My Child has Discovered that I (or my Partner) Engaged in Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

Unfortunately, children often become aware of a parent’s acting-out behavior. Perhaps a child has been the one to discover the behavior, viewing a text, a website, email, or other electronic communication. Or, the child may overhear parents as they interact emotionally. Or, one parent may disclose the behavior to the child.

The impact upon the child is devastating. The stability of the home, so important for the child’s sense of well-being, has been destroyed.

  • The child’s emotional, social, and sexual development has been scarred by the exposure to the parent’s violation of the marital relationship.
  • The child may be thrust into the middle of the parental conflict, feeling compelled to take sides, or feeling a need to play the role of mediator.
  • In either situation, the child is pulled back into focus on the family rather than being able to appropriately explore relationships with peers.
  • The child may be isolated, not feeling safe discussing what is going on in the family with anyone else.

All of these impacts can result in lifelong difficulties for the child.

What we know about children and trauma is that children can heal when they have adult support that acknowledges the trauma and its impact and that provides guidance to help them heal. Here’s a few guidelines:

  • Resist impulsive decision making
  • Work to develop mutually agreed plans supported by both parents to the extent that is possible
  • Don’t lie – but you do not need to share unnecessary details and can let your children know that certain topics and details are private between the parents
  • Communicate with your children based upon an understanding of what is appropriate for their age, stage of development, and unique circumstances. For example, a young child may be told that a parent has broken a promise without being specific about any details, an older child may be told that a parent has a problem with an addiction but again without any details, etc.
  • Clarify and focus on your children’s needs – For example, if there is going to be a separation, it may be best not to discuss that with children until there is a specific plan and the children can be informed as to when they will have contact with each parent.
  • Attend to your children’s feelings and concerns – What are their concerns and questions? What do they need? Respect your child’s need for limits to contact, listen and acknowledge validity of your child’s anger, fear or grief, or your child’s desire not to be involved but instead focus on his/her own life.
  • Get help for your child and for yourselves from qualified clinicians who have training and experience in helping children overcome the negative effects of this trauma. Get help as well from other parents who have face similar challenges.