If a Child Reveals Abuse

Children may not even describe it as abuse. They may describe it as something that happened as an everyday event in their life. This is part of their life.”  – Tim Cromie, Sergeant Detective, Dickinson Police Department, Texas

small boy playing in a room with blurry backgroundChildren are often afraid that by disclosing abuse, they will upset others or get someone they care about in trouble. Sometimes, they may tell part of what happened to test how you will react. How adults respond will affect what information the child shares now and in the future. 

Remain calm and listen. If you show your anger, shock, or distress, the child may think you are upset at them. They may stop telling you what happened, or change their story to protect the abuser and everybody else. React in a way that shows concern, but is also warm.

Pay attention to your body language and voice. Avoid standing over the child with your arms crossed. Get down to the child’s level or lower. Use a casual, nonthreatening tone. Slow your speech.

As much as possible, hold your emotional distress until you are by yourself or another adult.

Believe.  According to criminal justice staff, one of the biggest mistakes people make is not believing children when they originally disclose abuse. Although children may not know that what happened to them is wrong, they rarely lie about abuse.

Children also react to abuse in different ways, and a reaction that seems odd to an adult does not mean the child is not telling the truth. For example, they may tell about their experience without showing any emotion.

Believing the child may be hard to do if the abuser is your partner, a sibling; someone you know and like in the family; or someone you work with. Nobody wants to believe that someone they trust would harm a child.

However, if you question the truth of what they are saying or blame them in any way, children may be further harmed and may stop telling you the truth.

Limit questions. Let the child use his or her own words, drawings, or gestures to tell you what happened, but leave the questioning to the professionals. Repeating the story may re-traumatize children, and probing for more details may make what they remember less accurate. Additionally, the more questions you ask, the more the child may start trying to please you with their answers.

Don’t ask leading questions or try to influence the child’s answers. If you ask, “Uncle Bob hurt you, didn’t he?” the child may think you want them to say yes. If you ask, “Can you tell me how you got this bruise?” the child may feel less pressured in their response.

Avoid “why” questions, which can make the child feel blamed or responsible for what happened.

Assure the child they did the right thing by telling you what happened. Children are often unsure about whether to disclose the abuse. They may fear that they will upset others, that they won’t be believed, or that they will be blamed.

Tell the child it’s not their fault. Children often believe that not only was the abuse their fault, but that they will be blamed. The child may tell you that they “participated” in the sexual abuse. It’s still not their fault. The person who exploited or hurt them is the one who did something wrong.

Don’t make promises. Don’t make promises to the child that are not in your control, such as "This will never happen again" or "I will keep you safe." If it does happen again or the child is not safe, they may lose trust in you.

Be honest about what you are going to do next. Let the child know that you will need to report the abuse and that what the abuser did was not okay. It’s okay to say you don’t know what is going to happen, but that everybody will be working to protect and keep them as safe as possible. Some children may love their abuser and feel very guilty about disclosing abuse, as well as ashamed of being abused. Others may be afraid of what the abuser will do in retaliation.

The more the child gets interviewed about their situation, the more trauma gets imposed in their lives because they have to relive it. People want to know what happened . . . and who better than the child can tell them? But asking more details can really hurt their child, and the interviewing should be left up to trained professionals who are able to elicit detailed information of the abuse.” – Mikey Betancourt, Executive Director, Children’s Alliance of South Texas ~ A Child Advocacy Center

What to Do After a Disclosure

Keep a record. After you talk, write down what the child said as accurately as you can, so you can share it with investigators. If the child did not or cannot report abuse, write down what you have observed and why you are concerned.

Report the abuse or your suspicions of abuse.  Often, people don’t report abuse to Child Protective Services or law enforcement out of fear that they do not have enough information. However, in Texas, it is a legal requirement for all citizens to report any known or suspected abuse against a child.

Work to keep the child safe. If the child is afraid of punishment because the abuser is a member of the family, and if you are concerned the child is in immediate danger, call the police. If they will still have contact with the abuser, work with Child Protective Services or others to develop a safety plan for home, school, or your setting. 

Address emotional safety. Seek help and support for the child, as well as the rest of the family. If you are a parent, the child may want to sleep with you, sleep with the light on, or not go to school for a day or two.

They may not want you to share what they said to other family members, to other teachers, or to other children in school. Let the child know who you will need to tell, and why. Be as careful of their privacy as you can.

A child who did not disclose abuse directly and is confused about why things are suddenly changing in their world will need comfort too.

Know that children frequently disclose abuse and then try to take it back. Children may recant, or take back what they originally said, because they want their family life to return to normal, they don’t want to see everyone upset any more, or they want their abusing parent to be able to come home. When children try to take back their disclosure, it does NOT usually mean the abuse didn’t happen.

Address the child’s feelings of shame and blame. Much of the time, children are abused by someone they know. After the child discloses abuse, the family may lose income, stability, or contact with other family members. Children will often feel responsible for these changes. That feeling can easily be reinforced by other children, family members, and parents. Continue to reassure the child that it’s not their fault and that they did the right thing by telling you what happened.

Be careful who you talk to about the case. The people you talk to may end up being witnesses that child abuse investigators need to talk to.

If the child loves the abuser, be neutral. If you threaten the person or talk bad about them, the child may feel guilty or protective and take back their disclosure. If the child does not want to be separated from the abuser, explain that what happened wasn’t okay. One way to explain this is to say that the person did something wrong, and needs help.

Get support. Hearing about child abuse and neglect is extremely stressful. Seek counseling or other support and practice self care.

(The material in this section was compiled, in part, from personal communications with Mikey Betancourt, Executive Director, Children’s Alliance of South Texas – A Child Advocacy Center; Tim Cromie, Detective Sergeant, Dickinson Police Department; Lindsey Jordan, LMSW, Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas; Anna Phillips, Education Specialist, Region 17 Education Service Center; and Dr. David Scott, University of Texas at Tyler, Department of Social Sciences. In addition, it includes information from SAFE, The Mama Bear EffectStop it Now!RAINN, & ChildHelp.)