Many children who are sexually abused never disclose what happened to them. If children are young or abused by a family member, the chances of telling someone what happened decrease even more.1 One study found that two out of three adults who were sexually abused when they were children never told anyone about the abuse.2 When children do reveal what happened, months or even years have often elapsed between the original incidence of the abuse and telling about it. But disclosure is an important step in the healing process, and if sexual abuse has occurred, we have some control over whether or not the children in our lives tell us about it. Here’s what you need to know:

Give Your Kids a Chance To Talk.

Researchers have found that having a positive relationship with their parents is one of the biggest factors that can lead children to disclose sexual abuse.1 We need to give kids an opportunity to tell us about what’s going on their lives. Children can be reluctant and scared to bring up something like abuse, but they’ll be more likely to discuss what’s going on if given a chance to talk.1 We can’t expect children to initiate a difficult conversation about something like sexual abuse, but we can create opportunities for them to have open and honest conversations with us.

Your Reaction Makes a Difference.

Unfortunately, disclosure is not a guarantee that things are going to get better for the child. A key factor in whether or not disclosure helps is you. Psychologists have found that when loved ones have negative reactions to sexual abuse, victims often develop negative behavior like self-blame and self-denigration.3 Children who aren’t believed when they speak out about sexual abuse are in danger of taking back what they say, and they can end up more traumatized than if they hadn’t revealed what happened at all.4

Disclosure Can Help With Recovery.

The good news is that children who do tell about sexual abuse have the potential to heal and recover. Many studies show that children who disclose abuse have better emotional health than those who don’t. This is largely because once children open up, they don’t have to devote their energy to denial of what’s happening and suppressing their memories.4 Instead they can focus their attention on healing and recovery. But to heal and recover, they need your help and support.

If a child discloses abuse to you, you’ll probably experience some strong emotions—anger, confusion, sadness, disbelief. But focus your attention on the child. Be calm, open, supportive, and understanding so that healing can start. Abuse may happen to a child you love, but you can ensure that they get the help they need.

For additional guidance, please read our previous blog post on how to report sexual abuse.

2. London, K., Bruck, M., Ceci, S. J., & Shuman, D. W. (2005). Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse: What Does the Research Tell Us About the Ways That Children Tell? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11(1), 194–226.
3. Ullman, S. E. (2002). Social Reactions to Child Sexual Abuse Disclosures: A Critical Review. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 12(1), 89–121.
4. Gries, L. T., Goh, D. S., Andrews, M. B., Gilbert, J., Praver, F., & Stelzer, D. N. (2000). Positive Reaction to Disclosure and Recovery from Child Sexual Abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(1), 29–51.

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