If you have been keeping up with my blog, you may have noticed that I have not spent much time discussing my personal disclosure of abuse or what I think on the topic in general. I have purposefully not shared my disclosure experiences because I just did not feel ready. However, I have come to the conclusion that I want this blog to continue to be a place that people can learn from successes and failures in my story. There are many mixed views about the appropriate responses when a child discloses abuse and I appreciate the respectful dialogue that can occur through differing opinions. This post consists of my ideas about disclosure based on personal experience and the beliefs that I have come to adopt through the healing process.
It was not until last year that I realized just how difficult the issue of disclosure can be and the many emotions it fuels. When a friend was accused of committing sex crimes with a minor I did not want to believe it. It is hard to believe that someone you love and care about- whether it’s a friend, spouse, family member, teacher, pastor, coach, etc- could commit such atrocious crimes. Honestly, the default in us may be to say “no way, that’s not possible.” We want to see the good in people. There is good in people. I believe that. But, I also know the amount of courage it takes to mutter the words “I am being abused” (or however it comes out). I also know the immeasurable fear that ensues as soon as those words are muttered. There is also the knowledge that you have broken the rule and the legitimate possibility your abuser will follow through with their threats. Disclosing abuse involves a person making the decision that they are willing to risk their abuser’s threats becoming promises in hopes of the opportunity for freedom from the pain.
My first disclosure took place about a year or two after the ongoing abuse began. I wrote a letter after a bad fight with my abuser. I did not exhibit any of the typical signs or symptoms of being actively sexually abused and therefore no significant safeguards were put in place to end the abuse. After my first disclosure, I vowed I would never tell anyone what happened to me. Thankfully, my eighth grade year of school I was able to identify a teacher that I trusted. I took that chance once again and as mandated reporters, my abuse was taken seriously, investigated, and ultimately resulted in my abuser being charged.
So here is what I’ve learned about disclosure and my thoughts:
- The first words, despite the likely feelings of shock, need to be “you did the right thing by telling, this is not your fault, I believe you, and I am here for you.” The child, or adult, likely feels some sense of trust and safety if they are disclosing to you in the first place.
- Never use the word “IF.” If implies disbelief such as “if this happened…”
- Do not make promises you cannot keep. You may not be able to ensure the person’s complete safety from the perpetrator. If you can make that promise, it is really comforting, but only make promises you know you can keep.
- Let the appropriate parties do the investigating. This may depend on your role, but if it is not your responsibility, don’t begin the investigative questioning. Safety is the most important element immediately following disclosure.
- Do your absolute best to maintain a calm and comforting composure. I am certain it is much easier said than done, but a child needs to see a strong adult. This doesn’t mean you have to be hardened and stoic. Be real, but don’t become an emotionally distraught in front of the child.
- Continue to support the child or adult in whatever ways you can. If a person discloses their abuse to you, know that they did not just pick you randomly. There is likely a reason they felt safe with you and you have the power to be a influential force in the child’s life. Again, this will look different depending on your role.
Too many times disclosure does not occur until years or even decades after the abuse first occurs. This is not okay. If children can know that they will be believed and someone will act on their behalf and in their best interest, maybe, just maybe, disclosure will occur sooner. Unfortunately, right now, too many disclosures are overlooked. When a child witnesses another person’s disclosure being dismissed that decreases the likelihood they will ever gain the courage and trust to tell their experiences.
Again, these are just my views and I know the many alternatives. Although I don’t necessarily agree with them, I can see where people come from in forming their beliefs.
What are your thoughts on disclosure? Can you think of any other helpful tips in handling a child’s disclosure of sexual abuse?
Kendall, I have been reading your blog since the first post. I am in awe of your courage and determination to use your voice to educate and hopefully empower others who are being abused. With each post, but especially this one, I feel sadness and overwhelming guilt that as an adult in your community, I did not recognize the signs and make myself available to you for refuge and comfort. My only advice is for the adults, those teachers, church workers, choir directors, dance instructors, coaches, etc to remain ever vigilant to the signs and create a safe haven around all children so they feel supported enough to come forward if they are being abused.
Thank you for sharing this. It can be so difficult to pick up on the signs of abuse. Kids respond in so many different ways. That safe haven is necessary. We also have to engage in conversations with children that are heartfelt on what consists of abuse and who to tell. I sat through so many health classes that taught me what sexual abuse is, but that wasn’t enough to get me to speak. The abuse is so normalized that sometimes the child doesn’t identify what is happening as abuse. I am thankful for you!