Why a child (or adult) survivor might not disclose abuse (and how to word a question in a way that may promote disclosure)

By Sophie Olson

This blog post stems from an email to lady who asked a question on a tweet. The tweet emphasised the need to ask a child again, if you think they may be being abused but they deny they are. She asked how these questions could have been worded to encourage disclosure. I sent her a couple of first-hand accounts from survivors of CSA along with my own. This is my (edited) reply.

*Trigger Warning* This article discusses disclosures of child sexual abuse (CSA) and rape.

It is important to recognise that survivors may have very different reasons for not speaking out. Here I draw upon my personal experiences of being asked if I was/had been abused but I can’t speak for others. I was asked by three close members of my family and one counsellor who had been asked to see me as I showed signs that troubled my family. I was ten. I reflect on this often as my life could have taken a very different turn had I said yes. The consequences of keeping silent were huge.

Why I said no:

  • I sensed the enormity of what I was being asked.
  • Until they asked, whilst I knew to be silent, and that it was wrong, I didn’t understand what had happened as abuse, until that moment. I had no words, and no language to explain. Hearing these words felt unexpected and scary.
  • I could see the discomfort of the people who were asking me.
  • It felt like a really ‘big deal’ 
  • Even at that young age, body memories were strong. This, plus the reasons above were interconnected with feelings of intense shame.

Being asked was a terrible shock, to both mind and body. My body memories fired, so did my shame, I felt responsible for the ‘big deal’. I was frightened by these feelings. I was frightened of the abuser. Being asked felt like being plugged into a power socket. The spotlight was on me and adrenaline surged through my body. I was asked in a relatively short space of time by three more people and I felt this way each time.

  • It felt much easier to say no.
  • I wanted it to end.
  • The last person to ask was a male counsellor. My feelings then were different. I felt angry with him. I remember hating him; I hated his questions, his suit and his horrible grey beard. He was male. He didn’t smile at me. He was serious and I felt like I’d done something wrong. He sat across my kitchen table in his grey suit and tie and looked at me. I was non-communicative and didn’t smile back. I wanted him to go away.

At the point of being asked, the abuse had stopped and I wanted to bury all memories. I did this very well. From a young age, I visualised a ‘big, black door’ behind which I would ‘put’ any thoughts, memories, bad feelings or images. I would self-harm from a young age to ‘force’ these memories away, by punching/pinching myself. I never forgot what happened, but my method was effective at keeping it at the back of my mind rather than in the forefront. I continued doing this until age 40, when my big black door opened in therapy.

What they could have done or said to make it easier for me to disclose:

  • Changing the language. “Has he, er, you know, has he…touched you?” “Did he… has he abused you…?” Was too direct and shocking, and their embarrassment / discomfort was clear.
  • Not asking me face to face. I would have found it less uncomfortable if I had been asked without eye contact.

Suggestions for different phrasing:

Sometimes children can be made to feel uncomfortable, even by people they know or love. You can always tell me if you ever feel, or have been made to feel uncomfortable“.

“ I am here to listen. If you want to tell me why you seem so reluctant to see him/ appear to be afraid, I’m always here and will always listen to you

“Is there anything you would like to talk to me about …”

“I feel like something’s wrong. I know you have said everything’s fine, but while I feel something’s not quite right, I will keep checking in, every now and then, just in case there’s something you need to tell me, however big or small it might be.”

I recognise this is easier said than done. Those who work with children are told not to ask leading questions as that could damage any future investigation. However, we must not be so frightened to ask that we stop asking entirely. This does nothing to help the child you suspect is being abused.

I think back and wonder, once I’d had the chance to assimilate being asked, would I have been more likely to disclose if asked at a later date and the answer is probably, yes. So most importantly, if you suspect a child is being abused, and they tell you they’re not, don’t just assume you’ve done all you need to do by asking. Ask again. Find a different way to ask that is less shocking or direct. If your instinct keeps speaking to you, keep listening, keep acting upon it. Ask again.

As I got older, I considered disclosure, often. Sometimes I tried but I couldn’t express myself properly.

