It’s very hard for children to tell anyone about sexual abuse, so they don’t usually disclose it directly. More often, abused children will take a more indirect route. Here are some of the ways you might find out about abuse from a child.
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 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.
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
If your child discloses abuse to you, stay calm. Don’t panic or express shock. By controlling your feelings, you can avoid frightening your child or causing guilt or embarrassment.
Be matter-of-fact and try to be objective. 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?” It’s also important not to pressure your child to talk. If pressured, a child may become too anxious to talk or may deny the abuse.
Try to be as warm and caring as you can, and avoid expressing anger or blame. For example, questions like “Why didn’t you tell me?” are not helpful in these situations.
Reassure your child, and 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.
Remember that young children are often inconsistent and confused about specific details like numbers, days, times, and so on. This doesn’t mean they’re not telling the truth about what happened. They may begin to deny the abuse if they keep getting asked about specific details. So 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.
Tell your child what you will do. Let your child know that you will do your best to protect and support him or her. Let your child know that you won’t leave him or her alone with the offender again. Tell your child that you will talk to people who can help. With an older child, you can specifically mention that you will call your local child protection agency or the police. This will help prepare an older child for talking to officials about the abuse.