Disclosure is the process by which children and young people start to share their experiences of abuse with others. This can take place over a long period of time – it is a journey, not one act or action.
Children may disclose directly or indirectly and sometimes they may start sharing details of abuse before they are ready to put their thoughts and feelings in order.
It takes extraordinary courage for a child to go through the journey of disclosing abuse.
Not all disclosures will lead to a formal report of abuse or a case being made or a case being taken to court, but all disclosures should be taken seriously.
It is vital that anyone who works with children and young people knows how to provide them with the support they need if they have experienced abuse.
How disclosure happens
Children and young people may disclose abuse in a variety of ways, including:
- directly– making specific verbal statements about what’s happened to them
- indirectly – making ambiguous verbal statements which suggest something is wrong
- behaviourally – displaying behaviour that signals something is wrong (this may or may not be deliberate)
- non-verbally – writing letters, drawing pictures or trying to communicate in other ways.
Sometimes children and young people make partial disclosures of abuse. This means they give some details about what they’ve experienced, but not the whole picture. They may withhold some information because of:
- fear that they will get in trouble with or upset their family
- wanting to deflect blame in case of family difficulties as a result of the disclosure
- feelings of shame and guilt.
When children do speak out it is often many years after the abuse has taken place (McElvaney, 2015).
Barriers to disclosure
Some children and young people are reluctant to seek help because they feel they don’t have anyone to turn to for support.
They may have sought help in the past and had a negative experience, which makes them unlikely to do so again.
They may also:
- feel that they will not be taken seriously
- feel too embarrassed to talk to an adult about a private or personal problem
- worry about confidentiality
- lack trust in the people around them (including parents) and in the services provided to help them
- fear the consequences of asking for help
- worry they will be causing trouble and making the situation worse
- find formal procedures overwhelming
(Mental Health Foundation and Camelot Foundation, 2006).
Spotting the signs of abuse
Children and young people who have been abused may want to tell someone, but not have the exact words to do so. They may attempt to disclose abuse by giving adults clues, through their actions and by using indirect words (Allnock and Miller, 2013; Cossar et al, 2013).
Adults need to be able to notice the signs that a child or young person might be distressed and ask them appropriate questions about what might have caused this.
> Read our factsheet on the definitions and signs of child abuse
Child protection training can help increase adults' confidence in recognising the indicators of abuse and understanding the different ways a child might try to share what they have experienced.
> See our child protection training courses
You should never wait until a child or young person tells you directly that they are being abused before taking action. Instead, ask the child if everything is OK or discuss your concerns with your organisation’s designated safeguarding lead, or the NSPCC helpline.
Waiting for a child to be ready to speak about their experiences could mean that the abuse carries on and they, or another child, are put at further risk of significant harm (Cossar et al, 2013).
Not taking appropriate action quickly can also affect the child’s mental health. They may feel despairing and hopeless and wonder why no-one is helping them. This may discourage them from seeking help in the future and make them distrust adults.