Skip to main navigation Skip to main content
Up-to-date information on how we are responding to COVID-19
Stay informed

Talking with the parent after their child has disclosed abuse

Attention

For children, one of the most important aspects to their recovery is their parents believing them. For for parents, the process of taking a position of belief can be lengthy and complicated.

When you meet with a parent to discuss Child Safety’s worries, you are providing them with information that may change their perception of themselves, their child and the community.  Parents rarely respond to allegations or disclosures of sexual abuse with unequivocal belief or disbelief, rather their responses could most accurately be described as moving along a continuum of belief, which may fluctuate due to external and internal influences (Humphreys, C (1992) and Christensen, G. & Cramer, H. (2002).

A child’s disclosure of abuse is likely to be challenging and emotional for practitioners and the parent. At times it may seem as though the needs of the parent and the child are conflicting and this can be challenging for practitioners. Prepare for your conversation with the parent through supervision, role playing and/or practicing with colleague/s or your supervisor. This also helps avoid the use of jargon or bureaucratic language which can distance both practitioners and the parent from the child’s experience.

Practitioners will need to work to keep the child safe while decisions around case direction are made, for example, deciding if the child is returned home to the parent or the alleged abuser or offender. The child’s safety is always the most important decision making criterion. Some important questions to answer include:

  • Who will tell the parent that the child has disclosed sexual abuse? Note: the child should never be left to tell their parent about the abuse.
  • Is the parent able to keep the child safe? What information does the parent need to be able to keep the child safe?
  • How is contact between the child and the alleged abuser or offender managed?
  • How are we assessing the risk to the child’s siblings?

Supporting the parent (after their child’s disclosure)

The best way of understanding how a parent is experiencing and responding to information is to notice their emotional responses and talk to them about it. Children who receive a supportive response from their parent are better able to respond to interviews and give evidence in court as well as have better recovery experience (Eastwood, 2003; Cossins, 2002).  A parent who receives a supportive response from the practitioners and supports around them are far more able to respond supportively to their child.

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas

Explain the way that alleged abusers or offenders purposely aim to silence a child and prevent adults from seeing the abuse, and are very skilled at this process. 

Be very clear that the abuse is not the parent’s fault.

“Sexual abuse happens because the person who sexually abuses children works very hard to stop [child] telling anyone and to stop the parent from noticing the abuse.  [alleged abuser or offender] chose to abuse [the child]; they are responsible not you or the child.”

“Children can be made to feel very scared to talk about their sexual abuse which is why they are not able to tell their parents.  [alleged abuser or offender] tell children a range of things to keep them quiet/stop them telling about the abuse.”

Acknowledge and normalise doubt:

  • stay calm
  • provide consistent, factual and clear information
  • use OARS (open ended questions, affirmations, reflection and summary) in your work with parents
  • look for belief
  • consistently state that you believe the child even though you can also understand the parent’s difficulty believing
  • prepare the parent for times when they may struggle most to believe.

“There might be times when you believe 100 per cent that the [alleged abuser or offender] has sexually abused [the child]. There might be other times when it might be more difficult. What do you think you might need during those times?”

“Sometimes parents can feel quite upset with their child about what they have said and upset that people like me are becoming involved with their family. What do you think you can do if you have these feelings?”

Ask the parent how child sexual abuse would have been dealt with in their extended family, home country, town, culture or religious community.

  • Acknowledge any differences.
  • Provide information on the Australian legal and child protection system.
Discuss and plan for the impact of the abuse allegations on the parent’s connection to their extended family or community.
“It sounds as though this would have been a family issue and [alleged abuser or offender] would have been kept within the family. I can imagine then it is really hard to be talking about this issue with people like me. How do you think your family will respond to [alleged abuser or offender’s] abuse of [child]?”

Attention

Children who disclose sexual abuse may at a later stage retract or recant their statements. For further guidance on supporting a child and parent when a child recants their disclosure, read read ‘Recantation’ in the part Understanding indicators of child sexual abuse and barriers to disclosure.

Preparing the parent for the next steps

It is useful to prepare the parent for common behavioural responses in their child and the alleged abuser or offender to help them manage these effectively. By providing the parent with information about what to expect next, you are helping to manage their stress and anxiety and supporting them to support their child.

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas

The guidelines around what the parent and siblings can say to the child will change according to the circumstances.

Generally, the guidance is:

  • parents should not ask children directly about the abuse
  • if the child starts to talk about the abuse, parents should listen and show the child they care, but not ask questions
  • parents should try to avoid ‘why’ questions if possible because they can come across as blaming the child. For example, ‘why didn’t you tell me?'
  • parents can and should talk to children about how they are feeling and offer them support.

“What do you think [child] needs from you tonight?”

“You will probably have lots of questions and feelings. How do you think you will manage all these questions and thoughts while you are caring for the child/children tonight?”

“It is really important that you talk to [child] about how they are feeling and let them know that you care about them and will keep them safe. Avoid pressuring the [child] to talk about the abuse or asking them lots of detailed questions.”

Practice prompt

These guidelines can be very difficult for family members to follow. Explain the reasons for these guidelines clearly with the parent, and empathise with the parent’s desire to know as much information as possible about what has happened to their child.

Practice considerations

Conversation ideas
Provide the parent with information about what is likely to happen to the alleged abuser or offender. If you don’t know, contact the parent as quickly as possible with this information.

“The police are deciding if they will interview [alleged abuser or offender] over the next few days. They have asked that you don’t speak to [alleged abuser or offender] over the weekend.”

Provide the parent with ideas for what they can say to the child’s brothers or sisters.

Consider:

  • what support the parent may need to talk to the siblings
  • the age / developmental stage of the sibling/s and how much they should be told
  • the child’s wishes about how much should be said to their siblings
  • the siblings’ relationship with the alleged abuser or offender and how this could impact on their responses.

“How do your children generally respond when there is stress in the family? What do you need to be able to support them as well as [child]?”

“How do the other children get along with [child]? What do they tend to do or say if they are upset?”

“How do the children get along with [alleged abuser or offender]? How do you think they will respond when you tell them what has happened? How do you think they will cope with him moving out?”

“I am sure your other children will be wondering what has happened today and why everyone is so upset. We need to figure out together how they should be told and how much they should be told. How much do you think your other children should be told? What do you think they need to know? Why do they need to know that?”
Prepare the parent for possible disclosures from other children in the home.

“Sometimes when one child starts to talk about their abuse, other children also start to speak out. It is important that you don’t question your children about the abuse but if they start to speak out, listen if you are able or else contact me and I will help. The police might also want to speak to your other children. If possible, I will let you know if this is going to happen.”

Provide ideas for how the parent can support the child including:

  • that they don’t have to believe that the abuse occurred to show empathy and understanding for their child
  • ideas for how they may show empathy for their child
  • ideas for how they might manage their strong emotions while parenting the child (and other children).
“Sometimes parents can have a real mix of emotions after they have been told about this kind of abuse. How are you feeling at the moment? What do you think would help you with those feelings when you are caring for [child] over the weekend?”

Connect the parent to:

  • people within their safety and support networks who are safe people
  • counselling supports and services as quickly as possible. Crisis services can provide support while the referral is talking place.
“This information is probably incredibly hard to process. Is there anyone you can talk to this weekend? How do you think they will respond to this information?”

Prepare the parent for:

  • the alleged abuser or offender to attempt to discredit the child and sabotage the evidence
  • the child’s behaviour to escalate or for the child to become withdrawn
  • the child to change and retract their disclosure (research says this is particularly common for children who have been abused by a close family member and have not been believed).

“The [alleged abuser or offender] will probably want to give you their version of events. People who abuse children will try to do and say things to make you question your child and disbelieve them.”

“Often, children take back their disclosure and tell parents that it never happened, because it is just too painful for everyone. That doesn’t mean the sexual abuse didn’t happen. Kids rarely lie about being sexually abused.”

Practice prompt

It can be helpful to share research with parents so they understand why they or their child is feeling or acting a certain way. For example, saying to the parent “We know that children rarely lie about being sexually abused. It is actually more common for children to deny that they have been abused or to say that it wasn’t that bad”.

If work has been undertaken with a child and family and case closure is recommended, close the case only after a suitable safety and support network has been established for the child and parent that will continue to be present in the child’s life. While a parent may initially believe the child and may ask the alleged abuser or offender to leave the home, they may struggle to maintain the safety measures you have put in place due to a range of stressors and the reactions of the alleged abuser or offender, community members and the child.

Version history

Back to top

Published on:

Last reviewed:

  • Date: 
    Page created
  • Date: 
    Page created