Understanding Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse

In a 2005 study, the disclosure of child sexual abuse with alleged victims and their parents was explored. In particular, the study sought out how likely alleged victims were to admit to their parents that they experienced abuse if the parents in question were likely to react angrily or negatively.

“The goal of the present study was to examine how children disclosed sexual abuse by alleged perpetrators who were not family members,” reads the study’s abstract, “The children’s willingness to disclose abuse to their parents promptly and spontaneously decreased when they expected negative reactions, especially when the abuse was more serious. A strong correlation between predicted and actual parental reactions suggested that the children anticipated their parents’ likely reactions very well.” (See Irit Hershkowitz, Omer Lanes, and Michael E. Lamb. Exploring the disclosure of child sexual abuse with alleged victims and their parents. Child Abuse & Neglect 31 (2007) 111-123.)

That’s a hefty conclusion to come to. So how legitimate was this study, and what exactly went into it?

The Basics of the Study

The study was conducted with thirty children who were alleged victims of sexual assault and their respective parents. The children underwent an interview that utilized the NICHD Investigative Protocol, implemented by six different investigators who specialized in youth services. The same protocol was applied when the parents were interviewed and asked to describe with as much detail as possible what happened since the alleged incidents of abuse occurred.

The statements that the children and parents made were analysed and some significant characteristics of the behavior exhibited by the children and parents were identified via two independent ratings.

The Findings of the Study

The study found that over half of the children (around 53%) had delayed the disclosure of the alleged abuse for anywhere between one week and several years. Less than half of the children admitted to disclosing the abuse to someone else other than their parents. Over 40% did not disclose their experience with abuse on their own accord but did so after being prompted by an adult. Around 50% of the children interviewed admitted feeling frightened or ashamed of their parents’ possible response to the abuse, and that their parents had a tendency to blame their children or behave in a menacing matter.

The process of disclosures was different depending on the age of the children, the severity and recurrence of the abuse, the expected reactions of the parents interviewed, the identities of the suspected abusers, and the specific strategies the abusers utilized to encourage secrecy.

The Conclusion of the Study

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the study’s researchers found that the children were less willing to disclose abuse to their parents quickly and freely when they expected very negative reactions, especially in cases of more serious abuse. There was a strong correlation between the expected and actual reactions of the parents, which suggests that the children who anticipated their parents’ negative reactions were usually right.

To put it simply, children who are victims of abuse are much less likely to disclose the incidents of abuse to their parents if their parents are often angry or have a tendency to blame the children for things that aren’t their fault.

This One Major Limitation That Affected the Study the Most

While this study was certainly informative, it did have some elements that were suspicious or did not quite add up when it came to the results and conclusion of the study.

The biggest limitation of the study is that the study researchers assume the full truth of the allegations. This is a significant limitation because the legitimacy of the scenario of abuse could also affect the children’s willingness to discuss it.

If in any scenario a child was encouraged to tell their parents about sexual abuse that didn’t occur, especially by an adult they trusted, it’s likely that the child would be frightened about lying to their parents if their parents were more likely to react very angrily to either dishonesty or sexual abuse in general. [Source]

While it certainly makes sense why a child would be afraid to disclose an instance of abuse to their parents if their parents tend to react negatively to them, there could also exist a lack of willingness to admit to abuse that did not occur if the child was afraid of being caught in a lie by an aggressive parent. One should be cautious about drawing conclusions from this study alone.