For Children

“To say or not to say?” Revealing sexual abuse

“To say or not to say?” – children who go through such experiences often ask themselves. The thought that they might escape abuse makes them want to talk about it, but the fear, shame, guilt and confusion that arise in such cases often pull them back.

The sooner the child victim discloses the sexual abuse, the sooner the process can be initiated to ensure the child is protected and safe from the abuser. Following disclosure, important steps are taken so that the abuse is stopped, the risks to other potential victims are reduced, and the victim receives the help needed to combat the development of physical, emotional and mental health problems as much as possible. Disclosure of abuse is therefore important for the victim herself, for the institutions involved, for other children and for the wider community.

Disclosure of child sexual abuse is a process rather than a one-off event. Throughout their lives, victims will disclose abuse to different people and in different ways. They may do so verbally or non-verbally, accidentally or intentionally, partially or completely.

Some children reveal abuse only in adult life, others never. A 2020 study found that 66% of sexual abuse suffered by children aged 10-17 is not disclosed to parents or other adults. Another 2010 study claims that about 60-80% of children do not disclose these experiences until they become adults, suggesting that many children suffer prolonged victimisation or do not receive necessary interventions.

Deciding whether or not to disclose sexual abuse is overwhelming for a child and their family. Unfortunately, disclosure is not always certain to have therapeutic effects. If survivors of abuse do not have support from family and social relationships and encounter negative attitudes from the authorities involved, the child’s healing process can be hindered. In such situations, children even experience an increase in feelings of guilt, shame, isolation and other present symptoms.

On the other hand, keeping the abuse secret has negative consequences for the emotional and mental health of survivors, such as:

  • severe depressive episodes;
  • delinquency;
  • behavioural problems;
  • post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety symptoms;
  • self-blame;
  • low levels of academic performance, cognitive ability and memory;
  • early pregnancy.

As future adults, they may face:

  • substance use;
  • depression;
  • anxiety;
  • eating disorders;
  • relationship problems;
  • sexual dysfunction;
  • medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart problems and others.

When a child discloses sexual abuse and receives positive reactions from others – whether family members, people in their social circle, authorities or health care providers – they are more likely to experience it:

  • higher self-esteem;
  • a higher level of sense of control and ability to recover;
  • a more adaptive coping style.

In the psychotherapeutic process, a framework of safety is created and a number of goals are pursued:

  • to increase the capacity for emotional regulation in order to manage the experiences associated with sexual abuse;
  • placing responsibility on the abuser;
  • understanding the role of risk factors that can lead to sexual abuse;
  • processing feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, etc;
  • alleviating the negative effects of sexual abuse.

Psychotherapy plays an important role in relieving the symptoms present in children who have been sexually abused. The abuse suffered negatively impacts the child’s emotional and behavioural functioning, self-perception and relationships with family and peers.

The decision whether or not to disclose sexual abuse is yours! Your family context, the social relationships you can rely on, the information you have about the next steps following your disclosure and access to health services – all play an important role in protecting and healing you. You know best when the time is right. We are here for you!