Why children do not disclose about sexual abuse?

Read about why it is important for parents to be supportive of their children when they disclose about being sexually abuse, and what parents can do in the event of disclosure

By Dr. Kavita Jangam, Priyanka Nambiar, & Ashwini N.V.

Why children do not disclose about sexual abuse?

Ron, a 3-year-old boy, was observed by his mother to have started touching his own private parts and undressing his play toys. As a working single mother, child was left in the care of the grandfather during the day. These sexualized behaviours in the child led the mother to suspect the grandfather of sexually abusing the child.

Pia was a 7-year-old girl, who in the past 2 months was constantly complaining of unexplained bodily aches and pain and was diagnosed to have urinary tract infection. She soon refused to go to school. It was later found out that the child was sexually abused by her school ayah and was threated to not talk about it to anyone.

Asima was a 15-year-old girl living with her parents. She was behaving unruly and defiant and there was significant academic decline and complaints from school regarding her behaviour in the last two years. Later it was discovered by her mother that she was pregnant. Upon further enquiry, the girl revealed that her father had been abusing her since two years and she was ashamed and blamed herself for it and thought her mother will not believe her if she had told her.

Ajay was a 10-year-old boy living in an apartment. When he would come from school early, he would spend time at his neighbour’s house. The neighbour was a middle-aged man who usually worked from home. He would indulge Ajay with toys and sweets and tell him that he won’t tell his parents about it. Over time, Ajay stated having nightmares and wetting his bed often. Later it was found that the neighbour was sexually abusing Ajay and told him that it was his fault this happened in order to manipulate the child and preventing him from disclosing about the abuse.

We routinely read in the news about untoward incidents of sexual abuse of minors by neighbours, school staff and other persons known to the victim. However, it rarely occurs to us that these incidents can happen anywhere and to anyone.

As parents, it is important to understand that child sexual abuse (CSA) is the act of manipulating or forcibly involving children below the age of 18 years in sexual activities that they are unable to fully comprehend or give consent to. It’s impact of sexual abuse will depend on the nature of the abuse, its duration, and whether the abuser was a known person or stranger. Additionally, it is also important to understand that the abuse can lead to detrimental long-term effects on the mental health of the child like lack of trust in self or others thereby leading to interpersonal issues in childhood and their adult life. Hence, it is your duty as the parent to talk about CSA to your child and be supportive in the event of a disclosure.

Grooming and how it prevents Disclosure
The perpetrator of sexual abuse is often a person known to the child, who could be a family member, family friend, relative, teacher, coach, or a neighbor of the child. In such cases, the abuse is manipulated in a way for the child to blame self and believe that they responsible for the abuse. This process of manipulating the child into the sexual act is called grooming and may be carried out in the order of the following steps:

Why children do not disclose about sexual abuse?

Let us look at how each of these steps make it difficult for the child to disclose abuse to trusted caregivers:
Stage 1: Targeting the victim
The perpetrator, usually someone known to the child’s family, assesses the child’s vulnerability (isolation, emotional neediness, lack of confidence, low parental monitoring, etc.).
What makes it difficult to disclose: Few studies suggest that the likelihood of disclosure decreases when the perpetrator is a family member or somebody very close to the family. This is likely due to the fear of the child regarding the emotional reactions of other family members upon learning who the perpetrator is.

Stage 2: Gaining victim’s trust
This involves developing close relationship with the caretakers of the child victim, gathering information about the child, and gaining the child’s trust.
What makes it difficult to disclose: The most important reason why children don’t disclose is because children are often scared of how adults will respond to disclosure of abuse. Children feel that adults may not believe them or may blame them for the abuse. Additionally, the moral code instilled in the children that mandates them to obey adults in all circumstances makes it difficult for the child to deny or vocalise their thoughts or feelings about the inappropriate sexual act perpetrated on them.

Stage 3: Filling a need
Giving gifts, extra attention, or affection can serve to fill a child’s unmet needs.
What makes it difficult to disclose: Several abusers create an 'indebted' feeling in the heart of the child as a way to suppress disclosure. Helping a child emotionally, financially, academically etc. and then demanding sexual favour as a way to repay for the help once offered - sometimes makes children choose not to disclose. When children consider it their duty to serve the perpetrator sexually, they are likely to not disclose.
Sometimes perpetrators bribe children into abuse with chocolates, gifts, toys, etc. This also makes children believe that it was their fault that they accepted the gifts and allowed abuse to happen. As a result, children do not disclose it.

Stage 4: Isolating the child
The perpetrator attempts to develop a ‘special and unique’ relationship with the child and creates situations in which they are alone together.
What makes it difficult to disclose: One of the most common grooming strategy that perpetrators use is to 'emotionally' isolate the children with their loved ones. For example, an abuser might emphasise on how terrible the father is for being an alcoholic and physically, emotionally, and financially troubling the family. A child who might already be hurt due to their father's substance abuse might develop hostile feelings regarding the father and stop considering father as a source of support in times of difficulty. Now, when sexual abuse happens, the child may not even consider the father as someone who is in the 'support circle' of the child. In this manner, an abuser can eliminate all sources of support to the child by breeding a negative attitude towards all those who once mattered to the child.

Stage 5: Sexualising the relationship
Once emotional dependence and trust has been established, the perpetrator proceeds to sexualise the relationship, exploiting the child’s natural curiosity, and defining the relationship in more sexual and special terms.
What makes it difficult to disclose: Children are always told that it is “DIRTY” to talk about private body parts or “Sex”. Children who talk about it are “Dirty” children. This is another reason why children are not comfortable talking about sexual abuse. The younger children also don’t have the vocabulary to talk about sexual abuse. Often children are barely taught the accurate names of private body parts. Therefore, describing the nature of sexual abuse becomes very difficult for younger children.

