Shhhhhh, Don’t Tell! Caring for Children Who Have Been Sexually Abused

The school bus pulled up in front of her house. Like usual, my aunt came out to meet me and walk me in. My mom was a struggling single mom and I was a half-day kindergartner. My aunt was the only childcare option she had for me at the time. After all, it was safe since it was family.

Like most days after school, I sat at the table doing crafts in the cold kitchen with black and white checkered tile. This was a huge, historic home. She had so many kids, I could not keep track. There were her biological kids; ten of them. Then there was a revolving door of foster youth and toddlers from time to time. The weird thing is, she was never there. She was a nurse, so she worked long hours and slept the rest of the time. How can a child feel so alone and vulnerable in a house full of people?

I would stare at the basement steps that seemed like they led to a deep dark dungeon. All I knew was that periodically one of her teenage sons would appear at the door. Today was one of those days.  He made eye contact with me and discreetly told me to follow him. I was 5 years old and he was 15. I was supposed to follow his instructions. I followed him into the beautiful downstairs bathroom with an antique pedestal sink and floral wallpaper. What happened that day, in that bathroom changed my life forever. My view of relationships, men, intimacy, sex and love was forever changed in one day. What just happened to me? I was only 5 years old. A baby.

Looking back on that moment, the details of that day are still fresh. The coldness of the house, the smells, the absence of anyone to protect me in a house full of people. I spent my youth recreating that experience in my mind and in relationships with promiscuity and curiosity. I am so grateful to have met and married a wonderful man who helped me understand love, intimacy and what a relationship was supposed to be like.

Thirty- three years later I stand on the other side of the fence. My husband and I have adopted 6 precious little blessings from foster care. As a mom, I have found myself being overly protective and dogmatic about my kid’s safety. I don’t take it as a coincidence that I am the mom to children who have experienced the same dreaded abuse that I did. Only their experiences lasted longer than one day. Who better to understand and help them through it, right?

I was guarded about writing about this story because it is so personal and I wanted to protect my family. However, the things I share can help children and the foster/adoptive parents who love them.

If you have witnessed any of the following behaviors in your child, they may be a sign of prior sexual abuse or physical abuse. They need to be taken seriously.

  • Unusual Preoccupation with genitalia (theirs or others)
  • Daytime and/or Bedtime wetting
  • Smearing or playing with feces
  • Night terrors
  • Fear of certain people or genders
  • Inappropriate play
  • Promiscuity
  • Alienation & Secrecy
  • Body image issues

How do I help my child? Where do I start? What if they are acting out sexually? HELP! I understand your frustration, your anger and desperation to help your child heal and overcome. To do this, you must approach the matter from three perspectives.  Compassion, Structure and Therapy.


The worst thing we can do as parents of sexually abused children is assume that the fears, sexual behaviors and residual effects will go away because they are now in a loving, safe environment. It does not go away and it won’t unless it is addressed and diligently worked on over time. You say, “how much time?”.

As long as it takes. Months, years or a lifetime. I look at my children when they struggle with any number of trauma related behaviors and embrace the innocence behind their experience. When you made the commitment to your child, you were in it for the good, the bad and the ugly. Recognize that if your child is acting out as a result of the abuse they have suffered, IT IS NOT THEIR FAULT. It may be hard to except, but compassion must take over for them to thrive.

You must provide an emotionally and physically safe environment for your child.

  • Giving them power over their own body. Asking permission to help them dress or bathe helps them to understand that their body is their own and they are in control of it.
  • Having consistent talks with them about not touching others and not allowing others to touch them is imperative.
  • It is important that shame is not used as a tactic for fears or impulses they have not learned to control. They are not the evil perpetrator, they are victims.
  • As they grow, have continual discussions about proper intimacy and sexual education on their level.
  • Have an open door policy for them to talk to you about anything.
  • Even if the child has to be separated temporarily for a variety of reasons, it is important to take time out with the child as a parent for bonding. Never make them feel alienated, unloved or separate from the rest of the family.


Compassion without structure leaves too much room for curiosity. Structure without Compassion is cold and pointless. Your child needs both. I am sad to say I had neither from my parents because it was kept a secret. Prior sexual abuse can cause a child to act out in ways that can offend others and/or become a perpetrator themselves. While protecting them from further abuse, you must also protect others from their curiosity as they progress and heal.

You must be diligent in providing a structured environment that keeps everyone safe from harm.

  • Dressing, bathing and other personal moments must be guarded as private.
  • Children who trigger similar behaviors in each other should not share rooms or be left alone under any circumstances. This may take creativity, but it is very important.
  • Everyone in the home, must know, understand and abide by the structures set in place for safety.
  • Mandatory Reporters are important in a big family. When something inappropriate is seen, heard or experienced, the parents need to be alerted immediately.
  • Sleepovers for children dealing with such traumas may not be a good idea unless an adult is present at ALL times; even sleeping hours.
  • Baby monitors work well to ensure everyone’s safety.
  • Pay close attention to your children during play time and conversations they have with siblings. It can be a clue as to what thoughts are dominating their mind.


I use to think that therapy was for wimps. Now, I wish that someone would have provided me with therapy as a child. It took many years, heartache, experiences and work to overcome the trauma I experienced that could have been alleviated.

You must be willing to do whatever it takes to help your child thrive and overcome this trauma.

  • Choose a therapist or counselor that you trust and comes highly recommended by other parents.
  • Choose a therapist that has experience in foster care, adoption and trauma.
  • Meet with the therapist in advance to develop a rapport and understand their philosophy.
  • Choose a therapist that holds your family’s values.
  • Choose Play therapy for younger or special needs children.
  • Request that you be present for therapy until you are comfortable with the progress.

With your help and diligence your child can thrive and grow. Your commitment to their healing and progress will make all the difference in their lives, future relationships and life choices. You can do this!