How do I tell the children?

How to tell children that their father, or someone close to them, has been arrested or convicted of sexually abusing a child is one of the most difficult issues that mothers (and other family members) face. There is no easy answer; how much and what you say will depend on individual circumstances and the age of the children.

There are often restrictions put in place restricting the offender’s contact with children. They may be asked to leave the family home or only have contact with their children in the company of other adults. And, of course, knowledge of the offender’s behaviour can also significantly affect or end their relationship with the mother of their children (again having an impact on the children).

What to say to children and how to talk to them can be difficult for parents and professionals. Here are some issues for parents to be aware of or consider:

  • In the absence of explanations as to why significant changes have occurred in their family, children will try to make sense of it by guessing, ‘filling in the gaps’ and sometimes making wrong assumptions. For example they may feel they are part of the problem and feel rejected by a father who now sees them only occasionally.
  • Children may still love their parent (or other close person) even though they have done something very wrong. Family members may well feel and respond differently and each person needs to be able to express their own views and have them acknowledged.
  • Children will probably, at some stage, want to know WHY the person did what he did. It may help them to know that the adults are also struggling to make sense of this as it is usually very complicated. In some cases their father, or person close to them, may be getting some help to try and work this out.
  • Children will have a range of feelings about their father’s offending: they will need time to process the information. They may feel extremely angry about the impact the offences have / will have on their own, and other’s lives; they may be worried about friends finding out; they may be anxious about their father’s future behaviour; the possibility of him going to prison and being able to cope. Children may feel unable to express / discuss these feelings with their parents as they may worry about upsetting them further.
  • One of the greatest difficulties for a parent is often facing up to the effects of their offending upon their own children. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the child is likely to find out at some point and it is better that they find out in a controlled way from a supportive adult than by other means – children can often be angry if they feel significant information has been withheld from them, if they feel they had a right to know about it. Timing is important.
  • Too much detail can be very disturbing for children – keep the details to a minimum when young – but let the child know it is ok to ask questions, although you may not be able to answer them all.

Examples of what to say

Below are some thoughts about possible ways in which the offences might be conveyed – they are purely for consideration as each child and their functioning are different. Families will also differ in terms of the language they will be most comfortable using.

  • “Dad’s done something very wrong. Sexual things. 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 got problems with his thinking about ‘what’s ok and what’s not ok’ when it comes to sexual things. He’s been looking at a lot of sexual stuff on the internet and/or he has been touching children in private places which is against the law.”
  • “We have found out that Uncle has been talking to children about sexual things and been doing sexual things that he shouldn’t have been with them… It’s against the law to do that kind of thing and Uncle is in a lot of trouble for doing it.”

If relevant, you MAY want to include comments regarding

  • Dad being very upset to have caused so much upset for all the family
  • Grandad trying to get some help with his problem
  • This isn’t very nice to hear but thought you had a right to know what was going on.

It’s also useful to remember:

  • Parents should agree on what the child is to be told
  • Give consistent messages
  • Avoid anxiety e.g. control your own emotions.
  • Have more than one discussion and let them know they can discuss things at any time and ask questions as they think of them
  • Listen
  • Evidence suggests that if children see their parent is coping, then they do too!

Parents are likely to know their child best and are often the best judge of how to talk to them.

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