Child abuse  – something you never want to happen to any young person. A parent’s worst nightmare. What can a parent do if they discover child abuse? Here’s how to respond if your child reveals a shocking secret.


Even if your children are toddlers or preschoolers, this is an article you need to read, because now is the time to lay the foundation of trust and openness, so that your child will turn to you for support at times when they need you the most.

I love my daughter, And I wish I had the capacity to listen to her when she told me what happened.

These are the words of Betty de Generes, talking about her regret that she did not listen to her daughter, Ellen de Generes, when she told her about the sexual abuse she suffered as a teen.

How To Respond When Your Child Reveals a Shocking Secret

It’s a parent’s worst dread that their child might be abused; something no child or parent should ever have to experience. If you face this crisis, professional help is essential. And how a parent responds in those first few moments can be a significant part of the healing process. So here are some key tips that can help you if your child reveals a shocking secret.


  • Keep Calm

It is especially hard to keep calm because this information is hugely upsetting and the emotional brain will trigger a “fight, flight or freeze” reaction.

It’s easy at a time like this for a parent to be hurtled into an angry reaction:

‘fight’ mode: thoughts of revenge / furious this could  have happened

– or ‘flight’: a desire to flee from the awful reality that has invaded your family, such as being tempted to say something like, “Oh, that couldn’t have happened!”

– or ‘freeze’:  feel so numb you don’t know what to do or say.

This is a time to calm yourself.

Focus on your breathing, because when you steady your breathing you steady your thoughts.


  • Focus On What Your Child Needs In This Moment

Remember your child needs your love, your presence, your acceptance, your understanding and connection right now – maybe more than any other time in their life. This is a time to connect, to cross the bridge into your child’s world and be there for them, without anything obstructing your connection.

  • Park Your Own Stuff So You Can Connect With Her

In these first moments you need to consciously park all that is coming up for you, so you can be fully present for her.

So first PARK your own stuff.

  • Park your emotions
  • Park your solutions
  • Park your own agenda
  • Park your own memories
  • Park your need to “make it better”.

This journey has no instant solutions – it will be a journey that you and your child will need to travel through with professional support. Right now, just focus on what your child’s needs in these first few moments – your loving, non-judgemental presence.


  • Use Your Body Language Show You Are There

Let your whole body, your soft gaze, your tone of voice show that you are listening – that you are there and trying to understand.

Turn your whole body towards your child. Let your body be open and soft, so that it is space your child can turn for comfort.

Focus on connecting.


  • Listen Deeply

Listen without interrupting.

Let your child talk as much as they need to.

Be careful not to add anything extra to what your child is saying.

It can be tempting to ask a lot of questions to clarify what happened. Or to rush into talking too much in your desperate desire to “fix it”. Remember that the pain of this situation is too great to bear alone. Your job right now is to be a safe space for your child to share their pain. Just listen.

keep calm, connect and listen to your child

  • Give Your Child Space to Express Emotion

Yes, your child may cry, and you might too. Tears are part of the healing process. Your child needs a safe space to shed their tears.

The tears we cry are chemically different to the tears we cry when we are peeling an onion – they contain stress hormones. So expressions like “cry it all out”, “have a good cry” make a lot of sense.

When a child experiences a violation of trust and of their very selves, there is a lot of stress to let out. Hold your child, if they’re okay with that. Comfort – without trying to stop the tears, or other expressions of upset. Acknowledge the emotion, and let them come.

Sometimes it is a son who shares a shocking secret. Their emotional reaction may be different, and they equally need your support. They may react by not wanting to talk about it or they may become angry. Respond to where your child is at – to what emotions they present. There is no “right” way to be upset. Boys often find it easier to open up about distressing incidents when the two of you are doing something, like walking alongside each other. Engage with your child in a way that meets your child’s needs.


