Teresa (not her real name) never thought it would happen to her.
One of her children, the middle of five, caused a seismic shift in the landscape of their family when she haltingly disclosed that her daddy was molesting her. Of course, her daughter didn’t use the word molestation; she was 9.
Teresa remembers stirring a soup she was making for dinner – she’d just added a pinch more salt – when Libby made what seemed to be an offhand statement that turned Teresa icy cold.
The spoon halted above the pot as she froze, not believing what her ears just heard.
It’s funny how a moment in time can be arrested like that. Hands shaking, she turned off the burner, put the spoon down and turned to her daughter.
Huge eyes implored hers. Teresa pulled Libby into a hug while thoughts careened off one another.
“Oh. My. God. My husband. Our daughter. Please don’t let this be happening. What do I say? What do I do?”
She led Libby out onto the patio away from the other children, composing herself as they walked. They sat down, knees touching, on the bench.
“Tell me about it, honey,” she said as evenly as she could, holding both Libby’s hands.
If the unthinkable happens to you, and your child trusts you with their secret, how you respond will make a huge difference in their emotional equilibrium and their ability to heal. Here are nine actions to help guide you:
You will feel anything but calm or steady. That’s normal. But your child will be watching closely. If you show your turmoil, they will assume you’re angry with them, not the person who did this to them.
Your child trusts you fully to have told you. The majority of children don’t disclose. Tell them you believe them and that you’ll keep believing them.
It is never, ever a child’s fault. Make sure they know you firmly believe that. The child is not to blame.
They may feel ashamed or guilty or somehow responsible. Assure them they did nothing wrong and are doing no wrong now by talking to you.
Assure them you understand how hard telling you must have been, but that they did the right thing. Absolutely, totally the right thing. Say it more than once.
They’ll be worried about how their disclosure impacts the family. Telling them “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” is better than making a statement or promise you cannot keep, such as keeping their disclosure a secret.
This will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. If you must, ask gentle questions for clarification but don’t press them for details.
If they need to stop for a while, let them. Assure them you’ll listen when they’re ready to talk again. As one well-known family therapist put it, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”
Later, out of your child’s presence, contact those who can help you and your child through. Do it that day, if possible. If not, do it as soon as possible.
You wouldn’t tell a 4-year-old what you would say to your teenager. Be truthful with your other children about what has happened.
Teresa got the children fed and settled for the evening, although she can’t remember how. She walked into the study, quietly closed the door and slid to the floor.
Shaking with silent sobs, she wondered how this could have happened? How could a mother not know? How could the man she loved and had five children with do this?
She was furious, feeling utterly betrayed and unbearably sad.
She called Child Protective Services and then phoned her husband. In a low voice vibrating with rage, she hurled every disgusting word she could think of at him for what he did to Libby and told him if he stepped foot on their property, she’d call the police.
She hung up after telling him to expect a visit from Child Protective Services and walked unsteadily to the bathroom where she threw up.
Composing herself as best she could, she asked her oldest daughter to put the younger ones to bed and tucked Libby in herself, reminding her how much she loved her and how she would do her best to protect her now.
Teresa’s response to Libby, in believing her, was the first step to Libby’s healing. Establishing safety within the home was the next.
None of this is anything but awful, but given her mom’s initial response and unflagging support going forward, Libby has a good chance at emotional health as a teenager and young adult.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly series by Laura Landgraf on sexual abuse. The previous articles are:
Laura Landgraf, author of “The Fifth Sister,” is a social activist, retreat leader and motivational speaker. Her TEDx Talk is “Razed by Lions: A New Way to Think about Healing after Trauma.”