Do’s and Do Not’s of Disclosing
Now more than ever, the topic of child sexual abuse is discussed. Parents and those who work with children are inundated with information that could help a child: Signs of abuse, grooming tactics, statistics, coping mechanisms, how to be supportive on a healing journey, and how to cope as a parent if your child has been through trauma. All of this information is crucial, but so is knowing how to respond in the event of a disclosure. How we react after a child discloses can determine how they heal the rest of their life. Here are the “Do’s and the Do Not’s” of disclosing:
DO NOT blame the child
The child has likely hesitated to disclose their abuse before going to an outcry witness. Feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid of getting in trouble can compound if a child’s disclosure is met with, “It’s your fault, you did something wrong, you should have stopped it.” This is a crucial myth to breakdown in all communities. A myth that places blame on anyone but the perpetrator, and ultimately leads to the silencing of victims.
DO Listen Carefully
Pay attention to what the child says, you will need to remember details when making a report. That does not mean asking detailed questions about the abuse. Let the child use their own words in their own way.
DO NOT show or verbalize disbelief
Believe them! The thought of a “Trusted Hero” not believing a victim could be the driving force behind a keeping unsafe secrets. If a child fights through that fear and tells someone they trust, and are met with disbelief, the fallout of their self-esteem could takes years or even a lifetime to build back up. It’s possible they never tell again.
DO stay calm and consider your body language
Experiencing shock, anger, and grief are all normal when a child discloses. It is important to understand that in the moment of a disclosure and for a time afterward, our reactions can be perceived by a child as negative. They will take that reaction and think, “I started this feeling by telling, therefore their anger is my fault.” Remaining neutral provides calm and creates a safe environment for a child to speak freely.
DO NOT shrug off or minimize what the child has told you
This means taking the child and their words seriously. Abuse is not something to be pushed aside or ignored. No matter how scattered their disclosure may be or if what they are saying seems unlikely, speaking about sexual abuse should always be taken seriously.
DO Encourage the child to speak freely
Explain that they will not get in trouble for what they say and you want them to know they are safe with you. Remember, we are not asking direct questions about abuse so it is important a child feels comfortable to tell what happened in their own voice.
DO NOT promise to keep what the child tells you a secret
The child’s trust has already been shattered by their abuser. Do not build them up in the moment and promise to keep their abuse a secret. Let them know you are proud of them for telling you, but you need help from another grown-up to stop the problem. That if you don’t tell anyone, that is now two people with an unsafe secret, and no one should have to keep unsafe secrets.
DO Make a report to the proper authorities
In Illinois, D.C.F.S. has a direct number for reporting abuse: 1-800-25-ABUSE. If you are unsure about calling, reaching out to a local rape crisis center and requesting an appointment with a legal advocate or counselor, free of charge, can be a great help and support system in reporting.
Above all, we ask that you that you maintain empathy. Not only did this child go through the unthinkable, they found the courage to ask for help. Through fear, shame, and embarrassment they determined you were a safe person to go to, and with this information you now know that you truly are.
FULL TRANSCRIPT (The following is the full transcript of this episode of The Be Seen and Heard Journey. Please note that this episode, like all BSH Journey episodes, features Victor speaking extemporaneously–he is unscripted and unedited.)
Hey, it’s Victor, welcome to another Be Seen and Heard© Journey. I want to thank you so much for joining me today. Today’s topic is on disclosures. You know, many times when I’m at schools, I always ask kids who their trusted heroes are, and they always say without a doubt their parents, grandparents, and their teachers when they’re at school. And many times I have the opportunity to talk to teachers about what to do if someone discloses and even before that, how to respond when someone discloses. Because there are a lot of ways that people will react when a student comes forward to share something very personal. Because many times the trusted hero becomes very uncomfortable and as we talk about this topic more and more and we really stopped sweeping under the carpet, we can learn to come from a place of more empathy and honestly to be more relaxed if a child discloses.
There are a couple of things to think about when a child discloses, whether you are a trusted hero outside of school or someone in school as a teacher, principal, social worker, or counselor. Here’s something to think about. If a child discloses, you want to listen carefully. This is really important. Obviously I always tell this to students, “What’s the first thing you do when someone talks to you? You listen…do not to jump in or to interrupt.”
Another thing that you want to do is to avoid anything that implies blame. Stay calm, consider body language. So I equate body language to the way you’re presenting yourself. When a child is talking to you, and I put this picture up on the screen of a dog…let me explain. When I was walking home one day from raking a neighbor’s leaves, I’ll never forget this, I’m walking down the sidewalk and I see my friend from school in her backyard and as I started to approach her fence, her dog had come over.
When the dog came over, the dog must have sensed that I was uncomfortable or nervous and dog literally pushed the girl out of the way and the dog attacked me. I literally fell to the ground and I was bitten all over and I had to be rushed to the hospital. The dog sensed that I was nervous. And so I’m asking people, I’m telling educators, when a child is sharing something very personal and that person, that trusted hero is nervous or uncomfortable to try to be the best actor or actress at that moment and to not react, but to respond and listen very carefully to that child. Because if a child senses that your uncomfortable, or you are fidgeting, or your body language shows that you’re uncomfortable, what’s going to happen is that child is either going to retreat and say, I’ll talk about this later. Or they’re not going to feel believed. That is the worst thing a victim could feel is to not feel believed.
Encourage the child to talk freely. Take them seriously. Never promise to keep what a child tells you a secret. This is really important. A lot of times children will talk thinking that the person they’re telling isn’t going to say anything to anyone. Well if you put it out there and say, listen, you can trust me, but know this, I cannot promise that I’m going to keep this between us because what you’re sharing with me requires more help beyond me. And so I’m here to get you to that place. And finally, make a report to the proper authorities. Obviously in schools, teachers, counselors, principals, administration are all mandated reporters. If a child discloses to their trusted hero, that person has to make the proper call.
When I finally had the courage to call home and my sister answered, she basically did one thing. She listened….I couldn’t say the words abuse, but I have learned that by admitting something isn’t right, that’s where the healing begin. As soon as she noticed that something wasn’t right, she guested it out of me. She kept asking me questions and she made me feel very comfortable. And that’s what it’s all about. Thank you so much for listening today, I want to say please share this video and podcast with your friends and family and remember, all children, young and old deserve to Be Seen and Heard©. Thank you so much. Have a great day.