When a child discloses abuse, an adult’s first reaction is the most important. The way an adult reacts, and how it is perceived by the child, can determine whether a child will continue to disclose or decide not to tell anyone ever again.
As a parent or caregiver who discovers their child has been abused, a first reaction may be horror, anger, disbelief, numbness, sadness, or shock. A parent may get upset and say “What? When did this happen? How did this happen to you? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Their voice may rise and sound angry. A parent may cry or shake. While these emotions are understandable, to a child, they may be interpreted as, “Oh, no. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Disclosures Live in the Gray Area
Disclosures are rarely straight forward. Children often disclose abuse over time. They will share bits of information to gage an adult’s reaction, or test the waters of what it might be like to tell someone their story. When the time is right and a child mentions something happened to them, if an adult gets upset, even if it’s not directed at the child, the child may view the reaction as negative towards them. Big reactions can scare the child away from fully disclosing.
As safe adults, we also never know what an offender said to a child. If an adult’s reaction is, “I’m going to kill them, I hate them, or even, I can’t believe they did that,” a child may question whether they did the right thing by coming forward.
Many times, children may have a close relationship with the offender and rely on them for emotional support. If it’s a family member or close family friend, the child may love the offender. Remember, 90% of the time a child knows their abuser. Sometimes children may also worry about who will pay the bills if the offender goes away, or who will take care of them. The offender may provide a place to live, buy groceries or provide support for the family. Children often times worry that they will get in trouble or that they will be harmed for “telling.”
Children also don’t always understand what is happening to them. In some instances, sexual abuse can feel good to the child, or if it’s been happening for a long period of time, it may feel normal. Even though safe adults know abuse is wrong, a child may not know the offender is hurting them.
How Should Adults Respond?
- The first thing to remember is to stay calm. Don’t blurt anything out. Take a deep breath.
- Tell the child you are proud of them for telling you.
- Thank the child for telling you.
- Tell the child you will try to get them help.
- If you need more information ask open ended questions like, “Tell me more about that.”
- The next thing you need to do is call the NY State Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-342-3720. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911. You can also call your local Child Advocacy Center.
What Not to Do
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
- Don’t tell the child they will never see the offender again.
- Don’t ask “why” questions such as, “why did this happen?” or “why were you with them?”
- Don’t ask to see any physical evidence. Don’t ask to see bruises or marks.
- Don’t record the child or ask them to write it down.
Who Does Ask a Child About the Abuse?
After an adult calls the child abuse hotline, if the case is accepted it will then be referred to Law Enforcement and/or Child Protective Services. Law Enforcement and/or Child Protective Services will then notify the Child Advocacy Center. At this time, Law Enforcement or CPS may request a forensic interview.
The Child Advocacy Center has a Forensic Interviewer on staff who is trained to ask children questions in a way that reduces retraumatization and aids in the investigation. Child Advocacy Centers help limit the number of times a child has to tell their story.
For more information on how Child Advocacy Center’s work, check out this great video: