Parent24 talked to Educational Psychologist and Counsellor Kristen Strahlendorf, from the Family Tree Therapy Center, to unpack her thoughts and share some tips to assist parents and teachers who are supporting a child who has been sexually assaulted.
While parents and teachers might want to quickly handle the issue and help the child, the trauma of being sexually assaulted may have a long-lasting impact on one's life.
"Even though some of the victims think they may have healed from this ordeal, it may just take a small trigger of that memory to propel one into an emotional spiral," reveals Strahlendorf.
As much as we would like the victims to find their voice and speak out about what had happened, it is not always easy to do so, she explains, as this may trigger certain emotions that the victim may have suppressed within.
Some victims may feel that speaking about what had happened may not help, and hence keep their experience a secret.
As painful as it is to receive the news that your child has been molested, whether by a stranger, a relative or a person they trusted, it is not easy for a parent to accept such a situation and hence they may be in denial, says Strahlendorf.
Strahlendorf tells us that in her experience, adults who opened up about their childhood traumas would say that they did not voice their concerns then because:
"A parent would have been ashamed and possibly beat them, and that their parent(s) would not have believed them."
"Other thoughts around voicing these concerns relate to breaking the family unit from this stigma. Therefore, I decided not to speak. But as parents that is not what we want, we want our children to know that we trust them and that we love them.
"...it is difficult to understand when as parents, we may not comprehend the aspect of sexual assault and trauma."
Below, she shares the process to follow and how to handle a situation like this after finding out that a child has suffered a sexual assault.
Strahlendorf tells us that when the child comes forward to report to their teacher or parent what has happened to them – they are in a scared and vulnerable state. They may feel that no one will believe them, she says.
"Understandably so," she adds, "teachers are not well equipped to deal with such a situation, sometimes they are caught off-guard and they react negatively or in shock. The teacher needs to appreciate that the child has entrusted them enough to tell them what happened."
Teachers should reassure the child, in that they will get someone who is experienced to help them deal with such a situation confidentially. People that can assist the teacher are the School Psychologist or Counsellor and/or Principal.
The teacher can reassure the child that they can continue to speak to them about anything so that the child knows that they have someone willing to listen to them and who they can trust.
Reporting is especially important to help the child to get assistance and support, as well as to protect the child from future harm.
If you suspect or know of a child being abused, it needs to be reported to the parents and the police immediately.
Teachers can ask the School Psychologist or Counsellor, and if the School has no Counsellor, they need to disclose this to the Principal for action.
In cases where minors are involved it’s especially important to notify the parents of what happened.
Strahlendorf says the adults should work to find out where this behaviour comes from. Have they seen this somewhere, are they exploring this?
Therapy and psycho-education is essential.
This is a form of reporting as children of different ages are handled differently in the eyes of the law.
Timely reporting is crucial
When sexual abuse is reported too late the evidence is no longer concrete and the police may not find relevant evidence to aid your case.
The best thing is to report it as soon as possible, so the facts can be disclosed as accurately as possible.
Support for guardians
Parents, teachers and guardians of children also require adequate support after the disclosure of such an incident.
This is to help them understand what happened, how they can report it, and what they need to do going forward to support their child through therapy or counselling.
The relevant adults must find out from the therapist or psychologist what should be the best way to approach this situation so that they know fully as their reaction will affect their child going forward.
The child needs to feel loved; they need to know that nothing has changed.
What happened to them must be treated with an elevated level of confidentiality because the victim is going through an emotional turmoil, sometimes blaming themselves for what happened to them, says Strahlendorf.
Support is key in this process with the teacher and parent approaching this sensitive matter with respect and tenderness.
Share your stories and questions with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymous contributions are welcome.
Don't miss a story!
For a weekly wrap of our latest parenting news and advice sign up to our free Friday Parent24 newsletter.