Responding to a child’s disclosure of sexual assault

Responding to a child’s disclosure of sexual assault

Supporters of People Who Have Been Sexually Assaulted

Children face many barriers to telling someone about their experience of sexual abuse. Often the perpetrator is someone who is related to or cares for the child, or someone the parent/s trust.

If a child tells you they have experienced any form of sexual abuse, it is important that you accept what they are saying and respond in a caring, supportive and protective way. Don’t make any promises that you can’t keep, such as telling the child that you won’t tell anyone else what they have told you. Being calm and containing your emotions can reassure the child and enable them to continue with their disclosure.

When adults respond with shock or with strong emotions to a child’s disclosure, including expressing anger towards the perpetrator, the child can misunderstand the emotions and feel they have done something wrong. Children can often be protective of adults and try not to say or do things which will upset them.

If you have responded in an emotional way in front of a child when they disclosed, don’t be too hard on yourself. It is normal to feel horrified, shocked and upset to hear of children experiencing sexual assault, let alone your own child or a child you know. The impact of your response can be repaired with time. Keep in mind that it will usually take some time before a child feels comfortable to speak about the abuse again if the first reaction they received was a particularly emotional one. You can speak with the child again at a later stage when you have had time to talk things through with someone trusted and are feeling calmer. You can tell the child how brave you feel they were to tell you what happened, that you didn’t mean to respond the way you did, and that you are so happy they told you because you can help them to be safe. Letting a child know that they can talk to you when they need to about what has happened can create safety and opportunities for healing. It can be incredibly difficult to hear a child’s disclosures, so it is important to remember that you should also get support.

Full disclosure might take days, weeks or months. It is also important that you allow the child to speak as much or as little about what has happened in their own way in their own time. Asking probing questions can be interpreted by the child as misbelief (and can also interfere with legal processes by giving defense lawyers the opportunity to say you ‘coached’ the child into making up or exaggerating the abuse). The most valuable things you can do are to support and listen to the child, without judgment.