Parents can be a strength and support for their child. It is key to be protective, patient, nurturing, consistent and informed. The most important messages to continue to reinforce to the child is that it is not their fault — that their parent believes them, will do everything in their power to keep them safe and that they are not alone in their experiences.
Knowing whether a child is experiencing grief or trauma
Feelings around grief and trauma are seldom linear: it is very common for children to experience many ups and downs. It is important parents remain patient and supportive as their child experiences these ups and downs.
A child may have behaviours in response to a recent event or an incident that happened years ago. It is key to notice behaviours that a child may be presenting that are outside of their normal behaviour. It is important, to look for a noticeable increase or decrease in intensity of behaviour. For example if the child is acting out more than normal or has become withdrawn and is not interacting like they usually do, these are behavioural changes to pay attention to.
Children tend to express their feelings at different times, so it is important to keep the conversation open. When things that cause concern are noticed, pay attention to them and let the child talk as things come up. This should be an ongoing conversation.
What to do if the child is traumatized
When a child is traumatized, they need to know they are not alone in how they are feeling — other children and people have experienced these same feelings. Accessing both formal and informal support can help a child feel like they are not alone and that hope and healing are possible.
Traumatized children need a safe space where they can express what they are feeling in a child-friendly way (such as through art or play) and know that they will be supported and cared for. They need to know that intense emotions are normal and they need to be given space to express and talk about what they are feeling. They need space to heal. Because every child has a different healing journey, they need the time to make sense of what happened to them and what it means, and begin healing.
Responding to a child’s feelings in an age-appropriate way
Talking to a child at a level they understand involves both the wording used, and the information shared. The focus should be on the needs and worries of the child and what is important to them. When answering a child’s questions or talking to them about their feelings, it is important to seek to understand why they are asking questions and where their feelings are coming from. Children are often concerned about who will take care of them, and wonder if they safe and what will happen to them now. Focusing responses on what the child needs will help answer questions in an age-appropriate way.
Responding to a child’s needs while going through an abuse healing journey of one’s own
Every person is different. A child will not necessarily respond the same way as a parent did as a child. It is key that a parent recognize their own reactions and that they also allow their child to express their own unique reactions.
It is normal for a parent who has experienced abuse to be triggered by their child’s disclosure. Feelings of anxiety, guilt, fear, powerlessness, helplessness, worry, sadness, anger or denial may be present. No matter how long ago a parent experienced abuse, there can still be painful memories and feelings.
A parent will be a much better support for their child if they are also supporting their own needs. Parents do not have to go through this alone. There are many supports available in the community to help parents move towards hope and healing. For information about different supports available, feel free to contact the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre Victim Support Program at 403.428.5408.
How to help now if a child talks about something that happened several years ago
Parents can support their child no matter when theytalk about a situation. Parents can start by expressing that they are glad the child spoke up and assuring them that they are not being thought about differently.
It often takes a lot of courage for children to speak about abuse that has happened to them and sometimes this takes years to do. That is why it is important for parents to commend their courage and express being honoured that they have been told. Many parents experience feelings of guilt and confusion when they find out about abuse their child experienced a long time ago, and feel like they should have or could have done something to prevent the abuse from happening. It is important to remember that just like a parents tell their child, this was not the parent’s fault.
What to believe if a child says they were sexually abuse, but later says it didn’t happen
It is not uncommon for children to make a disclosure and then take it back. It is important for parents to know that children rarely lie about sexual abuse. They are more likely to deny something than to make something up.
Children tend to remember details in little spurts. They are often good at regulating their emotions and will only let out as much as they can handle at any given time. There are many reasons why children make a disclosure and then state it did not happen.
It is important to be very supportive of the child and to assure them that it is never okay for someone to touch them or do anything to them that they are uncomfortable with. Children should be encouraged to identify adults in their life in addition to parents, who provide them a safe place to talk and be heard.
Parents and caregivers should be careful not to pressure children into telling the “real story.” Sometimes children are not able to or are not ready to tell what happened. Patience and understanding is so important.