We have a unique program with our Victim Services site that puts us in a position where we work with a lot of youth victims, the vast majority having been sexually abused or something related to relationship abuse (theirs or family). This means we often talk to people about disclosing.
When we talk about a disclosure, we’re referring to someone telling another person a secret or something that is not generally known to others; something very private. Disclosures can happen right after something happens but they can also happen years later. Sometimes people disclose as part of a plan they have for telling others either to vent, for support or assistance or some other validation. Sometimes, many times with children and teenagers, the disclosure is accidental. A kid told a friend something who told their mom or dad who called the school or child protection. Sometimes things just ‘come out’.
You can disclose to anyone really; a friend, a parent, a trusted adult, a family member, your pet, a girlfriend or boyfriend or lifelong partner, a professional that works in the field. You can disclose to a stranger through a hot-line or other online community.
Disclosing is something that we have learned a lot more about over the years. Historically, it was thought that ‘best practice’ was to force people to disclose – especially kids. That way you were “getting it out of them” so they could heal or forget or whatever. What we know now is that disclosure is not something that should ever be forced and can be re-traumatizing if done in such a way that the victim doesn’t have control or say in the who, what, where and when parts of it all.
There are times however, when a disclosure is forced and the victim really had no intention of coming forward. I remember working with this detective a few years ago – a very skilled and caring detective I should add, that was investigating a historical sexual assault involving many victims who were now adults but had been kids when they were assaulted. He was so distraught at how he had to approach people who had no idea their names had been put forward by other victims to question them on their experiences or interactions. He knew that this was not the recommended way for people to deal with it but as part of his job, he also knew he had to. In those cases, victims are faced with a choice to tell their story or not and no matter what someone chooses to do, the rest of the world has to assume that it was the best decision for them at the time. They didn’t get to pick this timing or process and hopefully there is confidential and skilled support offered for those that want it.
For those that are making the choice to come forward, whether it be fully planned in advance or a result of another investigation such as the case I just mentioned, there should be some thought around what you may want to see or the reasons behind the disclosure. The following list are some reasons expressed by survivors:
Validation– (getting acknowledgment and support from others). One of the things that keeps some victims from coming forward is the reaction they anticipate (not being believed, being treated poorly). At the same time, one of the things that can be very helpful for many victims as part of their healing process is the opportunity for others to validate that it wasn’t their fault, that they were not to blame, that they had a right to feel angry or hurt or whatever it is they are feeling, that they are believed.
Explaining behaviours– People can be a ‘judgey’ group some times even when we don’t mean to be. We see a person’s behaviour but because we don’t see all the reasons and life experiences behind that behaviour, we can get caught up in what we see. Sometimes a disclosure is about giving others a better understanding of why the individual may have issues with others or coping or elements of a relationship.
Protecting others– often when you are a victim and manage to get away from your perpetrator, thinking about other victims down the road may not be on the top of your mind or a priority. Taking care of yourself takes up an awful lot of head space. Some reasons why people come forward later on in life is a result of the realization that the person that abused them is now in a position where they might be able to abuse others.
Revenge– some people disclose because they want the world to know what an untrustworthy and abusive person the perpetrator is. Sometimes they want them to hurt as much as they are. Why should a victim have to suffer in silence in order to protect the person that hurt them? We need to understand that even if revenge is the motivation, that doesn’t mean the abuse never happened.
Ventilation– sometimes you just can’t carry it inside anymore and you need to get it out so others can help. Keeping it all in your head can be distracting and exhausting and for some folks, they reach a point where they just want it out in the open so they can move forward in a different way.
Sympathy– sometimes people need a little TLC. Depending on your life and what is happening around it, people can sometimes reach a point where they have had enough of feeling like they are being strong and want some sympathy for the challenges they are facing. There are times when others can struggle with someone who is looking for sympathy but we shouldn’t. If this is what a person needs, then so be it.
Confrontation– some people disclose because they want the opportunity to confront the person who hurt them in a safe and controlled environment. They want to know why they were picked, why the abuser did what they did, why the abuser thought it was okay. Sometimes, the only way to achieve confrontation (safely) is by using the court system as your support and through those avenues, taking the opportunities that might present themselves to have your say.
If you’ve decided to come forward with your story, it might be helpful to do a little planning first. You might want to have an idea to who to tell (are they trustworthy? will they believe you? will they support you?); when is a good time (for example, not at your family reunion but maybe sometime when the person you are telling has the ability to give you the attention something like this deserves); where should you tell? (being in a private place is often better since you don’t have to worry about being interrupted but some people like the safety of a public place since the recipient’s reaction is often controlled); how to tell? (phone call, letter, in person – each method has its advantages and disadvantages and only you can decide what is going to work for you); why you’re telling (it’s a good idea to know ahead of time why you want to do this – if your goal is to see your abuser spend the next 20 years in jail, that’s something you have very little control over – but if your goal is to protect others, you have a role you might be able to play, knowing that you can only do your part).
Realizing that not everyone has the freedom to do so much planning around their ability and surroundings to disclose, the reality is that it often works best for victims if they have the chance to put some thought into it and have a clear purpose to either tell their story or not. Disclosure can be very beneficial if it generates appropriate supports and resources which means the rest of us need to do our part to make sure this process is not something that will cause more trauma along the way.
Credit for this post goes to Ken Singer, LCSW who has a fantastic article on disclosure and confronting your abuser.