How to Talk to an Abused or Neglected Child
Welcome to part 7 of 10 in our series on child abuse and neglect. Today, we will be exploring how to talk to a child you know has been abused or neglected.
If you find out for certain that a child is being abused, or if a child comes right out and tells you, it can be an uncomfortable situation, and it is often difficult to find the “right thing” to say to them. Many times there is no “right thing” to say, but you can be prepared by knowing how to handle the situation. Here are some suggestions.
Avoid Denial and remain calm. If your actions, tone or words reveal a sense of denial or shock or disgust, the child may react by shutting down. You need to remain as calm and as reassuring as you possibly can. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. If children sense that you are afraid to talk, they will not bring it up and they will definitely not open up. Remember, children don’t benefit from “not thinking about it” or “putting things out of their mind.” They benefit from talking about their emotions and working through what they have experienced.
Listen to what they have to say and empathize with them. So many times, our natural inclination is to want to jump straight to problem solving or solution mode. A child who has been abused or neglected, and is willing to talk to you about it, is crying out to be listened to. Be a person that they can talk to, cry with and mourn with. Remember that empathy is not the same thing as feeling sorry for them.
Be nurturing, comforting, and affectionate, but be sure to do this is in an “appropriate” way. Children who have suffered abuse often will be confused by, and fearful of, intimacy or touch. Hugs and other physical comfort might not be welcomed. One good rule of thumb is to only provide such physical contact when the child seeks it. Do not instigate it yourself.
Don’t interrogate or ask leading questions. Let the child tell you what happened in their own words. Any questions should be open-ended questions designed only to get the child talking. Like so many other traumatic events in a child’s life, they benefit greatly just by having someone to talk to. Resist the urge to solve their problems and just listen. One site I reviewed suggested that you ask only the following four questions as it pertains to the abuse or neglect itself:
- What happened?
- Who did this to you?
- Where were you when this happened?
- When did this happen?
Document what the child says in reply to these questions in case it is needed for the investigation.
Talk with the child. Give them age appropriate information. Lack of information often breeds fear and insecurity. As we said earlier, you may be uncomfortable, but that discomfort pales in comparison to what the child who has been abused or neglected has been through.
Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong. Many children who are abused or neglected begin to think it is their fault. Many have even been told this over and over by their abuser until they accept it as fact. Reassure them often and convincingly that they did nothing to cause the abuse or neglect and it is not their fault. Let them know that they are doing the right thing by talking about it.
Let them know that you take what they say very seriously. As you can imagine, children who have been abused or neglected by a caregiver often have a hard time trusting adults. Let them know that what they tell you matters and that you take it very seriously. Make sure that you listen in such a way that conveys this message as well.
Remember that safety comes first. If the situation is best handled by a professional and your involvement might bring further harm upon the child, refer it to the professional and take a secondary role in supporting the child.
Give the child choices. Children who have been abused often feel as if they have no control over their lives. Many times, that sense of control has been stripped from them by the abuser or neglecter. Give them choices over things that they can control to help rebuild a sense of control over their own lives.
Protect the child. If something is causing an abused or neglected child trauma or grief, do not hesitate to cut that activity short. Don’t intentionally continue with something that is causing them mental anguish.
Avoid making promises. These children have been let down time and again in the most extreme way. Don’t make promises that may need to be broken as the situation proceeds. For example, don’t promise the child, “I won’t tell anyone” when your moral or legal duties may require you to report certain disclosures.
Help the child to develop a support system. Enlist other adults who care for the child to help build a support system. Let the child choose who should be part of the support system and assist them in putting it together, but do not betray a child’s confidence by talking to other adults about their situation without their permission (even if it is for purposes of building a support system).
Ask for help when you’re in over your head. Don’t be hesitant to admit that you need help. We can’t all be experts in everything. If you feel in over your head, refer the situation to a Christian counselor or someone with more experience in dealing with these types of situations.
Pray with and for the child. Prayer is a powerful thing. Pray that God would comfort the child and that his will would prevail. Pray that the child would find physical and emotional healing through Jesus Christ.
Point the child to God. God is the source of all healing and the means by which these kids can be made whole again. However, be careful about “Christian platitudes” like “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Help the child to understand that the blame for what has been done to them belongs on the perpetrator of the act and not on God. Your love in this situation is comforting and reassuring, but it is the unconditional love of God that can truly help to heal the child who has suffered abuse or neglect.For more resources for learning about, and dealing with child abuse and neglect, please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Child Abuse & Neglect Help Center. For more resources for learning about, and dealing with sexual abuse and rape, please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Sexual Abuse & Rape Help Center.
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on October 10, 2011.