Revealing abuse is a huge step for a child. Their future emotional health is tied to how they are allowed to express the complex range of feelings which the abuse and the abuser have caused them to feel. So the way you react to a child's disclosure of abuse can have a profound effect on how they feel about themselves and their experiences. Children pick up on reactions and may close down if they think you're reacting negatively.
When a child discloses abuse, take the S.A.F.E. REPORT approach:
S Support and reassure
A Actively listen and be calm
F Fact gathering - go slowly
E Explain the next steps
REPORT and note down the disclosure immediately.
Survivors of abuse can go on to lead happy, healthy, productive lives just like anybody else. The key is accessing the right kind of help. Following disclosure, many people can feel further abused by individuals or systems treating them inappropriately or insensitively, so letting a disclosing child know that it is safe to report it to you is the first step. A 'SAFE REPORT' should lead to the right kinds of changes taking place for the child: intervention and healing.
S Support and reassure
Your face and your body language are important as the disclosing child will take cues from you. A smile and a soft tone of voice may make all the difference to a child taking the massive step of disclosing abuse to you. Remember that they will probably see disclosure as a huge risk. Not only have they been living with the abuser's wrongs, but also - as a result - had their expectations of adults skewed so they won't know what level of support and safety they can expect from you. They may also have very real fears related to threats from the abuser about what will happen if they tell anyone about the abuse.
There are supportive and reassuring things which you can tell a child who has just disclosed abuse:
- you believe them
- they are not in trouble
- they are safe with you
- the abuse is not their fault and they have not deserved it
- you are glad that they have been brave enough to tell you
- they have done the right thing in telling you
- you are sorry that they have been hurt or that this has happened to them
- you will do everything you can to prevent them being hurt again
A Actively listen and be calm
You may feel shocked and horrified to hear the abuse being disclosed, but it is vital to remember to be calm. The child disclosing abuse may feel ashamed, angry, scared and powerless. They may be especially frightened that you won't believe them, or that you may 'side' with the abuser for some reason. Particularly if the abuser is someone you know personally, you may feel outrage, anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief, disgust, shock, guilt or self-blame. But you must remain calm and in control of your emotions in order to help the child. Strained facial expressions, physical recoiling or a voice filled with any of the above emotions could be misinterpreted by the child. They need acceptance, so provide it - your emotional needs can be met later.
There are reasons that the child needs you to be calm:
- an abused or neglected child needs to know you're available to help them
- the child needs you to listen
- the child needs you to hear what they say and do something about it for them
- the child needs you to be calm so that they aren't made even more anxious
- actively listening may mean remembering specific phrases and terms the child used
- actively listening may mean remembering euphemisms as well as direct descriptions
- an abused or neglected child needs your calm response to signal a possible solution
You can tell the child that this is a situation which was unfair and wrong, but that there are kind people out there who can help them work through it and be happy.
F Fact gathering - go slowly
It is normal to feel inadequate or unsure about what to do or say when a child or youth tells you about their abuse. It's natural to ask questions, especially as many children will use different words for body parts and actions. But remember that you're not an investigator. Professionals can ask for more details at a later stage, so it's vital that you don't push for more information than the child is willing to reveal now.
- proceed slowly
- gentle and open-ended questions such as: "Can you tell me more about what happened?" may be helpful.
- avoid questions that begin with "why"
- be brief - get only the essential facts for now
- limit your discussion to finding out generally what took place
- when you have sufficient information and reason to believe that abuse and/or neglect has occurred, gently stop gathering facts and be supportive
The child's immediate safety is an important fact to ascertain.
E Explain next steps
Don't make promises to the child about what may or may not happen next. The child - quite understandably - may have thoughts about revenge and/or justice being meted out to their abuser. Gently explain that what has been done to the child is wrong, and that there are people that you must tell so that they can help. But do not promise what form the intervention will take. Explain to the child that you will write down what they've said and contact experts to help:
- provide only reassurance that is realistic and achievable
- discuss with the child what you think will happen next and who will be involved
- explain to the child that it might take time for them to feel happier, but that you will help with their healing.
REPORT Report and note down the disclosure immediately
As soon as possible, make a written record of what the child has said. Note down their exact own words as well as you can, along with any other key details such as anything they acted out or showed you, or how their demeanour was. There may be other supporting information which you may wish to add later, but it is vital to note down what has been said while it's fresh in your mind. Keep this initial record, even if you type it up later. Along with any other drawings, writing or related material from the child themself, this may be important to investigators.
Report the abuse as quickly as is possible to the police, social services, the child's doctor. There may be physical evidence which needs to be documented. Depending on the circumstances, there may also be immediate steps which authorities have to take to ensure the child's safety while investigations are made.
Healing and moving forward
There is nothing easy about dealing with a child's disclosures of abuse. There are many complex factors involved and every individual situation will have its own challenges.
Displacement can be one of the most challenging kinds of fallout from abuse. A child who has been (or is being) abused can struggle with displaced anger and frustration. They feel anger towards the person who has hurt them, but this is often displaced and directed at loved ones - especially people they can trust and feel safe with. They may shout, swear and try to hit you, often with no warning. The child needs to express these feelings and 'get them out' so directing it all at you may be the only way they can do that and feel safe. Don't ever hit back or shout - this just reinforces a negative self view for the child. Caring, understanding and kindness are the only way. It's not their fault and it will pass.
Counselling can massively increase the speed and success of healing, but every child will have different needs.
Healthy activities to normalise the daily routine can be helpful. Time outside running, cycling or on other sporting activities will promote confidence and autonomy as well as focus energy away from rethinking the abuse. Sometimes getting a pet can help as a child gives the animal care.
Psychological healing or 'mending the victim of abuse from the inside' can take many forms. Play therapy, biofeedback and self-soothing techniques have all had documented success in healing abused children and adults. Try whatever is available and find what works best.
Children can be overcome by feelings of loneliness or unloved after abuse, so offering unconditional, non-judgmental affection is essential. Physical acceptance and plenty of gentle hugs (as and if wanted by the child) can help to avoid a child feeling 'dirty' or unworthy of affection. Let the child decide when and if to talk about their feelings, but reinforce their feelings whenever they do so. Kids need to have a clear message that they don't have to protect you from their feelings - however 'messy' their expressions of inner turmoil may be. You can get your support elsewhere and its vital that the child doesn't feel responsible for your upset on top of the abuse they've endured. Above all, be consistent and dependable.
Justice is often uppermost in the minds of an abused child. Whatever the negative connotations of legal action and fears of stigma may be for an adult, avoiding punishment for the perpetrator can leave the child feeling that what was done to them - or they themselves - didn't matter. Children can be deeply worried about how many other people the abuser may hurt, so it is important not to dismiss an abused child's wishes for correct punitive measures to be taken, but to get the right professional to help them talk through all the options and consequences for everyone involved.
Take the lead from a child brave enough to shout and yell. When we speak out, we can change things.
If you have been affected by any of the issues explored in these posts, counselling could be a solution to help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you. To find out more, please contact me via phone or using the contact form on this site.