Many people who experience sexual abuse during childhood find that it impacts their lives long into adulthood. That said, outcomes can be improved with protective factors, such as parents who believe the child’s report of abuse, peer support or psychotherapy. How can we best help kids and adults overcome the trauma of childhood sexual abuse?

‘Nobody will believe me’

The first and most important thing is to believe survivors of childhood sexual abuse. And, if you think the abuse could even potentially be ongoing, you will need to take immediate action. That could include calling 911 and reporting the abuse to the police. Or, you may wish to call the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). They can help you through the process of filing a report.

Law enforcement is not your only option. Child sexual abuse survivors have the legal right to sue their abusers for damages. This is one way many survivors have been able to confront their abusers with the truth and consequences of their actions.

Whether the abuse is in the past or continuing, your goal as a listener is to manage your own reactions and feelings and to provide a safe environment for disclosure. When talking to a child, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) recommends trying to get these three messages across in your own way:

  • I love you.
  • The abuse you experienced is not in any way your fault.
  • I will do whatever I can to keep you safe.

When talking to an adult, be aware that they may be disclosing the abuse to you as a way to build intimacy in your relationship. Let them know you understand the courage it took to tell you and tell them you believe them. Tell them the abuse was not their fault and that they are no longer alone.

Be aware that childhood sexual abuse often affects people long after the abuse is over. While everyone is different, it is common for this type of trauma to create harmful beliefs about what they deserve in relationships, whom they can trust, and what intimacy involves. It can take a long time to identify these false beliefs and begin to overcome them.

Childhood sexual abuse has also been tied to physical health issues like gastrointestinal problems, gynecologic pain, heart and lung symptoms, substance misuse and engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

If your adult friend discloses a history of childhood sexual abuse, be aware that the wound could still be open. Try not to judge the fact that they’re still having trouble coping after time has passed. It takes each person their own amount of time to recover.

If your friend is still having trouble coping and is not seeing a professional therapist, suggest that they seek help. Also, encourage them to take self-care seriously.

Learning that someone has suffered childhood sexual abuse can be upsetting. Don’t let your emotions get in the way and don’t dig for details. Let them come forward with what information they feel comfortable sharing. Focus on making their disclosure as positive as possible by believing them, comforting them and creating an atmosphere of trust.