Delayed Disclosure of Child Sex Abuse: Why Children Don’t Tell
Recent news coverage of high-profile child sex abuse cases, like those of Ghislaine Maxwell and Prince Andrew, has generated a lot of conversation and misunderstanding surrounding child sex abuse.
Many people are baffled by why those abused don’t come forward sooner. There’s a misconception that someone abused at 14 or younger who didn’t disclose until adulthood was simply an opportunist. Some people even shift the blame onto alleged victims with questions about why they waited so long to reveal their abuse.
Such thinking invalidates the sexual abuse allegation and the victims themselves and highlights the critical need for public education on the psychology of abuse and trauma.
Delayed Disclosure Is the Norm, Not the Exception
Most people who experience child sexual abuse don’t ever reveal the abuse. It’s estimated that 60 to 70 percent of adults do not disclose their abuse as children.
Researchers estimate that 38 percent of child victims disclose that they have been sexually abused. Of these, 40 percent tell a close friend rather than an adult or the authorities, so they’re rarely counted in official reports. As a result, the vast majority of child sexual abuse incidents are never reported to authorities, though research suggests that disclosure rates to authorities may be increasing.
3 Reasons Disclosures Are Delayed
There are multiple reasons a person who has experienced child sexual abuse delays disclosing the information. Every case and every person is different but also similar. It takes tremendous courage for a child or an adult to share their story of abuse with someone. For many adults who were sexually abused as children, talking about it can make them feel like they’re reliving the experience.
Child sex abuse is a traumatic life experience that a child is developmentally unequipped to comprehend or process. One of the consequences of complex trauma sustained by sexually abused children is a warped perception of time, confused recollection, and feeling that the abuse obliterated their positive childhood memories.
Some child sexual abuse survivors frequently describe their lives as living in a state of limbo—constantly experiencing memory lapses they try to fill. In addition, children, even those in their teens, don’t have the tools or power to prevent the abuse.
Fear of the Consequences
Fear of the repercussions is a massive obstacle to reporting sexual harassment or assault at any age. Young children are often threatened or told that their family will be harmed if they tell. Another feared consequence is that they won’t be believed. It can be devastating to a child who gathers the courage to tell someone they have been abused only to find no one believes them.
Perpetrators are the only people to blame for child sexual abuse! Yet countless child abuse survivors somehow convince themselves that they are responsible—that they caused the abuse, deserved it, invited it, even wanted it. Intellectually they may know that’s not true, but it feels true. There are many reasons victims feel shame.
Abusers groom their victims by inviting closeness, intimacy, trust, and reward. It lowers a child’s defenses and tricks the abused child into feeling bad for what the abuser is doing instead of the abuser feeling bad for what they’re doing. Somehow it’s the abused child’s fault. It’s a trap, and children fall into it because they are children, and as children, it doesn’t even occur to them what’s happening.
Unfortunately, when the topic of child sexual abuse is on the table, the victims can be swept up in the visceral reaction most people have to child sexual abuse. People are revulsed, and that revulsion—probably unintentionally and unconsciously—is felt by survivors of sexual abuse and internalized.
Healing Is Possible
The process of healing is different for everyone. Understandably, adult survivors of child sexual abuse may want to repress those memories to make it easier to function. The downside of not disclosing is suffering from triggers that impact their lives. That decision is yours and yours alone. You must do what is most comfortable for you, but healing from child sexual abuse is possible.
One step that can significantly impact healing is breaking your silence. Many survivors of child sexual abuse who have broken their silence find it helps them heal. It also helps others realize they’re not alone. Share your story on EndCAN’s website and join the many survivors who contributed their voices to our mission.
EndCAN’s survivor community support group, Louder Than Silence, through Inspire, is a free, online community of support groups where people can feel safe, be authentic while anonymously sharing their experiences, and learn from other people who have “been there.”
Don’t suffer in silence. Instead, get support, find valuable resources, and find the tools to help you heal. And when you’re ready, share your story so other adult survivors of child sexual abuse know they’re not alone either.