How To Talk To An Abused Child


Children trapped in an abusive environment can't escape it on their own, they need external help - but they can't ask for it directly, the way adults do. First, people around them don't usually talk about abuse, so the child doesn't want to be ridiculed or punished for bringing it up; for all they know, abuse could be something that happens in every family. Second, even if they know that abuse is wrong, they are likely to think it's their fault, and worry about getting punished for causing it - or not wish to betray their parents. That's why abused children often skirt the issue, saying a little and watching for your reaction, to decide if they can say a bit more or if it's best to drop the subject. They need to see that the topic is OK with you, that you care enough to listen, won't punish or ridicule them, that you don't seem uncomfortable, angry, or scared, and won't jump to action before understanding what's going on. There's a lot of literature on noticing red flags and alerting authorities, but very little on how to communicate with the child who is reaching out for help. Many of us at Fort were abused as children, and tried to talk to adults about it, but didn't receive the response we needed and dropped the subject before the adult understood that we were reaching out for help. We hope that our perspective might help you avoid common pitfalls, so that the child who is reaching out to you will get the help they need.

Notice the start of the conversation

Most children don't ask for help directly, but give subtle cues, in hopes that you would notice something is wrong and ask them about it. For example, they used to visit their grandpa every weekend without a problem, and now all of a sudden they won't go, won't say why, and avoid eye contact. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are being abused, but you need to ask them what's wrong. They are waiting for you to initiate this conversation, to offer them your full attention and privacy. If you can't do it right now, just say "let's talk about it tomorrow/next Tuesday/etc," but don't forget to bring it up when you promised to.

Assure the child it's OK to talk

Young children believe that everything happens because of them; it's a developmental stage, just how their mind works. For example, if mom takes drugs - they believe that they're causing it somehow, that it's their fault. Telling them it's not their fault might or might not help, depending on their age, because you'd be contradicting a core belief they might not be capable of reconsidering yet. They might feel that you don't know what you're talking about, and that once you hear the whole story you'll change your mind and agree that it's indeed their fault. Abused children are usually threatened with punishment (or even death) if they break the secret, and might be unsure if they need to only fear their parent, or you as well. That's why you need to clearly tell the child that you won't punish them for speaking, no matter what you hear, and no matter whose fault it is.

Stay calm

However outrageous the child's story is, it's news only to you. Child abuse doesn't start overnight; the child you're talking to was living in this same environment yesterday and the day before, it's their everyday reality. If you appear more upset by it than they themselves are, e.g. if you start crying, screaming, hyperventilating, calling 911 before hearing the rest of the story - they'll drop the subject and won't raise it again. It's upsetting to discover that a child you know is being abused, and you need support to process the news - but you should seek it elsewhere. This child has enough on their plate as it is and can't be burdened with comforting you. You're supposed to be helping them, not vice versa.

Be honest

Of course you wouldn't lie for malicious reasons, but you might promise the child to keep a secret and then break this promise to talk to law enforcement, or you might tell the child that the same thing has happened to you - and if it's not true they'll know it. Abused children are very sensitive to these things because they have already been betrayed by an adult. If you lie to them, you'll be the second adult to betray them. It's likely that they'll quit trying, and will draw very inaccurate conclusions about adults, or trustworthiness of people overall. It's OK if you don't understand what the child is saying, if you don't know how to help, if you don't believe them, even if you plain don't care - but they need to be sure that you'll do what you said you would, and won't do what you said you wouldn't. Ability to trust people, their predictability, is the most important thing any abused child needs.

Don't lead

The first conversation about abuse will take time because the child can't make sense of their experience and put it into words. Be patient, and never "help" the child by asking yes/no questions to confirm or rule out your assumptions. For example, don't ask them if they are being abused - they aren't sure how to define their experience, that's why they are talking to you. Don't ask "does dad touch you," that's confusing to the child: of course he does, they live in the same household, it's hard to avoid bumping elbows occasionally. The child isn't sure how to respond, senses that you're looking for a "yes" and gives it to you because it's true, they do bump elbows. In reality the problem could have been neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse by an older sibling, or something other than abuse. The child came to you with one problem, and left with two: from now on, in addition to dealing with the original issue, they will also be wondering if their dad could be a pedophile.

Ask open questions

To avoid the above scenario, ask open questions about what the child has already said. For example, if they said "I don't want to go home," ask "why not". If they said "because mom will be mad," ask "why would she be mad" or "what does she do when she's mad." If the child won't say what she does specifically - don't pressure, just continue the conversation; for example, ask how the child feels about the things mom does when mad, if those things leave any marks, or what does auntie do when mom is doing those things. Be aware of the child's limitations; for example, they can't say if something happens "often" or "rarely", it's a very subjective thing even for adults. Ask instead if it happened more than once, most days, every weekend, etc. However, don't disrespect the child by baby-talk, e.g. calling a bruise a "boo boo". Use correct and clear terms, it reassures the child that the topic isn't taboo, that something like this has happened before to other kids, and that the adults understand what it is and know how to handle it.

