How do you talk to a child if you suspect sexual abuse?

November 30, 2016 - 06:20

It’s the conversation that no adult ever wants to have with a child, but sometimes must. Here’s how to handle the situation.

Small children may tell stories of abuse in fragments. They may say something short and direct. Slightly older children may take longer to get to the core of what they want to say, according to Åse Langballe, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies. (Photo: Denys Kurbatov / Shutterstock / NTB scanpix)

Victims of sexual abuse rarely want to talk about what has happened. For children, the situation may be even more complicated. So what is the best way that adults can talk to children if there are concerns that the child may have been abused?

It is important to give children and young adults the opportunity to talk about what's bothering them, says Åse Langballe at the Norwegian Centre for Violence on traumatic stress.

“A parent can say, ‘I can see you’re struggling with something. Is there anything that is bothering you?’ “

Langballe has studied how police interrogate children in cases of suspected sexual abuse. She has also looked at how these conversations are handled by child welfare services and special education teachers.

Teachers can be key

Teachers work closely with their students, and if they have a feeling that something is not right, they have to ask the hard questions.

Langballe tells teachers that there are two ways that children may initiate these conversations.

“One is where a child says something like, ‘Nobody loves me at home’,” she said. “The other is when a child says, ‘I don’t want to go home’."

The teacher then has to follow up on what the child says in a neutral way that shows that he or she is willing to listen.

One response Langballe suggests is: “You said you don’t want to go home, or you said that you didn’t want to be with that person — I would like to hear more about it.”

The child’s comments have given you an opening. Your response, a question, shows that you are interested, ready to listen and are willing to talk about it.

Ask open questions

It's also possible that the child has not said anything, but the teacher can see that something has changed. Maybe the child seems sad, is less socially active or his or her school performance is not what it used to be.

Langballe says teachers can tell the student, “I want to talk to you. I wonder how you’re feeling right now? I see that you aren’t playing with your friends as much as you used to.”  It may be that the child will look at you with that direct child’s gaze and ask: Do you really want know?

These kinds of questions show that you are interested, Langballe says. On the other hand, it’s important not to make assumptions during the conversation.

“Initially, it’s important not to make assumptions, and give the child time. Otherwise you can really make a big mistake,” she says.

For example, you might find that what is bothering the child is something completely different than what you think. Or your questions may be too direct, which may make the child withdraw.

“All of the research on this shows that most children do not necessarily talk about the abuse they have suffered. It may take until adulthood before the issue comes out. We shouldn’t push too hard,” Langballe says.

Be careful, but be willing to ask

Another potential pitfall is asking leading questions, Langballe said.

Asking a child a leading question such as, “Does your father touch your penis?” can affect the child's narrative and be problematic for both police reporting and any potential court proceedings, she said.

Once again, open questions are the best, Langballe says.

Two potential questions might be: “Is there someone who is doing something to you that makes you afraid?" or “Are there adults who do things with you that adults should not do?”, she said.

No sure signs of abuse

Children rarely show sure signs of sexual abuse, says Dag Øystein Nordanger, a senior researcher and clinical specialist in child and adolescent psychology at Uni Research Health, Regional Centre for Child and Youth Mental Health and Child Welfare. But they do have ways to express their problems, he said.

“Younger children in particular can be restless and demanding, or have trouble concentrating. Some children may react in a manner that could be confused with behavioural problems,” he said.

The youngest children may show signs of what scientists call social withdrawal. They are introverted and participate less in play and other forms of social interaction. Social withdrawal can be seen at any age, but young children are basically very social.

“If they withdraw into themselves, it might be the only way they have to protect themselves,” Nordanger says.

Older children who are experiencing abuse may instead act out, he says.

Ask if what they say makes you wonder

On the other hand, Nordanger says, many of these behaviours may be nothing to worry about, and it is important not to be overly suspicious. But adults should pay attention if children show overly sexualized behaviour, he said.

“An example of this is that that they know things about sexuality that most children aren’t familiar with,” he said, such as details about genitals or different kinds of sex. In this case, an adult should ask questions, he said.

“A rule of thumb is that when they say something that makes you wonder where they learned about what they said, you should ask openly, ‘Where did you hear that? Did someone tell you or have you seen that?’,” Nordanger said. “This can open a little window for a child to say what is going on.”


Read the Norwegian version of this article at