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Handling Disclosures

It is possible that when you open a dialogue, the child may reveal something inappropriate or abusive that has happened to them in the past, or is occurring with another adult or youth.

  • First, if your child has disclosed sexual abuse to you, realize that this is a rare moment and your child is among the courageous. Most children don’t tell, even when adults have educated them and reassured them that they can talk to their parents about sexual abuse.   As an adult now, it can be difficult to remember our vulnerability when we were children.  If your child has disclosed something to you, he or she already has some faith in himself and in you. Your child should be praised, loved and supported in the huge risk he has taken in telling.
    • Realize that you, as the important adult the child has chosen to tell, are the mediator of the trauma. You have great power in how deeply the trauma will root in the child’s system. Your responses can drive it deeper or be an immense breakthrough and relief for the child. Your response is therefore extremely important, and you will likely need professional help in knowing how to support the child over time. The most important thing for you to be aware of is that you have the opportunity to intercede in the impact of the trauma and restore wholeness. 
    • It is important that you control your own emotions by remaining calm.  Do not show disbelief, shock, or anger.  Don't place blame or pass judgment.  Take a deep breath and take it slow.  Your reaction can potentially determine how much information the child is willing to disclose.  Children who receive affirmation, support and protection can and do heal from abuse. 
    • Tell the child "I believe you." And, "It’s not your fault." Praise your child for telling you.
    • Listen closely but don’t ask specific questions. Instead ask open-ended questions like, "What happened next? Or "Tell me more." 
    • It’s helpful to ask the child "How do you feel?" This conveys deep caring and also will help you to understand what impact the event has had on the child, so that you ‘ll know how to reassure them. For example, if the child says "I feel really scared," you can reassure that you’ll protect them. If the child says "I feel icky or guilty," you can let them know that it was not their fault. If the child says, "I feel really mad," you can reaffirm that they have a right to be mad and it shouldn’t have happened. If the child can tell you how he or she feels, it will help you to know what to say next to affirm them and honor their courage. 
    • Professionals who work with child victims of sexual abuse also say that it is very, very important that adults tell the child that they are sorry for what has happened to them and to use the language that the child has used to share the events with you.   For example, if the child says “he touched my breasts” or “he put his penis in my mouth”, it’s important to say, “I’m sorry he touched your breasts.” Or “I’m sorry he put his penis in your mouth.”   This lets the child know that they are not carrying the truth of the experience alone. It also tells them that you as an adult can really hear and handle what actually happened.  Most of the damage of sexual abuse comes from the secret of it, and the impact of carrying the experience alone. 
    • Realize that most children who are abused, are abused by someone they love and trust. This means that they frequently feel deeply betrayed and tricked.  They also feel shame, like they might be to blame for what has happened.  What’s more, most parents feel alarmed and mortified that they didn’t see the abuse or didn’t protect.  If you feel this way, it’s important to tell the child “He or she (the offender) tricked me too.  He/She betrayed my trust too.”  This puts you and the child on the same side of the issue.  It creates alignment between you and the child, and it acknowledges that the offender was skillful, and exploited the child’s innocence; not that the child was “dumb” or “guilty”, as they often feel.
    • Realize that you will likely need professional help in having all of these discussions.  Disclosures of child sexual abuse are some of the most painful conversations you and your child will ever have. They are also potentially the most empowering.  Get support.