Sexually abused children whose mothers believe them and offer comfort are less likely to suffer from anger and depression, according to a recent study. 

“Disclosing sexual abuse can be a very stressful process for a child, and the reactions of the child’s primary caregiver can play a key role in the child’s adjustment,” said lead author Kristyn Zajac, an assistant professor at the Family Services Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Nearly half of all sexual assault victims are under the age of 18, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

According to previous studies, children who are abused are at risk of suicide attempts, running away and behavior problems, the researchers write in Child Abuse and Neglect.

Zajac and her colleagues recruited 118 pairs of children and mothers (or female guardians) from a child advocacy center. The children, who were between the ages of seven and 16, had been forensically evaluated to determine that physical abuse had occurred. None of the mothers was involved in the abuse.

The research staff interviewed each mother and child in separate rooms and asked them questions about the mother’s level of support including her tendency to doubt or blame the child, to reassure the child, to seek more information and to express a wish for revenge against the offender.

In addition, both mother and child answered questions about the child’s trauma-related emotional symptoms.

The researchers repeated the interviews nine months later, though about half of the mother-child pairs were unavailable for the second round.

Half of the perpetrators of sexual abuse were family members, about one in six were in a romantic relationship with the mother, and nearly one quarter were strangers.

Based on the first round of interviews, the study team found that children who rated their mothers as being more emotionally supportive showed lower levels of anger and depression.

Children were more likely to act out with behavior problems – so called externalizing behavior - if their mothers rated themselves as displaying more blame or doubt, but not when their mothers rated themselves as emotionally supportive.

Children whose mothers expressed a desire for vengeance against the perpetrator were at greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Zajac noted in an email that the study was the first to specifically examine maternal behaviors - including expressing a desire for revenge or suggesting that the child was in some way responsible for the abuse - that had a negative effect on children’s adjustment.

Beverly Lovett, a professor of social work at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, said that part of the reason mothers may react in an unsupportive way is that the abusers are so often people close to the family.

Lovett, who was not involved in the study, noted that mothers may be financially or emotionally dependent on the offender, which can complicate the situation.

“When a mother hears her son or daughter tell of being sexually abused, particularly by a known and trusted person, it often catapults her into crisis,” Lovett, said in an email. “Just as disclosure is a process for a child, mothers also may need time to digest the disclosure and respond in a way that does not doubt or otherwise fail to meet the child’s emotional needs,” she noted.

Zajac recommended seeking professional help for the children. For families without access to therapy or counseling, she recommends child advocacy centers, which may offer services to people with fewer resources. The National Children’s Advocacy Center website has a search page (bit.ly/1y7I0Tl) for finding a local child advocacy center.

Zajac also advised that the most helpful reaction mothers can have to the news of abuse is to provide comfort and reassurance and avoid expressing skepticism or a desire for vengeance.