MaleSurvivor.org has three tips for approaching conversations with little boys who you suspect have been abused: How Do I Approach a Male Child I Suspect Has Been Abused? The same basic principles can also apply to having conversations with young girls. Important things to remember:
1. Be sure your child feels safe and comfortable when you speak to him/her about suspected abuse.
2. Make sure your child understands that they are not in trouble and that you will love them no matter what. Children may be ashamed of what happened and it is important to help them see that your reaction will not add to that shame.
3. Don’t feed them information based on your own suspicions (i.e. “Uncle Mike touched your pee pee, didn’t he?). Instead, especially with very young children, try to ask open ended questions or question that do not assume. For example, if your child indicated to you that he and Uncle Mike were “playing doctor”, start there. You might ask, “Did you play doctor with Uncle Mike yesterday?” or “Did you have fun playing doctor with Uncle Mike?” Follow up with questions like, “Then what happened?” or “How did that make you feel?” You will find children elaborate most accurately when the question does not assume an answer.
Allow them to open up as they are comfortable and listen for what they say and what they do not say. If it seems appropriate, take notes while they talk. Or jot down what they said when the conversation has ended. Immediately report child abuse to your local law enforcement and/or protective services division.
4. Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise. “Surprises are joyful and generate excitement, because in just a little while something will be unveiled that will bring great delight. Secrets, in contrast, cause isolation and exclusion. When it becomes customary to keep secrets with just one individual, children are more susceptible to abuse. Perpetrators frequently ask their victims to keep things ‘secret’ just between them” (Lindsey Holcomb, 8 Ways to Protect Against Child Abuse).
5. Above all, trust your child. They need you to believe them until evidence proves beyond doubt that nothing happened.
Many adults underestimate the levels of trauma a child can endure. Children are capable of experiencing deep pain and loss at any age. A child may be confused after experiencing abuse of a sexual nature, simply because she has been thrust into a sexual context long before she should have been. She may not have all the right words to explain what happened but this does not mean she cannot feel the weight of what’s been done to her.
The notion that the younger they are, the less they will hurt can perpetuate an attitude which that child will combat their entire life, even into adulthood: that is, they will struggle with the lie that the abuse they experienced as a small child (perhaps abuse they can only vaguely remember) is somehow less traumatizing than the abuse older children and adults have endured. Parents have been known to disbelieve their child when he/she reports abuse. Some will even punish their child for creating stories.
Remember, no five-year-old invents the story that he was molested.