I thought I had AIDS.
I thought I was going to die.
That’s why I told my dad about the abuse. That’s why I crawled out of bed late one evening, approached him as he was paying bills with a check-book in the kitchen, and spilled my guts.
I told him I had done terrible things. I told him I was a horrible sinner. I told him I wasn’t a virgin.
It was the late ’80s, and all I knew was that people who did bad things got AIDS. I had done bad things, therefore, I had AIDS and was going to die.
Perhaps that sounds ludicrous, but that’s how my kid-brain interpreted the data, and that’s why I told my dad.
What my dad did next is what he should have done. It’s what any parent should do when a child says they’ve been abused. It’s what any church leader should do when someone says they’ve been abused. But terribly, it’s not what many parents and leaders actually do.
He believed me.
That’s it. That’s the main thing: Believe your child.
“Innocent until proven guilty“
As an attorney, I’m tremendously thankful for our legal system. It’s got issues, for sure, but the general principal that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty is absolute bedrock. It’s vital to the just operation of a courtroom.
But we’re not talking about courtrooms.
We’re talking about living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens. And in those places, you should always, always, always start off believing your child. Or friend. Or parishioner.
Somehow we’ve got this false idea that false accusations are the norm. They are not. Allegations that turn out to be fabricated do happen, and we should be aware of the possibility, but our default should be to believe the person who’s talking about being abused.
Because sexual abuse is far more common than made-up stories about sexual abuse.
Now, believing the child in front of you does not mean you automatically believe the accused is guilty. I’m not saying you jump to conclusions and throw the accused under the bus. I’m just saying that you have to start off listening and hearing and giving space to the person in front of you. Start off believing.
Know that it’s often unbelievable
Sexual abuse often happens in the context of a known relationship. You and the child will likely know the abuser, and that is typical. For me, it was a neighbor, and the majority of the abuse happened in my house.
You will probably know the abuser. You might even be related to the abuser, and again, that’s what will make the allegation so unbelievable.
If your child tells you about being abused, it will certainly be something you don’t want to hear about, and the thing is, it will likely involve someone you don’t want to think about. But listen to me, please. Don’t rush to defend the accused. Rush to hear the child.
I’ve heard enough stories from teenagers and clients and patients to say, with all the fire in my bones: if your child tells you about being sexually abused by someone you don’t want to think could do it, BELIEVE YOUR CHILD.
My dad believed me. He told me I wasn’t going to die. He told me I hadn’t done anything wrong. He hugged me.
And honestly, I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t know if they talked to the neighbors. I know I didn’t see that neighbor anymore. I wish I could ask my parents what that was like. What did they think? What did they feel? Unfortunately, that conversation will never happen; both of my parents died many years ago.
I don’t remember many of the facts. But I do remember the feelings.
I felt loved.
I felt heard.
I felt protected.
I felt valued.
I did not feel silenced.
My dad was not incredulous or doubtful or skeptical. He started off believing me, and he kept on believing me.
He hugged me.
And that’s exactly what I needed.
17 thoughts on “I was sexually abused. Here’s what I want all parents to do if their child tells them that they were abused too.”
Thank you Jonathan for sharing this story!!! It must be said and repeated again and again.
May I use your story? I am a missionary working in Sao Paulo, Brazil, fighting abuse in the home, in the workplace, in schools and also fighting against sex-trafficking here in the country.
My kids go to a Christian bi-lingual school here but sometimes I think they believe that “those things” don’t happen to the kids here. But it’s not true.
I feel called to speak to parents about advocacy on behalf of their children and those around them. It’s as you said, “believe them and fight for them”.
Thanks for the comment, Jennifer! And yes, please feel free to use this article in any way that would be helpful.
Thank you for sharing this personal violation with us. This topic needs to be discussed as a part of ever day life. Parents need to hear these instructions on what to do if their child approaches them. Just like they have a plan for a fire, tornado, or other emergencies. We have to have a game plan in place for our children and children in general.
So true! We hope we never have to use those emergency plans, but we still need them. Thanks for the comment, Rhonda.
Thank you for sharing. We run a children’s rescue home in Peru and I so appreciate your willingness to share your story. We are always dealing with sexual abuse situations as the children enter our home and we always default to the child telling the story. We find most often they are telling the truth and the abusers are lying. Thank you!
Thank you so much for the comment, Scott, and may God richly bless you all and the children under your care.
