Disclosing sexual abuse can be difficult and may have significant repercussions for relationships, especially if the abuse was perpetrated by a family member. Survivors often feel deep shame and guilt, in addition to fear that others won’t believe them. Learning how to respond effectively can make a big difference in a survivor’s healing journey.

Understanding Disclosure

Many survivors of sexual abuse wait years before telling another person and some people never do. There’s also a gender difference, with one recent study showing that 16% of women and 34% of men never disclose their experiences of sexual violence (Hebert, Martine et al, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 2009; 54(9), 631-636). But the impact of not disclosing the abuse can be increasingly damaging to the survivor, resulting in anxiety, depression, and substance misuse, in addition to other mental health issues like post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Disclosing what happened to you as a child or adult can be terrifying, and can have major repercussions for survivors. Individuals abused by a family member or trusted friend may be less willing to disclose, for fear of breaking up or causing rifts in the family. When children disclose it is most often to a friend or sibling. Children may also disclose to their mothers, however this depends upon the child’s expected response from her. Of all professionals, teachers are the most likely to receive disclosure from children or youth.

Survivors may not disclose due to:

  • Fear that they won’t be believed;
  • Concern about what others will think, or how they will be treated as a result;
  • Worry about losing a relationship with someone, or getting their abuser in trouble;
  • Believe that they will be blamed for what happened to them;
  • Being threatened by the abuser that harm will come to them or someone they love;
  • Being groomed and conditioned by their abuser to believe that what’s happening to them is normal;
  • Feeling ashamed, guilty and embarrassed about the abuse;
  • Being afraid that they’ll be taken away from their family if they are a child.

It’s important for family and friends of the survivor to respond appropriately to a disclosure in order to prevent re-traumatizing the individual. Some helpful suggestions include:

  • Listen attentively and calmly;
  • Let the person know that you believe them;
  • Assure them that it wasn’t their fault;
  • If it’s a child, let them know simply what you are going to do in response;
  • If an adult, help them to find services and supports in the community;
  • Don’t minimize or rationalize the abuse and don’t blame the survivor;
  • Be patient. It can take time for full disclosure and this can happen over a period of days, weeks or months;
  • Be empathetic and non-judgmental;
  • Don’t expect a survivor to present in a particular way. They may be agitated and emotional, confused, or calm and dispassionate;
  • Report the abuse if it’s a child, even if he or she seems vague or inconsistent in their account of what happened;
  • Ensure that the survivor is safe, and take steps to find a safe space for them if they are in need of protection;
  • If you can’t protect the child from future occurrences do not give false assurances;
  • Try to avoid highly emotional responses, or talking about revenge or anger, as this can increase a child’s fear and worry;
  • Try not to overprotect a child survivor, as that may increase their anxiety and fear of repeat victimization;
  • Don’t put a timeframe on healing and don’t pressure a survivor to get over it or to just be happy.

Responding in a caring, empathetic, and supportive way to disclosures can make a big difference to how survivors view themselves, and their ability to resolve and heal the trauma of sexual abuse.