Handling Disclosures

Hearing a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse is hard. Responding in a way that promotes healing is even more difficult.

Your very first response should be to believe the child.

Remember, very few reported incidents of child sexual abuse are false. The child has taken a huge risk in telling you and has likely held on to the pain of their abuse for quite a while. Honor their voices by being attentive, compassionate and taking action.

Why don’t they tell?

Before getting into the specifics of how to handle a disclosure, it is important to understand how rare a disclosure is. It is estimated that only 7% of child sexual abuse cases are reported. That means that for every case that is reported, 13 more go unreported. Below is a list of reasons why a child might not tell:

  • They may be afraid of not being believed or being judged.
  • Shame, embarrassment, guilt, confusion.
  • Threats by abuser to hurt them, their family or pet if they tell.
  • Not know who/how to tell (most kids tell someone other than parent).
  • They may not recognize that they have been abused (especially young kids).
  • Afraid of what will happen (taken away from parents, break apart family).

Recognizing a disclosure

In addition to being aware to the barriers to disclosure, it is important to understand that recognizing a child’s disclosure might require “hearing between the lines”. Children will often speak of the abuse in an indirect manner such as:

  • Asking questions about bodies, sexual interactions.
  • Telling parts of what happened and pretend it happened to someone else.
  • Accidentally let it slip and then deny it.
  • Disclosing via their behavior (sexually explicit language/actions, self-injury, dramatic personality shift, acting out).

5 R’s of handling a disclosure

Remain calm. Panic only causes the child’s fear and anxiety to increase

Respect the child. Find a private place to talk

Refrain from conducting your own investigation. Too many questions can ruin the integrity of the case. Defense attorneys can argue “coaching” in these instances.

Refuse to discuss this with others. Go to the appropriate agencies and professionals.

Report the disclosure to the appropriate agency. Law enforcement and Human Services can direct your call.

Beyond the 5 R’s

  • Thank the child for telling you.
  • Expect the story to shift, they may not remember all the details but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
  • If you do ask questions, make sure they are open ended like, “What happened next?” or “Is there anything more you want to tell me?”
  • Don’t force them to talk or keep it to themselves….let the child set the pace. Be patient.
  • Try not to make negative comments about the abuser…the child likely knows and cares about that person.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep (ie: “I won’t tell anyone”, “The abuser will go to jail”).
  • Use their language (for body parts, etc.) when responding.
  • Reassure them that you will take action to make the abuse stop and protect them.

The Final word

What to say:

  • “Thanks for telling me”
  • “I’m proud of you”
  • “I believe you”
  • “Tell me more about that”
  • “It’s not your fault”
  • “I’m really glad you told me”
  • “It took a lot of courage to tell me”
  • “I’m going to call someone whose job it is to help keep children safe.”

What not to say:

  • “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
  • “You must have misunderstood”
  • “Are you sure that’s what happened?”
  • “Why didn’t you say no?”
  • “I’m busy.”

After a Disclosure

Once the initial shock of a disclosure is over comes the inevitable question “Now What?” After you have taken steps to report the abuse and protect the child, it is time for you to process your own trauma related to the disclosure and prepare for the road ahead. The National Traumatic Stress Network has created several information sheets that can help you (especially parents) move through the next steps.

Coping with a disclosure

Navigating Intrafamilial Abuse

What to expect from the legal system

What to Expect After a Report (for those that work with children)