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Would your child tell YOU if they were sexually abused? Maybe not.

by Melissa Ryba, LLMSW

"She let us know that she didn’t tell because she was very ashamed of what had happened. By not talking about it, she could pretend that it didn’t happen."

I have been a social worker in the child welfare field for over 10 years, and recently I returned to school to get my Master’s degree in Social Work. While attending classes I completed an internship with a program that offers counseling to children that are survivors of sexual abuse. I felt pretty educated about the topic in general and thought overall, I did a good job educating my own children to help keep them safe. One woman’s story recently made me rethink this.

An adult survivor spoke about her experience as a child at a conference I attended. She was victimized multiple times by TWO different offenders, from the age of six to her early teens. One was the uncle of a friend of hers, and the other an older cousin. What struck me most about her story was that she never told her parents. She tried on her own to prevent the abuse from reoccurring, but being a young and vulnerable person, was unable to always prevent the abuse. She finally told her mother after discovering that her younger sister was also being victimized by their cousin. As I sat listening to her story, my mind wandered immediately to my own daughter. What if she didn’t feel that she could tell me if something like this had happened to her? WHY hadn’t this woman told her mother? I thought of my son, would he ever tell me if something like this happened? With 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys experiencing sexual abuse in their lifetime, it is not out of the realm of possibility. These children are not “other” people’s children or “those” kids. Survivors walk among us every day.

She let us know that she didn’t tell because she was very ashamed of what had happened. By not talking about it, she could pretend that it didn’t happen. She tried to control it from ever happening again. She described the problems that started to happen with her at school and that no one could figure out why. She said several times throughout her childhood, she was so close to saying something. She said, if anyone would have ever asked her if she was being hurt, she may have spoken up.

I went home that night and began a conversation with my middle school aged daughter (and later, my son). I asked her if anyone ever touched or hurt her. She looked at me like I was crazy, and thankfully, said “no.” It is a fine line between educating and scaring our children, but it is so important to have these conversations. I let her know that if it ever did happen, or if a friend ever tells her a story about it happening to them, to please tell me and that I will help the best that I can.

If a child discloses abuse, it is important to be supportive. What happens after a child speaks can impact them as much as the actual abuse. As parents, we need to support our children and make sure our children understand that this taboo subject is something that they can talk to us about.

For more information on how to talk to your kids and how to prevent abuse from occurring, visit

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