Parents: How to Receive and Respond to a Disclosure of Sexual Assault

April 19, 2022

Receiving your child’s disclosure of sexual assault is likely one of the most tragic and gut-wrenching moments of your life. It is the conversation that no parent wants, and yet one that every parent must be prepared for. Below, we lay out what to keep in mind when having this conversation and what to say each step of the way. We will refer to these moving forward as the A.B.L.L.E.TM phrases.

Affirm them

In the seconds after their disclosure, first and foremost remind your child of your love for them. Survivors of sexual assault can feel they are no longer worthy of love, especially from their parents. Our job as parents is to refute this thinking. Our children are still very much worthy of love, and the words we use in those first few moments can begin to convey this.

Phrases to use: “I am so very sorry that happened to you.” “I love you.” “I am here for you.” 

Believe them

Demonstrating to survivors that we believe what they are telling us about their assault is crucial to establishing trust and opening the door for continued conversation. The details may be fuzzy when your child is recounting to you what happened. What they tell you may not all add up, likely because they are in shock or are struggling to remember themselves. This is okay, and completely normal. You do not need to piece together every detail of their assault. You simply need to believe what they tell you and show them as much.

Phrases to use: “I believe you.” “This is not your fault.”  “You did not deserve this.” “I’m proud of you for telling me. I know it’s difficult.”

Let them lead the conversation

To feel safe, your child will likely need to feel that they are in control. By letting them lead the conversation, you are demonstrating that you are there for them and that you are ready to support them in the ways they need most. The agenda for a conversation about an assault is not yours, it is the survivor’s. The same rule of thumb applies to offering help. Offer what the survivor needs, not what you think would help. A good practice is to ask the survivor directly for what they need and allow them to identify the ways you can help them.

Phrases to use: “I know this is hard. You can tell me when you’re ready.” “Do you want to take a breath before you tell me more?” “How can I help you?” “Would it be helpful if I stayed in your room tonight?”

Listen to them

Above all, listen to and acknowledge what your child is saying. They are entrusting you with their well-being when they are at their most vulnerable. Don’t feel the need to fill the silence or manage pauses. Sit with your child and demonstrate that you are there for them when they have something to say and when they don’t. Sometimes, silence can be more powerful than words.

Phrases to use: “Thank you for telling me that.” “You are so brave for sharing this with me.” “If it helps, I can just sit here with you.”

Extend only what you can

Be mindful of what you say to provide comfort to your child. It can be tempting to assure your child of things that are out of your control, and, out of the capabilities of the legal system. You can assure them that there will be a time when things don’t feel as painful. 

Be wary of comments that can be perceived as minimizing a child’s experience. Instead, promise only what you can guarantee. For instance, though you can’t predict how your child will get through their recovery, you can promise that you will be there for them so they don’t have to go it alone. The message here is that the survivor is not alone. They have in you someone who loves them dearly, a partner, cheerleader, and will advocate for the journey ahead.

Phrases to use: You may be feeling really scared right now. I am here with you.” “We are going to get through this together.”

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