Stage 6: Maintaining control
The perpetrator uses secrecy and blame to maintain the child’s continued participation and silence in the abuse. This include threats to withdraw the offerings, to expose the relationship, and to render the child even more unwanted.
What makes it difficult to disclose: Children are often threatened of bodily harm or harm to their family. Many children continue to suffer in silence fearing that their family will be harmed by the perpetrator. In case of the perpetrator being a member of the family, the child may fear that the integrity of the family will be threatened. The child may also fear of being removed or abducted from the home by the perpetrator. The perpetrator may make the child believe that it is a “secret game” which need NOT be shared with parents.

Other factors influencing the disclosure of CSA are:
Age: Few studies indicate that older adolescents are more likely to disclose being sexually abused than younger children. This can be attributed to increased awareness among older adolescents about their rights to safety, along with their ability to communicate, and having a knowledge that with adequate external support abuse can be stopped. There is some understanding that adolescents are more likely to disclose to peer group members, and children are likely to disclose it to parents, especially mothers and other close family members. The younger children, especially between the age of 1 to 8 years, often fail to understand or recognise the act of abuse.

Gender: Girls are more likely to disclose than boys. Boys are likely to keep quiet regarding sexual abuse due to fear of being perceived weak and vulnerable for having been abused.

Socio-cultural factors: Normalising sexual abuse is one of the risk factors that increases sexual abuse, but decreases disclosure. When children perceive that the 'honour' of the family is lost if they disclose that they have sexually abused, chances of disclosure decreases. Excessive emphasis on an idea that 'Boys can never be troubled' and if by chance they are in any trouble, they must be ‘strong’ and 'self-reliant' - these ideas also discourage boys from disclosing.

Parenting style: Several studies indicate that the likelihood of disclosure decreases when parents are perceived as being negligent and non-caring. This can be attributed to a perception among children that even if they disclose regarding sexual abuse, parents are unlikely to support them or bother to consider it with seriousness. Among boys, disclosure decreases when they perceive parents to be either non-caring or over-protective. Over-protected children may perceive that their freedom would be curtailed or there might be even more interference by parents if they learn regarding their children having been sexually abused.

Relationship to the perpetrator: The child may genuinely love the family member who is perpetrating the abuse but still dislike the abuse. The child may not want to lose their relationship with the family member and fear that if they disclose the abuse, the family member may be taken away.

Most of the children do not disclose about abuse because the grooming makes them believe that they are responsible for the abuse. Children feel guilty, confused, and fearful and do not inform any adults.

What you can do in the face of CSA disclosure

  1. How can you encourage disclosure?
  • Be on the lookout for signs of CSA
  • Have ongoing discussions around safe and unsafe touch with your child, using age-appropriate language
  • Create a safe environment for the child
  • Encourage the child to talk and open up about the abuse by being supportive and non-judgmental
  • Providing appropriate language to talk

2. What to do when your child is disclosing?

  • Stay calm and regulate your emotions in the presence of the child
  • Always listen and believe your child’s narrative. Children NEVER lie about being sexually abused
  • Build rapport with the child, so that the child can freely express their distress thoughts and emotions with you
  • Do not blame the child, do not scold the child for not disclosing earlier (if the abuse has been ongoing)

3. What to do after the disclosure?

  • Seek support and help for information on the legal procedures for child sexual offences from NGOs, Child Welfare Committee and Children’s Helpline (Child Line)
  • Normalize the child’s routine as early as possible to help child feel more calm and secure
  • Always discuss and answer to the child’s anxieties and queries
  • Always reassure the child’s safety and protection from the perpetrator
  • Avoid emotional breakdown in the presence of the child, as the child needs to know that they have a strong support system
  • Seek consultation with mental health professionals to facilitate emotional healing and recovery of your child. As parents, you must also play the role as a co-therapist for child’s sessions on personal safety
  • As parents you may be anxious and angry in the aftermath of abuse. Hence you must seek parenting counselling and guidance on how to respond to the child and prioritize the child’s needs over one’s own.

In a Nutshell

  • Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) can lead to detrimental long-term effects on the mental health of the child like lack of trust in self or others thereby leading to interpersonal issues in childhood and their adult life
  • The process of manipulating the child into the sexual act is called grooming and may be carried out in the order of the following steps: targeting the victim, gaining the victim’s trust, filling a need, isolating the child, sexualising the relationship, and maintain control
  • It is extremely difficult for children to disclose about being sexually abused. Being young, male, normalising sexual abuse, and negligent parenting are some factors that make disclosure difficult

What you can do right away

  • Talk about consent to your child along with safe-unsafe touch in an age-appropriate manner on an ongoing basis
  • If your child does disclose about being sexually abused, stay calm and believe your child. Reassure your child of protection from the perpetrator
  • Seek support and help for information on the legal procedures for child sexual offences from NGOs, Child Welfare Committee and Children’s Helpline

About the authors:
Written by Dr. Kavita Jhangam, Priyanka Nambiar, and Ashwini N.V. on 5 January 2020.
Dr. Jhangam is the Associate Professor of Psychiatric Social Work in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS).
Ms. Nambiar is currently the Junior Consultant and PhD scholar in the Department of Psychiatric Social Work, NIMHANS.
Ms. Ashwini is the Founder-Director of MUKHTA Foundation, an organisation committed to prevent abuse and promote mental health.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 9 January 2020.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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