  • The most challenging thing, before I found my voice, was the language. My big black door ended up being counterproductive as it prohibited me from allowing me to speak, even when I desperately wanted to.
  • I could not bear to hear anyone say even the word ‘abuse’. It would have a visceral effect on me. I would react with pounding heart, dry mouth, flaming face, adrenaline rush and leave the situation as fast as possible.This was a huge problem when I finally asked for help from the specialist charity I approached. Whilst I’d managed to get to the point of therapy, I couldn’t say the words I needed to say. Hearing an ISVA, (independent sexual violence advisor), then the other survivors in groups, then the therapist say them would make me panic. I would feel angry with them. I felt pushed and manipulated out of my comfort zone and I felt unsafe.
  • It was a very slow process, finding my words and speaking them aloud. It took a long time to be able to say ‘rape’. I could describe the situation but it was a step beyond to say ‘I was raped,’ so for a while I described it as ‘attempted’. When I had tested the water a few times, I said what really happened and doing so rendered me exhausted. I was speechless, almost catatonic with the shock of the release… yet, what a release.

I was liberated by being able to tell my story.

  • I suppose that these are words that need some form of trigger warning. Even in a therapy room. Maybe a list of trigger words, with the client being asked to tick any that they’re unable to hear. I think people who work in this field become immune. I know I do, on Twitter, in blogs, sometimes I forget to put a trigger warning and go back to delete or amend. We must always remember how triggering it is to hear the words, spoken too casually, by a professional who deals with kind of thing day in, day out.
  • Think of the words like a loaded gun. They are to be handled with great care. They must be spoken in relation to the client sitting in front of them carefully and cautiously.

Now I have my voice, I can speak, I can advocate for others, yet even now, when faced with any medical situation, I am triggered to the point of silence. I can’t speak for myself. I can’t explain my past trauma. I feel like I’m reverting to ‘child.’ Unseen, unheard, with no autonomy of body. I freeze, I shut down, and leave the situation retraumatised. I fear tipping backwards into suicidal ideation and self-injury. As a result of this fear, I avoid medical situations as much as I can.

  • If a practitioner simply said that they had been trained to screen for sexual violence, discussed openly what a complex issue this was, as many survivors don’t know how to speak about trauma but that they ask as sensitively as they can, being mindful of the fact that using some words could be triggering or overwhelming for the client. Perhaps give the option of answering on paper instead. Maybe a box to tick; yes I have experienced SV but I am unable to discuss this further right now.
  • If a mental health professional had told me that statistically, the majority of clients presenting with addiction or self-harming behaviours had underlying trauma (often unvoiced) and that they have provision in place to help, It would have made me feel less alone, and more able to speak. I spent most of my life until meeting other survivors, believing I was the anomaly; that these things hadn’t happened to many people.
  • Perhaps if I had been told that my behaviours at the time were a normal response to trauma. Not abnormal and a sign that something was wrong with me.
  • This will probably never happen and I suspect it would be an unpopular viewpoint – but I think it would be so powerful if professionals were able to say if they too had experienced sexual violence. By keeping these boundaries in place and not divulging, the professionals contribute to the culture of silence that is responsible for the stigma and shame. I would like to see a world when we can all speak freely about this – parent to child, doctor to patient, midwife to mother. We don’t need to hear details, just the “me-too” is enough.  Abuse lurks in the shadows of silence. All this silence does it perpetuate feelings of isolation and shame. It protects perpetrators.

Research and training is so important. If I knew that the medical professionals were trauma-informed, that they would give me space and opportunity to speak, that they would meet my needs, I would be able to access medical care. I know others feel the same.
Unfortunately, whilst ‘trauma informed’ is written in policy, I’ve personally rarely seen it in practice.

It does seem that things are moving in the right direction. Recently I was asked to take part in a focus group for trauma informed dentistry set up by survivor activist Viv Gordon, in collaboration with Bristol University dental school and SARSAS. I’ve also had the exciting opportunity to join the survivor forum at Survivors Trust where my voice and lived experience can be used in a similarly important way. The importance of Trauma Informed care and how that is implemented is being discussed.

Once it becomes standard practice in all professions that come into contact with survivors, either knowingly or unknowingly, then the needs of survivors can be met in a way they truly deserve.

If you are a survivor of child sexual abuse and would like further support, please click on the links page for organisations and resources that can provide help.

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