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Responding to disclosures of child abuse

When a child discloses abuse it can be hard to know how to respond and what to do. Here are some tips to help.

Mother and daughter talking to each other

If a child tells you someone is harming them

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The most important thing is to make sure the child feels supported and safe
  • Your response can have a big impact on their ability to seek further help and recover from the trauma
  • You may feel disgust, sadness, anger or disbelief. Remember, these are your feelings and you need to put them aside to be there for the child
  • The timing of their disclosure will influence their immediate needs and this will determine the most appropriate response to take

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or a life-threatening situation call 000 and ask for the Police.

When a child talks about abuse

When a child talks about being abused they may:

  • Feel confused, scared, guilty, ashamed, sad, angry or powerless
  • Believe they are to blame or worry that no one will believe them
  • Not understand that the behaviour may be abusive
  • Want to protect the person responsible and be frightened for them
  • Experience mixed emotions towards the person responsible
  • Be worried about what will happen to them and their family
  • Want to protect their family or their own reputation
  • Have been threatened with more harm to themselves, others or animals if they tell anyone about the abuse

How to talk about abuse with a child…

When you respond there are some key things to remember. As difficult as it may be, it is important to:

Check how they are feeling about their safety

Write some notes about what they have told you

Respect the fact the they may only tell you some details

Respond empathically, objectively and use supportive language

Be calm, patient and listen carefully to what they are saying

Acknowledge their feelings and that it can be hard to talk about

Let them tell you in their words what happened and how they felt

Let them know you want to protect them and what you plan to do next

Give them time to talk about what has happened from their point of view

Contact an appropriate authority or child protection service listed below

Tell them if you don’t know an answer and say that you’ll find it out for them

Tell them that you’ll need to talk to someone whose job it is to keep them safe

Maintain a calm appearance by controlling expressions of panic, shock and disbelief

Ask open questions like: What happened? How does it make you feel? How often does it happen?

What to avoid when talking about abuse

When talking about abuse it’s important to avoid:

Filling in the story – by giving them words or asking leading questions like “Did mum or dad hit you?” or “Do they make you afraid”?

Asking too many questions – leave the investigating and fact finding to trained professionals

Expressing anger about the alleged abuser – they may be an adult the child loves and cares for

Confronting the alleged abuser – it could make things worse or unsafe for the child

Making promises you can’t keep – such as promising you will not tell anyone

Pressuring the child for information – or for details beyond what they want to say

Questions that infer blame – like “Did you try to stop them?” or “Did you scream or call out for help?”

Key messages a child needs to hear…

Supporting a child who has disclosed abuse can be overwhelming. Above all, here are some important messages they need to hear from you:

I believe you
You're brave for telling me about it
I want to help you be safe
What’s happened is NOT ok
What’s happened is NOT your fault
You’re not alone
I’m here for you and will support you
You've done the right thing telling me

Child protection is everyone’s business! Some adults have a legal obligation to notify appropriate authorities (these obligations differ between states and territories)

Reporting child abuse

If you have a reason to suspect a child is experiencing harm or at risk of experiencing harm, contact an authority in your state or territory and talk to them about your concerns.

We’re here to help

Support is available

Encourage the child in your life to contact Kids Helpline if they need some extra support to cope with what has been happening.

You may find talking to somebody outside of the situation helpful. You could try calling Parentline in your state or territory to discuss your concerns.

This content was last reviewed 21/04/2023

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