Like a bomb going off in the family: supporting parents whose children experience sexual abuse

A new guide is designed to help social workers provide a confident, supportive response to parents whose children have been sexually abused - and in turn support their children's recovery, writes Anna Glinski

upset parents talking to social worker
Photo: terovesalainen/Adobe Stock

By Anna Glinski, Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse

Many people have likened the experience of finding out that their child has been sexually abused as being like a bomb going off in their family – feelings of shock, anger, distress and confusion are common, and overwhelming. The experience is even more complex when the person who has abused their child is someone they trusted – a family member, partner, another of their children.

But beyond the emotional challenge of the discovery, which in itself is enormous, non-abusing parents and carers also have to navigate the child protection investigation and all that that entails: from having statutory involvement in their family, being assessed by social care, the worry (or actual) loss of their child, or their partner, and at times, being treated with suspicion. For some, there is the additional challenge of others finding out – hostile responses from friends, family or members of the community. Overnight, their world changes and addressing this can feel enormously challenging.

For children, the impact of abuse and the turmoil of disclosure is significant and their journey to recovery will require love, understanding, patience and support.

Research, and my own practice experience, indicates that many parents in this situation experience trauma, anxiety, depression, isolation and exhaustion, while at the very same time needing to provide robust and supportive parenting to their child.”

If sexual abuse has taken place within the family, then the grooming and abuse, sometimes over years, will already have impacted the relationship between the child and their non-abusing parent – and their siblings. Relationships are likely to have been interrupted, manipulated and harmed in order to maintain the abuse, and so for some parents, the child they now need to protect and support may have their own feelings of anger towards them.

This anger may be for not seeing it or for not protecting them. They may even have been told by the person abusing them that their parent knew. And so, it is this very complex context that non-abusing parents and carers find themselves.

Nowhere to turn

Usually, when something significant happens in our lives, we turn to friends or family to talk it through. But when it comes to sexual abuse, particularly sexual abuse perpetrated by someone we know (either on or offline), who can we talk to?  Feelings of shame (that we missed it, that it happened in our family, or to our child) and the fear of being judged (‘How did they not know?’, ‘Were they involved?’), as well as the general societal reluctance to think or talk about sexual abuse, mean that for many there is nowhere to turn when they are faced with this situation. And this is where our role, as social workers, is key.

Unfortunately, many of us lack the knowledge and confidence to speak about sexual abuse with children and their families – even though, as social workers, we absolutely have the skills to be able to do this work.

The support a child receives from their main caregiver and wider family is the strongest mediator of the negative impacts of sexual abuse. And so, the more effectively we support the parents, the more effectively we support the child.

Supporting the parent to support the child

With the right support, children can, and do, recover from their experiences and we can therefore, by effectively supporting parents and carers, be fundamental to their children’s recovery. It is this combination of factors that led to the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) developing our new guide, Supporting parents and carers: A guide for those working with families affected by child sexual abuse.

This guide aims to help professionals provide a confident, supportive response to parents when concerns about the sexual abuse of their child have been raised, or when such abuse has been identified. It brings together research, good practice guidance and expert input to help professionals understand more about how child sexual abuse affects children – and their parents or carers – and what a supportive response may involve, so that they can do this more effectively.

It includes guidance on how professionals can support parents and carers to manage their own feelings, recognise symptoms of trauma in their child and cope with the practicalities of parenting, especially if their partner/co-parent is suspected of the abuse. It also guides professionals on how a parent can support their child through the immediate and longer-term impacts of the abuse; provide and encourage access to services and professional support; protect them from further abuse; and help them feel believed and not blamed for what has happened.

More CSA guidance

Community Care Inform users can benefit from comprehensive guidance on responding to child sexual abuse from the CSA Centre. Our CSA hub – authored by Anna Glinski, with support from colleagues – includes advice on risk and vulnerability factors, understanding disclosure, supporting children to speak about abuse and sibling sexual abuse. It is available to all subscribers to Inform Children.

The guide explores the impact of child sexual abuse carried out in different contexts, including situations where the child may have been sexually abused by an adult or adults, experienced another child’s harmful sexual behaviour (including a sibling) and when the abuse may have taken place inside or outside their family environment, on or offline.

Finally, at the end of the guide there are lists of resources and sources of support for professionals to share with the parents they are working with. Crucially, by applying the learning in the guide to our work with families, we will be supporting parents and carers to better support their child’s recovery from sexual abuse.

The Supporting Parents and Carers Guide is available for free to download from the CSA Centre’s website.

Anna Glinski is deputy director, knowledge and practice development, at the CSA Centre

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2 Responses to Like a bomb going off in the family: supporting parents whose children experience sexual abuse

  1. Karen April 3, 2022 at 10:03 am #

    No one can prepare you for what you face for years, the repercussions in adolescence, the impacts on being able to
    Form relationships as a parent being able to trust vanishes overnight. Living with the consequences and the aftermath can feel overwhelming

  2. Carol April 5, 2022 at 10:28 pm #

    It is like a bomb going off in your family, everything changes and life never goes back to being the same. For me as a parent, when you are trying your very best to help your child and to keep family life going the last thing you need is for so called ‘professionals’ to judge you as if you are to blame. There needs to be much more training given to social workers as to how child sexual abuse impacts a family.