  • Reassure Your Child

Remember how important it is for you to keep calm because your child desperately needs your unconditional love, and reassurance they have done nothing wrong. If you feel a need to say something, keep your words focused on their experience and give words that show you are there for them and that together you will find a way forward. You might respond with words like, “It makes sense that you were frightened and very upset. I’m upset, too. Let’s talk about what we can do to help you feel safe.”

“If someone in your life has the courage to speak out, please believe them.”

Betty de Genres


What To Do If Your Child Has Been Abused

First – calm and connect; stay with your child’s experience. Then seek professional help as soon as possible, both for yourself and for your child. It can be tempting to tell others, but we need to be discerning about what to share. This very personal and sensitive part of your child’s life story is not something to widely broadcast. Your child and you need professional help to determine who to tell and when.

If you have been through a harrowing time and you’re wondering if you handled it okay, seek professional help from a therapist. You can’t change the past but you can learn how to build a strong bond of connection with your child to move forward together.


NOW Is the Time Develop the Art of Listening Well

Handling a situation when your child shares a shocking secret is never easy. And, hopefully, you never have to. But it’s like coming across a traffic accident. You need to know how to give first aid BEFORE you need to!


No matter what age your children, or how calm or choppy the emotional waters are right now, why not develop the art of listening well? The great thing is we can work on improving our listening skills with our children in the small everyday interactions, including the good times. We don’t have to wait till the you–know-what hits the fan.

There is a big difference between listening and listening well – as there is between eating and eating well. And developing the art of listening well might mean that at some stage of your child’s life you will be able to pick up the warning signs that could avert a catastrophic situation.

Want to know more about how to listen well, even if your children are younger?

More Help On How To Be Present to Your Child

Here are some blogs you might find helpful to develop the skill of listening well:

Are Your Being Present With Your Child? These ten obstacles could be getting in the way

“Five Useful Tips On How to Support Your Upset Child”.

A good start can be to read my quick-read ebook “Stop Yelling – nine steps to calmer happier parenting” because it gives you practical tools on the art of staying calm, especially in stressful moments.


How to respond if your child reveals a shocking secret

Now it’s over to you. What do you find hardest to park, to be fully present to your child? What helps you stay present, focused and unconditionally loving to your child, especially when it’s tough?

Last edited July 04th 2019

Is your child anxious about school or childcare?

‘How do I know if my child is being treated okay?’ you may be wondering.

Parents can often feel confused about how to help when they are concerned about their child’s well-being at school. One key thing that  you can do is listen so that your child feels heard.

Imagine that your child makes a comment that concerns you.

Getting to hear what’s really going on depends on how you listen. This especially matters if you are worried about your childcare being anxious or unhappy at school or if you have childcare concerns.

Unhelpful responses some parents make:

Child: ‘I don’t want to go to school.’

Parent:  ‘Ah, you like school.  All your friends are there.’


Parent: ‘Just two more sleeps and then we’ll have the weekend. Then we can have lots of time together.’


Parent: ‘Now be good. And then I’ll buy you a sweetie on the way home.’

These responses aren’t helpful because they ignore your child’s experience of life and they shut down the conversation.

What your child needs is a safe space to be heard.

How to respond more helpfully:

Child: ‘I don’t want to go to school.’

First PARK everything that is going on for you – all those thoughts chasing around in your head and all those emotions that jump up and grab you by the throat.

PARK your own concerns so that you can really be present to your child.

Like parking your car, you can come back and pick it up later. Right now PARK all that’s going on for you and choose to be present for your child.

To really listen, here’s some of what you might need to PARK.

1. PARK your anxiety.

It makes sense that a comment like, ‘I don’t want to go to school,’ can get alarm bells clanging in your head. But your anxiety will get in the way of listening in a way that will really connect.

How to PARK your anxiety:

– Focus on your breathing.

– Focus on being calm.

– Focus on being present to your child.

2. PARK your busy-ness.

If this is important, other things will need to wait. Your child is only going to open up when they sense your undivided attention.

