What Encourages Disclosure of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Jay Morse and Heidi Radunovich, PhD

Victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) often struggle with whether or not to tell anyone about their sexual abuse, and sometimes delay disclosure for years, if they disclose at all. But what can be done to increase the likelihood of disclosing CSA? In a recent qualitative study in Ireland, McElvaney, Greene, and Hogan (2014) examined informal disclosure of CSA, considering events leading up to, during, and following disclosure.

Sad child on bench
[Flickr, Sad by U.S. Fotografle, CC BY-ND 2.0] Retrieved on September 17, 2015
The researchers interviewed 22 children and adolescents, and 14 of their parents. Responses to interview questions were divided into three categories: 1) General – related to all cases; 2) Typical – more than one-half the cases included the response; and 3) Variant – only two or three cases reported.

Five crucial areas related to disclosure were identified:

1)      Being believed. Fear of not being believed was the reason most often cited for not disclosing the abuse.

2)      Being asked. Respondents often stated that their disclosure was related to “being asked” whether directly, or indirectly. Parents or concerned observers, such as a teacher, often noted a change in behavior and asked if anything were wrong, which encouraged disclosure. In two cases, family members observed sexualized behaviors that were unusual for the victim of the abuse.

3)      Shame and self-blame. Almost one-half of the participants reported feeling ashamed or blaming themselves as the reason for not disclosing. Children/adolescents reasoned that it was too embarrassing to tell a parent of the incident. Self-blame also played a role in not disclosing the abuse. In some cases, this self-blame extended beyond the event itself and focused on the consequences of talking about the event, hiding the abuse for fear of what might follow.

4)      Fears and Concerns for Self and Others. Fear of the consequences of disclosing their abuse varied among participants, even though most of the fears were unfounded. Included in the responses were fears of the abuser hurting them again, as well as the impact on the family, and/or fear of going through the judicial process.

5)      Peer Influence. In this study, peer influence encouraged the young person to disclose to an adult, with 15 of the 22 young people interviewed reporting that they had first disclosed their abuse to a friend or relative before disclosing to a parent.

Clinicians who work with children and adolescents should be aware of the following in their practice:

  • Shame and self-blame are issues for children and adolescents who consider disclosing their abuse. Practitioners can diminish the possible negative messages received by young people from people around them by encouraging an atmosphere of trust.
  • Peers play an important role in disclosure, providing support to the victim and encouraging disclosure. Professionals working with victims of abuse can ask about available peer support.
  • Some of the participants noted that “they had never been asked.” Often, just asking will elicit disclosure of CSA.

References

[1] McElvaney, R.,  Greene, S. & Hogan, D. (2014). To tell or not to tell? Factors influencing young people’s informal disclosures of child sexual abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(5), 928-947. doi: 10.1177/0886260513506281

This post was written by Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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