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.