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.
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 takes extraordinary courage for a child to go through the journey of disclosing abuse.
It's vital that anyone who works with children and young people undertaking this journey is able to provide them with the support they need.
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.
Children and young people may not always be aware that they are disclosing abuse through their actions and behaviour.
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 they:
- are afraid they will get in trouble with or upset their family
- want to deflect blame in case of family difficulties as a result of the disclosure
- feel ashamed and/or guilty
- need to protect themselves from having to relive traumatic events.
When children do speak out it is often many years after the abuse has taken place (McElvaney, 2015).
Barriers to disclosure
There are many reasons why children and young people might find it hard to talk about their experiences of abuse or neglect. They might be 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 or they may not have the knowledge or words to describe their experience.
Some children and young people may also:
- blame themselves for the abuse or feel shame or guilt - feelings which can be made worse through the use of ‘victim-blaming’ language or labelling
- experience feelings of isolation
- be afraid of negative reactions from parents, caregivers, peers and professionals
- worry they will be causing trouble and making the situation worse
- be concerned about confidentiality
- feel too embarrassed to talk to an adult about a private or personal problem
- feel that they will not be taken seriously
- lack trust in the people around them (including parents) and in the services provided to help them
- find formal procedures overwhelming
- not know about the support services available to them, or be unable to access these services
(Allnock and Kiff, 2023; Mental Health Foundation and Camelot Foundation, 2006).
Not all children and young people realise they have experienced abuse, for example if they have been groomed.
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 more about the different types of child abuse and neglect
> 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.
> Learn more about child protection training requirements and how you can continually update your knowledge
> 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.