When is it safe to disclose childhood sexual abuse?

dogbod2017, blog

by Rusan Lateef, MSW, RSW

Here, Rusan shares some of the findings from a recently published article on childhood sexual abuse disclosures, which she co-authored.

There have been on-going efforts to improve the identification of children who have been sexually abused and to encourage disclosures. It is important to consider, however, if disclosing actually promotes well-being and resilience among survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). If it does, how can we promote disclosures, and with that resilience, with children who have been sexually abused? A previous CRFR blog post by Dr Sarah Nelson provided insight into child-centred ways to facilitate CSA disclosures.

Disclosure is usually the first step toward a child being linked with supportive resources that could initiate their healing and prevent the adverse consequences of CSA. Unfortunately, disclosing can lead to anything but healing when the environment in which a disclosure takes place is not supportive. Some researchers have even found that it is risky to tell in childhood as unsuccessful disclosures may result in children experiencing further helplessness (Jonzon & Lindblad, 2004). The media provides multiple examples of individuals who have disclosed sexual abuse and have not received support from the general public or from family and friends – experiencing victim blaming and lack of validation for their experiences. It is easy to see how this could discourage survivors to disclose. Aside from negative media examples, the literature review by Alaggia, Collin-Vézina & Lateef (2017) identified various other barriers to CSA disclosure including, but not limited to:

Internal factors:

  • Internalized victim blaming
  • Immature development at onset of abuse
  • Gender
  • Shame
  • Self-blame
  • Fear
  • Perception that one will not be believed by people outside of their family

Family characteristics:

  • Rigidly fixed patriarchal based roles
  • Power imbalances
  • Domestic violence
  • Chaotic family organization
  • Dysfunctional communication
  • Social isolation
  • Preserving the family reputation
  • Relationship of the perpetrator to the child victim

Sociocultural factors:

  • Negative labelling of sexual abuse victims
  • Taboos surrounding sexuality and talking about sex
  • Promotion of hyper-masculinity
  • Patriarchal attitudes
  • Views that boys and men cannot be victimized
  • Homophobic attitudes
  • Sexualization and objectification of girls and women
  • Devaluation of women
  • Lack of school involvement in providing a supportive environment

When encouraging CSA disclosures, it is important to be informing the public about the numerous barriers children experience, meanwhile creating awareness of the type of environment and factors that encourage disclosures, and how to properly support a child post-disclosure. Facilitators of CSA disclosures were also identified in the review and included:

Internal factors:

  • Symptoms that become unbearable
  • Older age
  • Increased developmental efficacy
  • Realizing that an offence was committed

Environmental factors:

  • Child discloses after evidence provided or eye-witnessing has occurred
  • Settings that provide opportunities for disclosure (ex. counselling, interviews); prevention programs
  • Culturally sensitive probes and questions
  • Creating openness in relational contexts; close relationships
  • Supportive family members and individuals close to the child victim

Finally, it is important to recognize that there are CSA survivors who are resilient and function adaptively –both those who have and have not disclosed. Domhardt and colleagues (2015) in their review identified important factors associated with greater resilience among CSA survivors that include:

  • Education
  • Interpersonal and emotional competence
  • Control beliefs
  • Active coping
  • Optimism
  • Social attachment
  • External attribution of blame
  • Support from the family and the wider social environment

In summary, research has identified what factors encourage and discourage disclosures, as well as what factors promote resilience among CSA survivors. Taken together, these findings could help facilitate safe disclosures and positive post-disclosure outcomes.

About the Author

Rusan Lateef, MSW, RSW is a social worker employed in the criminal justice system with adult male offenders in Ontario, Canada. She is a researcher on the “Make Resilience Matter” project examining childhood exposure to domestic violence at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, a project that involves collaboration with CRFR Co-Director Sarah Morton.


Alaggia, R., Collin-Vézina, D., Lateef, R. (2017). Facilitators and Barriers to Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) Disclosures: A Research Update (2000-2016). Trauma, Violence & Abuse. DOI: 10.1177/1524838017697312

Domhardt, M., Münzer, A., Fegert, J., & Goldbeck, L. (2015). Resilience in survivors of CSA: A systematic review of the literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 16(4), 476-493.

Jonzon, E., & Lindblad, F. (2004). Disclosure, reactions, and social support: Findings from a sample of adult victims of CSA. Child Maltreatment, 9(2), 190-200.