Know where to stop

Your job isn't to single-handedly resolve the problem, but only to figure out what it is. Once you did - stop pushing the child for details, especially if they don't want to volunteer more information. You don't need to know how many times or in which specific way their uncle molested them: child protective services will ask them all about it, then law enforcement will ask them about it a few times more, and then a therapist will encourage them to talk about it for a few months. Respect the child's privacy, don't subject them to more intrusive questions than necessary. Put yourself in their shoes: when you're buying condoms, you wouldn't want the cashier questioning you about whom you plan to engage in sex with, when, where, and in which position. When you're talking to an abused child, idle curiosity is just as inappropriate.

Avoid judgment

Be careful about criticizing the child's parent. Young children don't understand and can't cope with ambivalence, i.e. that the same person/object/event can have both positive and negative characteristics at once; they perceive things and people as all-good or all-bad. To a young child a parent is someone they love (or supposed to love) and depend on for life, someone who has absolute power over them. Telling them that this person is bad causes cognitive dissonance that can be even more traumatic than the abuse itself. Instead of offering such labels, just state the facts. For example, "sometimes dads get mad at their kids," "some kids get hurt by their grandmas," "it's scary when your mom yells," etc. These things might be obvious to you - but they aren't obvious to the child, and you need to voice them. The main reason the child is disclosing their circumstances to you is because they can't make sense of what's going on. The above basics help them with it.

Voice your plans

When children disclose abuse, they expect an immediate resolution, that something would change the minute they speak up. In reality the change won't be immediate, so you need to tell the child what the plan is, to keep them in the loop. It often happens that a child discloses abuse to an adult, the adult nods and says "thanks for letting me know," calls CPS, CPS interviews the child - and the child denies all allegations. It might seem strange, but actually makes sense: they disclosed abuse once, it was hard and didn't help any, so they don't want to go through that ordeal again and tell CPS everything is fine. To prevent this scenario, you need to tell the child what are you planning to do about what you heard. It's perfectly fine to tell them that you aren't sure how to help and will google it, or that you can't help them but will give them a phone number of someone who will. The important part is letting them know what the next step is, so that they know that the issue is being worked on, that there will be a follow-up on this conversation.

Talk to the authorities, not the alleged abuser

For many people, the natural response to child abuse disclosures is to confront the abuser. It's a very bad idea: if the child really is being abused, the abuser will punish him/her for talking, and start covering their tracks better. For example, they might take the child out of school or forbid him/her to visit your house. You have no authority to intervene on these choices and won't intimidate the adult into treating their child better. Besides, what the child has told you could be just the tip of the iceberg, they might be in a lot more danger than you realize. Don't jeopardize their safety by confronting their abuser. Instead, alert the authorities; in many jurisdictions you're legally obligated to do so. Let the professionals handle the confrontation: they're trained, and have the power to fix the problem, e.g. require the abuser to take parenting classes, remove the child from the household, or enforce whatever other solution applicable.

Be sober

Many people feel that removing the child from abusive environment is the only goal to aim for. That's not a realistic approach. According to Child Maltreatment 2015 report, 42.8% of reports to child protective services aren't investigated, 82% aren't substantiated (i.e. CPS found no evidence of abuse upon investigation), and only 4% of those that are substantiated result in the removal of the child. This means that the child you're talking to will likely end up staying where they are (98.6% probability). Of course you shouldn't give up hope, you need to keep trying to help the child beat these odds, if you feel they are in danger. However, it can take months or even years, during which time the child will likely remain in their current environment. Getting them removed can be your ultimate goal, but please don't neglect intermediate goals too; help the child in the here and now, don't leave them hanging while the issue is being worked on.

Offer practical help

When people hear of child abuse, they usually focus on the actions of the adult: if what they did qualifies as a crime, if there's enough evidence to prosecute it, etc. However, it's just as important to focus on the child's needs. For example, if their mom rarely provides food - it means that they're often hungry, so, aside from reporting mom for neglect, you need to help the child find an alternative food source. See if the child you're talking to needs medical attention, a place to call or run to when they feel they are in danger, warm clothing, food, etc. Keep in mind that young children might not know what their needs are, so you should offer these options rather than wait till the child asks for help directly. Any abused child could use a hotline number, an address of a local crisis center (especially if they mention thoughts of harming themselves), and an invitation to drop by your place whenever they need help.

Be there

Children who were abused but had adequate support to process this trauma recover from it much faster than children who didn't have such support. You can't replace a parent to this child - and you shouldn't be assuming that role - but the best thing you can offer them is simply your presence in their life as a stable healthy adult, acting like adults normally do, so that the child can see that not all adults are abusers (or enablers). Just stay in touch with them: ask them about school, offer to play chess once in a while, teach them how to crochet, how to fix their broken bike, or simply invite them for a cup of tea. This maintains open lines of communication, so that if they need to talk about abuse again (e.g. if they are having nightmares about it) - they'll know they can talk to you. By the same token, variety of topics they can discuss with you shows them that abuse is one of the aspects of their life, not a stand-alone issue that's separate from everything else, which helps them integrate, process, and heal from experience rather than repress it (which will cause problems later on in life).