3. PARK your own need to ‘fix’ things immediately. 

A safe listening space is the best gift you can give your child right now. Afterwards there will be time to seek professional help, if needed. But you will never again have this first moment of what your child needs to share now. Choose to be fully present for your child now.

4. PARK your judgments.

Thoughts might jump into your head about what might have happened – judgments about the staff, about yourself or about other children.

You might have thoughts like:

‘That worker is a *!*&!’

‘I’ve failed my child.’

‘How could they …’

‘Oooh, this is all so terrible …’

These thoughts will wind you up. You need to  be calm to hear your child’s story first.

You might be jumping to conclusions.

Whatever the thoughts are, you can choose to PARK these judgements and focus on being present to your child.

5. PARK any feelings of guilt or anger. 

Yes, you may have many strong emotions coming up. But if you allow yourself to focus on your feelings of guilt or anger right now, you are putting the focus on yourself instead of on your child.

So now you’ve PARKed – what next?

When you choose to PARK your own stuff you can cross into your child’s world.  Only when your child really senses you connecting will they share what’s bothering them.

Make sure you are calm.

Choose your tone of voice, your eye contact and your body language to connect.

Child: ‘I don’t want to go to school.’

Reflect your child’s words (without adding anything extra) :

Parent: ‘You don’t want to go to school?’

Child: ‘Cos my friends won’t play with me.’

Parent: ‘Your friends won’t play with you? Tell me more.’

Keep your own stuff PARKed. Keep focused on being connected with your child. Reflect what your child says and adding ‘tell me more.’

Hold the listening space.

Keep connected and wait for your child’s answer.

Don’t rush in with more words.

Just hold the listening space for your child. Then reflect what you hear, using your child’s words.

When your child senses the connection, he’s likely to share.

Keep holding this listening space.

You will get to the point when your child has told you all he needs to say.

Whatever your child needs, be there for them.

Reassure them that you will deal with it. Give a cuddle or go for  walk. Trust your intuition to give what your child needs.

When you PARK your own thoughts, judgements and emotions you will find you are able to really listen to your child and to sense what ‘s needed, no matter how small or large the issue.

A few extra tips:

#1 Be careful to avoid talking about concerns about your child’s situation in front of your child. Children are listening even when you think they aren’t, and they are going to pick up your anxiety.

#2 Avoid trying to prompt the conversation with your child. If you push or pry or ask questions when your child is not ready to talk, your child will shut down down the conversation like a hedgehog rolls into a ball when it feels unsafe.

Your child will open up or close down depending how safe he feels.

#3 Avoid leading questions that can put thoughts in your child’s head that weren’t there before.

Questions like:

‘Did she smack you?’

‘Did she shout at you?’

are your thoughts. PARK them.


Hold a ‘clean’ listening space so your child can share his own story. When you are there to really listen, you may discover that your child’s upset is not big. The connection time will still be precious.

Or if it is a serious issue, at least your child experiences you as his loving and connected ally, who will take action on his behalf.

Please comment on your experiences of your child being unhappy at school or your childcare concerns (But please do not name staff or institutions in your comment).

Please seek professional help if you have any concerns.

Let’s not forget our appreciation for all the staff in childcare centres who are doing sterling work. Many of these are community based, not-for-profit centres. Most childcare workers follow this career path because they are passionate about young children. We all need to lobby for better pay, training opportunities and working conditions for the childcare workers who ARE taking good care of our children. 

If you are looking to train or retrain your staff,

Val Mullally is an experienced teacher, principal and trainer in Early Education.

She is also a skilful Siolta facilitator.

She offers regular Parenting courses  (also ONLINE) and is available to travel to offer training.


Related posts:  ‘Toddler Upset – essential reasons for responsive parenting’

Recommended Reading:

You Are My World – Amy Hatkoff

Why Love Matters – Sue Gerhardt

The Whole Brain Child – Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes – Peter Levine and Magie Kline











Last edited September 21st 2019