Responding to a Child’s Disclosure

Responding to A Child’s Disclosure – What to Do and What Not to Do if a Child Tells You They Are Experiencing Abuse

There are many reasons children do not disclose abuse.

  • Children are taught to obey adults.
  • Developmental differences – the child may not know the words that describe the abuse, have difficulty understanding the event, be mixed up about the time and location, and may confuse reality and fantasy.
  • Confusion about appropriate touches.
  • Fear of parent’s anger or blame.
  • Fear of the consequences or that they will not be believed.
  • Fear of loss of privileges.
  • Guilt for feeling pleasure.
  • Fear of threats made by the perpetrator.

Some Tips on How to Respond When a Child Discloses Abuse

Contain your Anger, Shock, and Horror

In the presence of the child, we suggest remaining calm and to focus on listening. Later, when you are away from the child, you can express your feelings with adult friends, family, or hotline counselors. Anyone who is a part of your support system. 

Even though anger, shock, and horror are completely natural responses when a child tells you they are being abused, it is important to filter these reactions. Disclosing abuse is one of the hardest things for anyone to do, especially children. Kids cannot always tell whether you are angry at them or angry about what happened – so try to contain your natural responses. The last thing you want is for a child to think you are angry at them for disclosing what is happening to them.

  • Remain Calm
  • Focus on Listening
  • Express your feelings later to another adult, counselor, hotline worker, Etc.

Do not condemn the abuser

Child sexual abuse typically happens when the victim knows their abuser which makes it even more complicated because there is often love in these relationships. Therefore, we believe that it may be helpful to denounce the abuser’s behavior but not the abuser themselves. This prevents any additional feelings of guilt or shame an already abused child may be feeling. Abusers are often very skillful at making their victims feel as though they are responsible for what happened- especially if it was someone, they thought they could trust.

Avoid making promises you are not certain you can keep

It is important to avoid making promises you cannot be certain you will be able to keep. For instance, don’t say to the child, “we are going to find them and lock them up forever” unless the trial is over, and the abuser has been convicted with a life sentence. Unfortunately, there continues to be a low conviction and sentencing rate for sexual assault/rape. Predicting any kind of legal outcome is not a good idea; otherwise, the child may feel at fault if the abuser is not prosecuted. Instead, set expectations realistically and focus on what actions can be taken, that you can and will take to help the child.

Help is Available

Remember – you don’t have to go it alone. If a child has disclosed abuse to you, and you are not sure what to do, or you would like guidance and/or support, please call our HOTLINE at any time, day or night for help 215-985-3333.