Child sexual abuse and disclosure


One of the things we deal with a lot here is child sexual abuse.  It’s not that these communities have higher rates of child sexual assault than anywhere else in the province (or the country for that matter), it’s just that we have managed to create a system that allows for these referrals to come from a bunch of different places.  There is a lot of controversy right now within this sector around kids and possible disclosures.  It’s almost like this huge fear that if you say you provide services the kids will come running out of the woodwork JUST TO DISCLOSE.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.

We put so much pressure on kids to disclose and for some strange reason, expect them to articulate painful, confusing and embarrassing stories in a way that most adults simply can’t.  We ask them questions about times and places and sequences of events that cognitively, they really can’t answer.  When the answers then sound confusing to us (adults), everyone starts to get uncomfortable about whether or not the child or youth is telling the truth.  If you think that the kids can’t tell that you’re now unsure as to whether or not to believe them, you’re wrong – and the damage that this can cause can last a lifetime.


Adults need time and patience to retell a sexual violence story.  Due to the trauma related to the abuse, the information is saved in your brain in a patchwork and disjointed manner.  That means, the story comes out in little bits and pieces, is not going to be in order because of how our brains ‘encode’ or retain the information and is going to feel and sound confusing and illogical at times.  Yet for some reason we don’t give children and youth the same recognition that the story might be disjointed or confusing at first without automatically assuming that they are making it up or someone is “coaching” them.  Needless to say, this is a system that needs a bit of work still because what is happening right now isn’t working very well.


As a general rule, when children and youth do disclose sexual abuse, it is not always to their parents.  It might be a friend, a teacher or some other trusted adult.  While this often creates a ton of stress for the parents (why didn’t they tell me????), it is actually not unusual at all and quite common.  It doesn’t mean that the child is making it up, or that they don’t love you or even that they don’t trust you but they know that this is something that will upset or worry you or maybe make you mad.  Let’s face it, kids go out of their way to avoid worrying their parents the majority of the time.  There is also the issue of manipulation and threats.  We know that kids are conditioned to keep this information as a secret and the majority of the time, the focus is on making sure the kids don’t tell the parents.  It is amazing that any kids manage to overcome that to tell anyone at all.


And then they take it back.  It is not uncommon for most kids to recant their stories or try to convince others that they were making it up or that it never happened.  This type of ‘taking it back’ can happen at any point after the disclosure.  It is really important to always remember that just because a child comes back with “I was making it up” after the fact, that doesn’t mean they really were.  The investigation should not stop at this point.  There are some very valid reasons why kids do this and they include;

  • lack of support from friends or family
  • threats or pressure from family, friends and / or the abuser to make it go away
  • difficulty trying to cope with the anxiety and intrusion into their lives that a disclosure causes
  • worry that the accused will go to jail – especially if it is a family member or friend.  A lot of times, kids just want the abuse to stop, they are not seeking retribution.
  • worry that the family will fall apart and / or feeling like they are the cause of family strife and discord.
  • worry about court.


There is no set timeline or rule for when kids might tell.  Some kids never do and carry the secret and resulting pain and hurts and humiliations into adulthood.  Some kids tell as soon as it happens, some tell by accident when talking about something else but most, by far, wait.  It might be that they are too young to put their story and experiences into words, they simply may not know how to tell, they may not understand what they should tell or they may be too scared and too embarrassed and feeling too much like it is their fault to tell.  When you ask kids, “why did you wait to tell?” you’re giving another message to them at the same time and that is “I’m not sure I’m going to believe you; how is some of this your fault too because if it wasn’t, you would have told right away.”  Kids and teenagers (who look like adults but they’re not yet) don’t hear and interpret the messages the same way.  Their worlds revolve around them and messages that even slightly imply that they did something wrong when they’re trying to tell their story is enough to make them change their mind, withhold important information and essentially clam up and continue to blame themselves.


In the end, unconditional love, acceptance and support for the experiences and reactions of any sexual abuse victim should always be the underlying premise of how all of us approach this.  The police have a job to prove the story happened.  The courts have a job to prove responsibility for the offense – we don’t.  There is nothing stopping any of us from simply providing the support, information and resources that any sexual abuse victim may need.

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Categories: Assault, Children, Sexual assault, Teenagers, Trauma, Victimization

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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