For Parents

Children and the reveal of sexual abuse – what parents need to know

Children going through sexual abuse are faced with having to make a decision that is far too difficult for their age: „To tell or not to tell?” The closer the person who assaulted them, the more difficult the decision becomes for them. Especially if the abuser is a family member, as is often the case, children will find themselves in a situation that they perceive as hopeless. In this case, ambivalent feelings towards the perpetrator may arise: they may be frightened, but in the same time they may also love him, showing attachment to him. Questions may arise in children’s mind such as: “What will the mother (or other person to whom the child wants to disclose the abuse) say”, “Will she believe me?”, “Will she say it’s my fault?”, “What will happen with…(the abuser)?”, “What will happen with our family?”, “Will I be safe?”, “Will my family be fine?” and so on. These questions that arise in the child’s mind create strong feelings of fear, shame, guilt and confusion, that cause them to weigh the decision of whether or not to talk about the abuse. If the abuser also resorts to threats, saying that they will harm them or their family, if they talk about this secret, the chances of the children disclosing the abuse decrease considerably.

When a child discloses to you that he or she has been sexually abuse, your role as the child’s parent or caregiver is to emotionally reassure the child (read more about how to do this in our article:  Needs of sexually abused children after assault or disclosure) and take the necessary measures so that he is protected from the aggressor. The sooner you do that, the better! Following the referral of the abuse to the authorities (prosecuting authorities and Child Protection) important steps are taken so that the abuse is stopped, the risks to other potential victims are reduced and the child receives the necessary help to combat the development of physical, emotional and mental health problems as much as possible. Therefore reporting abuse is important for both the child victim and the institutions involved, other children and the wider community.

It is important to know that disclosure of child sexual abuse is a process rather than a one-off event. The child may disclose abuse to different people (friends, parents, educators, teachers) and in different contexts. They might do it verbally or non-verbally, accidentally or intentionally, partially or completely. Pay attention to your child and to what they are trying to communicate to you, especially if you have a suspicion about possible abuse they may have suffered that you are not aware of.

Some children reveal the abuse only in adult life, others never. A study from 2020[1] found that 66% of sexual abuse suffered by children aged 10-17 is not reveal to parents or other adults. Another study from 2010[2] claims that about 60-80% of children do not disclose these experiences until they become adults, suggesting that many children suffer prolonged victimization or do not receive necessary interventions. What you can do as parent’s child is to ensure permanently that your relationship with your child is one that gives them security, trust and love, so that they can feel free to speak with you about anything happens to them, without fear of consequences. At Barnahus Center we offer parental counselling services, which can help parents facing such situations. More details here.

Without adequate support from family and social relationships, disclosure of abuse can have negative consequences rather than therapeutics effects. Thus, inappropriate approaches from family or friends and negatives attitudes from the authorities involved can hinder the child’s healing process. In such situations, children experience an increase in feelings of guilt, shame, isolation and other symptoms already present from experiencing abuse.

Keeping the abuse secret , on the other hand, has negative consequences for the emotional and mental health of child survivors. They may experience:

  • severe depressive episodes, manifested by marked feelings of sadness, thoughts of suicide, loss of vitality, sleep problems, weight gain or loss, attention problems, feelings of guilt;
  • delinquency – aggressive behavior and violations of rules and social norms: theft, violence, truancy or dropping out of school, joining in anti-social groups;
  • symptoms of post-traumatic stress and other anxiety symptoms;
  • low scholar performance, because of decrease of focusing and memory skills so essential to learning;
  • early pregnancy, as a result of abuse or a consequence of the development of risky sexual behavioursspecific children who experience sexual abuse.

As future adults, the problems described above, without proper treatment, may persist or worsen in the following forms:

  • substance addiction;
  • depression and/or chronic anxiety;
  • post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • eating disorders;
  • relational problems which can result in social isolation
  • sexual dysfunction
  • medical conditions as cancer, diabetes, heart problems and others.

In the happier case, where a child who discloses sexual abuse experiences positive reaction from others, whether family members, people in their social circle, authorities or health service providers, they are more likely to experience:

  • higher self-esteem;
  • a higher level of sense of control and resilience;
  • a more adaptive coping style;

In addition to the support received from those around them, psychotherapy plays an important role in improving the symptoms present in sexually abused children. Abuse negatively impacts a child’s emotional and behavioural functioning, self-perception and relationships with family and peers. In the child’s psychotherapeutic process, a safe environment is created and a number of goals are pursued:

  • increased capacity for emotional regulation in order to deal with the experiences associated with sexual abuse;
  • placing responsibility on the abuser and reducing feelings of guilt;
  • understanding the role of risk factors that can lead to sexual abuse, so as to prevent further abuse, and developing new skills to relate and protect oneself when the situation requires it;
  • processing feelings of fear, anger, sadness, guilt and shame associated with their experience;
  • relief from the negative effects of sexual abuse.

If you are in a situation where you know of or suspect possible sexual abuse of your child or another child, we invite you to contact the Barnahus Centre here to take advantage of the services we offer to child victims of sexual abuse and their families. For details on services, please visit this link.



[1] Gewirtz-Meydan, A., & Finkelhor, D. (2020) Sexual abuse and assault in a large national sample of children and adolescents:

[2] Alaggia, R. (2010) An Ecological Analysis of Child Sexual Abuse Disclosure: Considerations for Child and Adolescent Mental Health: