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7 July 2023 | Podcasts | Article by Alan Collins

The difficulties of sexual abuse disclosure for a child or their parents

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Why do children not disclose abuse?

People who abuse children can have many ways of ensuring a child’s silence. Some will play on their fear, embarrassment and guilt; and can even make the child think that they’ve done something wrong. For example, by introducing a child to alcohol, drugs or pornography, the person who has abused a child knows the child will be more reluctant to tell, for fear of getting into trouble. To add to this, we also often see in real life cases perpetrators manipulating their victims.

This can be really difficult and confusing for a child to process, particularly when they are so young that they do not know what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes a child is so young or afraid that they don’t know or can’t find the words to explain what is happening to them. And sometimes they are so confused by the person that has abused them, that they might not know that what is happening is wrong.

They may feel guilty or to blame: Children may blame themselves for what’s going on and may feel too guilty or ashamed to tell someone. They may think that the abuse is their fault because they’ve done something to deserve it. As a result, the details of what’s happening may feel too embarrassing for them to talk about, making it easier for them to simply say nothing.

They also may have feelings of shame and embarrassment for what has happened – we all know that being a child and growing up into a teenager can be a difficult, awkward and uncomfortable time as it is, so the thought of talking about the abuse can be too much to face.

Children often hold back from telling someone about the abuse they’re suffering because they’re scared of what might happen next. They may worry that they’ll get in trouble (with the person they’ve told or with the abuser) or that they’ll get the abuser in trouble for ‘telling on them’. The child may also be concerned about the adult’s reaction – that they’ll be angry, frightened or shocked, that they may go to the police or that they’ll have the child put into care.

They also may worry about not being believed. It can take a lot of courage for a child to approach an adult and disclose information about abuse, so it’s understandable that the child may choose not to say anything just in case the adult doesn’t believe what they are being told. The child may prefer to keep quiet rather than risk being humiliated, ignored or dismissed.

Younger children, or those who have a disability, may not have the words to describe what is happening to them, let alone the ability to understand what is going on. Children are vulnerable at any age but particularly so if they don’t have the skills to recognise the abuse. This can easily lead to cases of abuse going undetected.


NSPCC report

“No one noticed, no one heard” – A study of disclosures of childhood abuse (2019)

This report describes the childhood experiences of abuse of young men and women and how they disclosed this abuse and sought help.

Researchers interviewed 60 young adults (aged 18-24 years) who had experienced high levels of different types of abuse and violence during childhood. The young adults were asked whether they had tried to tell anyone about what was happening to them, and what had happened as a result of their disclosures. Although much research suggests that few children disclose sexual abuse, in this study over 80% had tried to tell someone about the abuse.


Difficulty for parents of children who have been sexually abused

Understandably, it can be very distressing for a parent to learn that their child has been sexually abused. It is common for parents to feel overwhelming upset, angry, confused about what to do / how to handle the situation and the support the child, as well as guilt. It’s important for parents to find a way to manage their feelings, so that they can focus on creating a safe environment for the child that is free from harm, judgment, blame and embarrassment.

We encourage anyone who has concerns about sexual abuse to get in touch. You can contact Alan Collins at [email protected] or Danielle Vincent at [email protected].

Author bio

Alan Collins


Alan Collins is one of the best known and most experienced solicitors in the field of child abuse litigation and has acted in many high profile cases, including the Jimmy Savile and Haut de la Garenne abuse scandals.  Alan has represented interested parties before public inquiries including the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry, and IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse).

Internationally, Alan works in Australia, South East Asia, Uganda, Kenya, and California representing clients in high profile sexual abuse cases. Alan also spoke at the Third Regional Workshop on Justice for Children in East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok hosted by Unicef and HCCH (Hague Conference on Private International Law).

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.


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