How do I tell the children about a loved one’s sexual offending?

Finding out that a loved one has committed a sexual offence against a child can be a huge shock and leave you feeling overwhelmed and unsure about what to do next. For some people, one of the hardest things is telling their children what their parent or family member has done.

We know this is a difficult step to take. This information is designed to give you advice and guidance on how to discuss this topic with your child in an appropriate way.

If you have any concerns, questions, or would just like to talk through what you are going to say to your child, our helpline advisors are here to offer support. You can stay anonymous and don’t have to give your real name, location or any contact details. If you’re not ready to speak to anyone yet, you can also use our live chat or send a secure email.

You can download this information as a leaflet to share with friends and family.

Talking to children

There is no one-size-fits-all approach and this can be a very difficult topic. How much and what you say will depend on your own circumstances and the age of the children.

Here are some tips to help start a conversation.

Preparing for the conversation

  • Take your time to prepare what to say and how to say it. It might be helpful to practice with a friend or with us on our confidential helpline. Think about what questions your child might ask you, and try to prepare some answers.
  • Based on your child’s age and ability, consider how you should approach the conversation. Remember, only say what is factual.
  • Make sure you are in the right frame of mind when you talk to your child. It’s okay to show your feelings as long as your child does not feel overwhelmed or responsible. Evidence suggests that children respond better if they see their parent is coping.
  • Think about when and where to tell your child. Make sure it’s a safe space where they feel comfortable and able to express their emotions.
  • Talk to your child as early in the process as possible so that they do not hear information for the first time from someone else – this can damage trust.
  • One of the greatest difficulties for a parent is facing how their children might be impacted by the offending. It is important to bear in mind that the child is likely to find out at some point, and that it is better this happens in a measured way from a supportive adult. Children might be angry if they feel significant information has been kept from them if they feel they should know about it.
  • It’s important to discuss with your local Children’s Services what you are going to tell your child. If they want you to say more than you feel is appropriate, talk about your concerns with them.

During the conversation

  • When you start the conversation, ask what your child already knows – it is helpful to hear the language they use. Ask children about what you have told them, what they have heard and how they feel about it.
  • Provide them with information, and prioritise what your child needs to know. Be clear and talk to them in simple and easily understandable amounts.
  • Allow enough time for the conversation, and listen to your child’s concerns.
  • Siblings can be told different amounts of information depending on their age or ability to understand. But the information needs to be consistent because they are likely to talk to each other. Work with a trusted adult to decide what each child should be told. Give age-appropriate layered information; you can’t take back what you say, so if they are told too much then they will know too much. Siblings will also have different reactions to the person who has offended – this is to be expected.
  • Without being given all of the information, children will try to make sense of the situation by guessing and filling in the gaps, and sometimes making wrong assumptions. For example, they might think they are part of the problem or feel rejected by a family member who is restricted from seeing them.
  • Children will probably want to know why the person offended. It may help them to know that the adults are also struggling to make sense of the situation.
  • Avoid using the word secret. If your child wants to tell someone, ask them to discuss it with you first. Think about what your child might say to their friends. You may want to share some information with their friends’ parents.

Suggestions for what to say

This conversation can be difficult, especially if you’re worried that your child is having a hard time. But it will give you both the chance to talk about your feelings and comfort each other.

Here are some examples of how parents have approached the topic:

“Uncle S. is very upset to have caused so much upset for all the family and he is trying to get some help with his problem. We really didn’t want you to have to hear this but thought you had a right to know what was going on.”

“Dad’s done something very wrong. He’s been looking at rude things on the internet. And some of those things were to do with children, which is against the law, so the police are involved and are deciding what to do about it.”

“Grandad’s been spending a lot of time on the internet and we have found out that some of that time was spent looking at sexual pictures of children. It’s against the law to look at that kind of thing and he is in trouble for doing it.”

After the conversation

  • If your child wants to know more than you think is enough, it is okay for you to tell them that they know enough for now. Too much detail can be very disturbing for children. Keep the details to a minimum when they’re young but let them know it is okay to ask questions, although you may not be able to answer them all.
  • Let your child know that they can come to you when they want to. Remember that their feelings may change. It can be helpful to check in with your child’s general wellbeing as you feel appropriate, or as the situation develops.
  • Think if there are any suitable adults your child could also get support from (another family member, school teacher or counsellor).
  • Children may still love the person who has offended even though they have done something very wrong. Each person involved needs to be able to express their own views and have them acknowledged after the initial conversation.
  • Children need time to process what’s happening and it might take many conversations. They may feel angry about the impact the offences have or will have on their own and others’ lives. They may also be worried about friends finding out or about the future of the person who has offended and the possibility of them going to prison and being able to cope. Children may feel unable to express or discuss these feelings with their parents as they may worry about upsetting them further.
  • Your wellbeing is also important, so take some time for your own self-care. Visit our page for organisations that can support you and your children.

Where can I get help and support?

You are best placed to answer your child’s questions. But if you need more advice then think about talking to your own support network or calling our confidential Stop It Now! helpline (0808 1000 900) to speak to an experienced, non-judgemental advisor. You can stay anonymous and don’t have to give your real name, location or any contact details. If you’re not ready to speak to anyone yet, you can also use our live chat or send a secure email.

Parents Protect has information and guidance and resources to help you keep children safe online and offline. Its learning programme will help you to work through the issues at your own pace and understand how to keep children safe online and offline.

The Prisoners’ Families helpline can support you if you have a family member who is in contact with the criminal justice system in England and Wales. They give advice and information on all aspects of the justice system, from what happens when a loved one is arrested, to visiting a prison, to preparing for release.

Family Rights Group is a charity that advises relatives and friends about their rights and options when social workers or courts make decisions about their children’s welfare. They work with parents whose children are in need, at-risk or are in the care system and with wider family members and friends who are raising children

Childline is a confidential helpline that supports children through any concerns they have. Their advisors will listen to any worries, not judge callers and give them advice on how to deal with their problems.

Kooth is an online wellbeing community that gives free, safe and anonymous online support and counselling for young people.

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