it still haunts me to this day, some days i feel like that little girl again, and i just wanna hide. the man that did this to me did it to my younger brother as well, and today he is an aggresive young 16 y.o teenager, filled with anger. my dream is to become a child psychologist, as i feel that i would be able to make a difference in other children and their parents lives, but i dont have the finances… i have experienced many days where i feel i would love to dye, just end it all, but my mom was my motivation to live… i had a nervous breakdown at the age of 19. so practically my whole life has been one big roller coaster. but i look at it this way, i went thru that experience for a reason, so that i one day can help children that went thru the same thing. i love kids, and want to have my own one day… but i just wanna say, that it does get better with time. sure i have my off days, no doubt… but i am determined to make this work for the better…
    thank you for a great website, i received a lot of usefull info that i will be using to help my young brother cope with his stress in life.

  8. Mary Wallace says:

    Dom,
    you are so brave. Thank you for saying your story. That’s the hardest part! Now you can live with what is. Of course you sometimes breakdown, its your body protecting itself. You can break open instead of breaking down, but you have to break down first because so much of what you went thru involved abuse and fear of speaking. I love you and wish you well. Your brother too. By saying what happened to you two, you help others help him. There is ALWAYS a reason when teens act out. Its our job as community to help the kid, not punish him or her. Love you.

  9. Lin says:

    Dom, talking about what happened to you is an important step in recovery and healing the wounds, and I thank you for speaking out.

    It really does get better with time, and helping others deal with their feelings, emotions and memories of sexual abuse, molestation or rape does a lot to help both the “helper” and the “helpee”. Talking with people who understand, have been through it themselves and can empathize with your feelings is a great help in healing. Thank you for sharing your story Dom. It’s understandable that you would have some dark days, but remember those dark days will lessen with time and diminish to the point where the memory is just a memory and not something that creates constant havoc on your heart and emotions throughout your life. There really is life after abuse.

  10. Keith Smith says:

    I was abducted, beaten and raped by a stranger. It wasn’t a neighbor, a coach, a relative, a family friend or teacher. It was a recidivist pedophile predator who spent time in prison for previous sex crimes; an animal hunting for victims in the quiet, bucolic, suburban neighborhoods of Lincoln, Rhode Island.

    I was able to identify the guy and the car he was driving. Although he was arrested that night and indicted a few months later, he never went to trial. His trial never took place because he was brutally beaten to death in Providence before his court date. 34 years later, no one has ever been charged with the crime.

    In the time between the night of my assault and the night he was murdered, I lived in fear. I was afraid he was still around town. Afraid he was looking for me. Afraid he would track me down and kill me. The fear didn’t go away when he was murdered. Although he was no longer a threat, the simple life and innocence of a 14-year-old boy was gone forever. Carefree childhood thoughts replaced with the unrelenting realization that my world wasn’t a safe place. My peace shattered by a horrific criminal act of sexual violence.

    Over the past 34 years, I’ve been haunted by horrible, recurring memories of what he did to me. He visits me in my sleep. There have been dreams–nightmares actually–dozens of them, sweat inducing, yelling-in-my-sleep nightmares filled with images and emotions as real as they were when it actually happened. It doesn’t get easier over time. Long dead, he still visits me, silently sneaking up from out of nowhere when I least expect it. From the grave, he sits by my side on the couch every time the evening news reports a child abduction or sex crime. I don’t watch America’s Most Wanted or Law and Order SVU, because the stories are a catalyst, triggering long suppressed emotions, feelings, memories, fear and horror. Real life horror stories rip painful suppressed memories out from where they hide, from that recessed place in my brain that stores dark, dangerous, horrible memories. It happened when William Bonin confessed to abducting, raping and murdering 14 boys in California; when Jesse Timmendequas raped and murdered Megan Kanka in New Jersey; when Ben Ownby, missing for four days, and Shawn Hornbeck, missing for four years, were recovered in Missouri.

    Despite what happened that night and the constant reminders that continue to haunt me years later, I wouldn’t change what happened. The animal that attacked me was a serial predator, a violent pedophile trolling my neighborhood in Lincoln, Rhode Island looking for young boys. He beat me, raped me, and I stayed alive. I lived to see him arrested, indicted and murdered. It might not have turned out this way if he had grabbed one of my friends or another kid from my neighborhood. Perhaps he’d still be alive. Perhaps there would be dozens of more victims and perhaps he would have progressed to the point of silencing his victims by murdering them.

    Out of fear, shame and guilt, I’ve been silent for over three decades, not sharing with anyone the story of what happened to me. No more. The silence has to end. The fear, the shame, the guilt have to go. It’s time to stop keeping this secret from the people closest to me, people I care about, people I love, my long-time friends and my family. It’s time to speak out to raise public awareness of male sexual assault, to let other victims know that they’re not alone and to help victims of rape and violent crime understand that the emotion, fear and memories that may still haunt them are not uncommon to those of us who have shared a similar experience.

    For those who suffer in silence, I hope my story brings strength, comfort, peace and hope.

    My novel, Men in My Town, is based on these actual events.

    Men in My Town is available now at Amazon.com

    • Lin says:

      Keith,

      Thank you for speaking out and telling your personal story of having been sexually abused. I took a quick peek at your site and the book you’ve written about your experience, and I’ll be looking at it more indepth very soon.

      Victims of sexual abuse don’t tell because of FEAR, but it’s soooo important for victims to tell someone trustworthy and keep on telling to get the help that is needed.

      Children, teens/tweens and adult victims……… TELL someone about what is or has happened to you!

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