Responding to disclosures of child abuse
Child sexual abuse is a traumatic experience, not only for the victim but also for the family, friends and other caregivers of that survivor. It is an understandably overwhelming issue to hear and speak about.
This is why it is important to keep the following in mind if a child were to ever disclose sexual abuse to you:
Believe the child- Defaulting to denial might seem more convenient to you given the painful nature of the matter, but it is not the solution. It is important to take the child seriously because it is unlikely that they are lying about it. Since 93% of victims know their perpetrators, the child might still love and care for them and not wish to endanger them; the child might have been threatened into silence by the perpetrator; the child might feel that he or she is at fault — remember, many reasons serve to prevent a survivor from speaking out, and so to do it despite those reasons requires a great deal of courage.
Create a safe environment – Ensure that you provide a comfortable and confidential setting for the child to make them feel safe enough to openly speak and emote.
Stay calm - Hearing about child sexual abuse might flood you with a sense of fear, horror and a host of other negative emotions, but it is important not to act on them in the presence of the child. It might cause the child to think that you are judging them and cause them to shut down. Your reaction can either instill or strip a child of the confidence required to speak out, so it is important to be calm and comforting. Set your feelings aside and give priority to the child at the time.
Reassure them - Victims of child sexual abuse often feel that they are at fault for the atrocity perpetrated against them. They will be ridden with feelings of guilt, shame and fear that no one will believe them. This is why it is important to reassure the child that it is not their fault and that they are brave for speaking out.
Be an active listener - Do not make any assumptions about the situation. Listen to all the information that the child is disclosing to you and allow them to do it in their own time and words. Let the child set the pace and tone of the conversation.
Do not interrogate them - Do not attempt to tease out minor details from the child because it can be a difficult and confusing experience for them. You have to respect the fact that they might not disclose every single detail to you- you only need enough information to take the next logical step, which might be to inform the relevant authorities or to ensure that the child is not in any immediate danger. If you feel that you have not received enough information to do this, then be cautious and ask them sensitive, open-ended questions (ex: What happened? Where did it happen? When?). Do not ask them questions that will in any way imply that they are at fault for what happened or lead them to give you possible answers.
Be supportive towards them - Make sure to let them know that they are not at fault for what happened. Do not allow your tone and behaviour to even unintentionally reflect a sense of harshness, criticalness or judgement towards them. Do not ask them questions that will imply that they are at fault (ex: Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Why didn’t you just say no?). They are extremely vulnerable.
Be sensitive towards their emotions - The child may be overwhelmed with feelings of deep fear, guilt, shame and confusion. Do your utmost to make them feel at ease.
Be proactive - Remember that you have a responsibility to report the abuse to the relevant authorities upon hearing of it. Do not assume that the child is lying and ignore their disclosure. Allow the authorities to investigate it. Make notes regarding the date, place and time of the conversation; the words used by the child; the way that the child appeared to you, if necessary. They might be useful to the authorities.
If the perpetrator is someone close to you, seek out support as soon as possible.
British Council, n.d. Guidance on handling a disclosure from a child. [PDF]. Available at< https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/handling_disclosure_from_a_child_0.pdf>
Childhelp, n.d. Handling Child Abuse Disclosures. [online] Available at https://www.childhelp.org/story-resource-center/handling-child-abuse-disclosures
Kidshelpline, n.d. Responding to disclosures of child abuse. [online]. Available at < https://kidshelpline.com.au/parents/issues/responding-disclosures-child-abuse>
Parents Protect, n.d.If A Child Tells You About Abuse. [online]. Available at < Parents Protect - If a child tells you about abuse>
Raising Children Network, n.d. Child sexual abuse: what to do if a child is sexually abused. [online]. Available at < Child sexual abuse: what to do | Raising Children Network>
Stop It Now, n.d. What Should I Do After A Child Tells? [online] Available at < What Should I Do After A Child Tells? | Stop It Now>