Handling Disclosure

Children may disclose sexual or physical abuse in a variety of ways. They may come in privately to talk directly and specifically about what is going on. However, this is usually not the case. More common ways include:

Indirect hints:
“My brother wouldn’t let me sleep last night.”
“Mr. Jones wears funny underwear.”
“Daddy’s trying to poison me.”
“My babysitter keeps bothering me.”

In the case of physical abuse or neglect a child may say: “I don’t see Mom much anymore.”
“I was all alone last weekend.”
“I don’t like my new Daddy.”
“My Mom gets mean when she drinks.”

Children talk in these terms because often they haven’t learned more specific vocabulary, feel too ashamed or embarrassed to talk more directly, have promised not to tell, or a combination of these reasons. Gently encourage the child to be more specific, within the limits of his or her vocabulary. Remember that you can make a report WITHOUT knowing exactly what form the abuse has taken.

Disguised disclosure:
“I know someone with a touching problem.”
“What would happen if a girl told her mother she was being molested but her mother didn’t believe her?”

In the case of physical abuse or neglect a child might say:
“I know someone who gets beat up by their Dad.”
“What would happen if a girl told you her parents never take care of her?”

Here a child may be talking about a friend/sibling, but is just as likely to be talking about him/herself. Encourage the child to tell you what he or she knows about the “other child.” It is likely the child eventually will tell you whom he or she is talking about.

Disclosure with strings attached:
“I have a problem but if I tell you about it, you have to promise not to tell anyone else.”

Most children are all too aware that some negative consequences will result if they break the secret of abuse. Often the offender uses the threat of these consequences to force the child to remain silent.

Let the child know you want to help her/him, and that the law requires you to make a report if any child discloses abuse. Assure the child you will only discuss the abuse with those directly involved in the legal process: this might include the school counselor, nurse, or principal, and/or the Children's Division investigator.

Tips for responding to disclosure:

  • Find a private place to talk with the child.
  • Do not panic or express shock.
  • Express your belief that the child is telling you the truth.
  • Use the child’s vocabulary.
  • Reassure the child that it is good to tell.
  • Reassure the child that it is not his or her fault, that he or she is not bad.
  • Determine the child’s immediate need or safety.
  • Let the child know that you will do your best to protect and support him/her.
  • Let the child know what you will do.
  • Report to the proper authorities.