Thank you for this. Truly.
wow- you are a brave man- Ive just read about your early years and all of the deaths around you. So glad you have found healing and created your own lovely family and future…must have been lots of hard work involved in moving beyond such trauma. Best of Luck to you
Thanks for the comment, Ev. My counselor used to say, “Love will mess up your problems.” That’s my story, I guess: the love of Christ and the love of my parents “messed up” my problems. I’m forever grateful…
My daughter was sexually abused. She came to me and it was everything I could do to hug her and tell her it would he ok. My first reaction was pure rage. I believed her 100% and it was all I could do to sit there and listen to her say what she had to say before we went further with it. We took the legal route because 1) I didn’t want to go to jail and 2) I needed her to believe in the legal system. That belief is failing more and more each day. It’s been 2 years since the case was started. 2 years and we still haven’t seen a trial. She has to testify twice because the abuse happened in 2 counties, therefor two separate cases. We are struggling with living a normal life and trying to move on but the cloud lingers with no closure. It has split our family apart. Torn it to shreds! We fight on though. We fight because there’s nothing else to do. You stand up, you fight, you make your voice heard, or you’re nothing. My daughter is a fighter. I am so proud of her for standing up and stopping the abuse. I only wish that I had known sooner. I wish with all my heart that she had nevery gone through it. She stood up because she has 2 younger sisters that she wanted to protect. She fights for them.
Oh, Lisa, I’m so sorry your family has had to go through this! And is still going through it! Thank you for sharing a bit of your story here. Your daughter was brave indeed, and it sounds like you are too.
In 1963 I told my parents. I was 7years old. They questioned me repeatedly but never said they believed. They protected me and loved me for which I am grateful. At the age of 30, after years of therapy, I asked if they believed me. They had believed me and thought I knew that. So be sure to say the words…..
What an important reminder! Thanks for sharing.
I have been that parent. My 11 year old daughter told us that she had a secret with her pap-pap and then went on to describe in gruesome detail what had happened. Since she also has Down syndrome, there was no other way that she could have known the things that she was describing. Of course we believed her, but we would have believed her even if the circumstances had been different. Katie was so innocent about all of it. She had and has no shame over what happened. It wasn’t her fault and we never let her believe it was for even a moment. She has never even known it was wrong except that we told her that those parts of her were the most precious parts and that they were reserved for her husband. He had no right to them.
As for how we felt, it was a real struggle on so many levels. He was out of town by the time we found out. We barely knew what to do. We called the pediatrician and she called an administrator at DCF for us. Then came the craziness of filing police reports, doing physical inspections and interviews after interviews. We felt the shame Katie never knew. It was over a month before he came back in state–it was the fall hunting season and he always brought back a few deer at Thanksgiving. During that time we had to avoid my husband’s side of the family to avoid tipping him off. John was angry and protective. When he came back, and the police finally questioned him, he was belligerent and hostile. The day they took him into custody he was driving around with a shotgun looking for his wife. I’m sure he planned to kill her and himself to escape this. They took him into a mental hospital for a week or two so he could be stabilized.
This was excruciating for all of us, but especially his wife. She forgave him and began to work on healing her own hurts, including the hurts she had received from the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. My father in law was placed in a cell with a pastor–who knows how–and the pastor led him to Christ. Nana was a political official at the time so there was no hiding.
He remains in jail and Katie is facing her teenage years in a pretty normal way. My husband, John refuses to even say his dad’s name. I know from talking with Nana that my Father in Law has had a difficult time in prison. He fell off a top bunk and broke his hip and was in a wheelchair for the better part of a year. He’s still in a walker. He constantly encourages Nana to help us in any way he can, but has no contact with us.
This was painful, but it was the only course of action we could take. Katie is the least impacted of all of us. Jesus has done amazing things through it and isn’t finished yet.
Whoa. Thank you so much for sharing, Tricia. I hope your testimony encourages others to walk the right road, even when it’s very, very hard.
Jonathan, thank you for sharing your story. There is absolutely no shame but kids don’t know that. I was abused by a family friend in a one time incident and my parents believed me. I found out later my mother had been abused as a teen by her dad. I think that was a factor in her belief and also the fact I was only 6 years old. I was also abused by a male teen who babysat me . I have had several episodes of panic attacks (decades after the abuse) that have happened suddenly.. Once during physical therapy for my back and a few times during intimacy with my husband. It is interesting how things can be shut down and “forgotten” and then something will trigger memories.
Thanks for sharing, Melody. I’ve heard therapists sometimes say that “The body remembers.” I think that’s true. Sometimes the mind forgets but when the body reacts/remembers like that, it’s so important to listen and get the help and support that you need. Thanks again for sharing.