Responding to Disclosure

Only a minority of children and young people actively disclose abuse. Most child abuse is disclosed accidentally or through observation by an adult of a child or young person’s behaviour, words, and physical appearance.

When a child or young person discloses abuse, this needs to be taken very seriously. It is important that any disclosure is dealt with appropriately, both for the wellbeing of the child or young person, and also to ensure your actions do not jeopardize any legal action against the abuser.

Indirect or Accidental Disclosure

Sometimes children disclose sexual abuse in roundabout ways. They might give indirect verbal hints: “My brother wouldn’t let me sleep last night.” “Mr. Jones wears funny underwear.” “My babysitter keeps bothering me.” “I don’t like Grandpa anymore.”

Children might talk this way about abuse because they don’t have the more specific vocabulary, feel too ashamed or embarrassed to talk more directly, or have promised not to tell. None of these comments necessarily mean that a child is being abused, but they are certainly signals to try to get more information.

Gently encourage your child to tell you more about the comment, within the limits of his or her vocabulary. But bear in mind that to get your child help, you don’t need to be absolutely sure that abuse has occurred or what form it has taken.

In Disguise Disclosure

Disguised disclosure is when a child says something like, “I know someone with a touching problem,” or “What happens if a girl tells her mom that someone was touching her private parts? Would her mom believe her?” Encourage your child to tell you what he or she knows about the “other child.” In many cases, your child will eventually tell you who the “other child” is.

Most children are all too aware that negative consequences could result if they disclose. Often the offender uses threats of these consequences to force a child to remain silent. Let your child know that you want to help, that you won’t be mad, and that it is safe to tell.

Responding to Disclosure

  • Stay calm. Don’t panic or express shock. By controlling your feelings, you can avoid frightening your child or causing guilt or embarrassment. (Your response can have a big impact on their ability to seek further help and recover from the trauma).
  • Provide a safe environment. Make sure the setting is confidential and comfortable.
  • Reassure your child. Make it clear that you believe him or her. Children rarely lie about abuse. Here are some other messages you’ll want to get across: You did the right thing. I’m glad you told me. You were very brave to tell me; I’m proud of you. This was not your fault. You did nothing wrong. You’re going to be okay.
  • Listen more than you talk, and avoid advice-giving or problem-solving. Don’t put words in your child’s mouth or assume you know what he/she means or are going to say. Let your child use language they are comfortable with. Let your child set the pace, don’t rush them. Don’t seek help while the child or young person is talking to you.
  • Don’t interrogate or ask leading questions. Encourage your child to open up by repeating what he or she told you and then saying “Tell me more” and “What happened next?” Avoid questions that suggest that something has happened, such as “Did Grandpa touch your private body parts?” Don’t ask your child for details. This can make it harder for your child to tell you about the abuse.
  • Don’t contaminate the evidence. When a child tells you about abuse, listen, but don’t insist on precise answers and details. It’s best to allow a trained person, such as a child protection agency worker, to talk to your child. You may feel disgusted, sadness, anger, or disbelief. Remember, these are your feelings and you need to put them aside to be there for the child.
  • Avoid making promises you can’t keep. Don’t say you won’t tell anyone about the abuse, instead, tell them that you will need to talk to someone whose job it is to keep them safe. Let the child know that you will do everything in your power to protect them from harm.
  • Document exact quotes. It may be helpful to write down exact quotes of what your child said in case of the involvement of other parties, such as school or child protective services.
  • Be supportive, not judgmental. Don’t talk negatively. Even though your child may be disclosing terrible things that may have happened at the hands of a family member or friend, the child may still love that person. Don’t ask questions that imply the child was at fault – Why didn’t you tell me before?; What were you doing there?; Why didn’t you stop it?; and Are you telling the truth?
  • Report any suspicion of child abuse and neglect. Once the report is made, you have done your part, now leave it to the proper authorities to do their job and investigate. Do not let personal doubt prevent you from reporting the abuse.

After a Disclosure

  • Reassure the child they did the right thing by telling you but do not promise confidentiality.
  • Let them know what you are going to do next.
  • Immediately seek help from designated child protection.
  • Write down accurately what the young person has told you. Records should be detailed and precise. Sign and date your notes. Keep all notes in a secure place for an indefinite period.
  • Seek help for yourself if you feel you need support.

Useful Links