Jackie Reilly, M.S.
Youth Development Specialist
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension

Sally S. Martin, Ph.D.
State Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension

Copyright Access Information

“My uncle burned me with his cigarette.”

What do you say, what should you do… when children tell you they have been abused?

When a child discloses

Hearing a disclosure – a child telling you that someone has abused or hurt him, – can be scary. How you respond can be critical. A lot of thoughts may run through your mind.

You may be worried about the child and yourself.
You may be unsure of how to respond or what to say.
You may be unsure of the child's comments and information.
You may not be sure if the child has been abused.
You may be angry with the parent or alleged abuser.

You may even want to take the child home with you. How you respond is very important. Responding to a disclosure of abuse or neglect is a big responsibility. This fact sheet has suggestions about how to respond in ways that help the child, her parents, and yourself.

Children often are reluctant to tell about abuse

In over 80% of the cases of physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect, the birth parents are the abusers. The majority of perpetrators in sexual abuse cases are non-related caregivers, that is, baby-sitters, stepparents, boyfriends, girlfriends or adoptive parents.

Children often love the person who is abusing them and simply want the abusive behavior to stop. Because they love and care about the person, they may be reluctant to get the person in trouble. Many perpetrators tell children to keep the abuse a secret and frighten them with unpleasant consequences.

Children may start to tell someone about the abuse. If the person reacts with disgust or doesn't believe them, they will stop disclosing the events. Then they may not tell anyone about it until they feel brave enough or have established a sense of trust with someone. This may delay them from seeking help. If a child begins to tell you about possible abuse, please listen carefully.

He or She?
We give equal time and space to both sexes! That's why we take turns referring to children as “he” or “she. ” So keep in mind that even if we say “he” or “she” we are talking about all children.

Ideas that can help

  • Find a place to talk where there are no physical barriers between you and the child.
  • Be on the same eye level as the child.
  • Don't interrogate or interview the child.
  • Be tactful. Choose your words carefully, don't be judgmental about the child or the alleged abuser. Listen to the child. Do not project or assume anything. Let the child tell her own story.
  • Find out what the child wants from you. A child may ask you to promise not to tell anyone. Be honest about what you are able to do for the child.
  • Be calm; reactions of disgust, fear, anger, etc., may confuse or scare a child.
  • Assess the urgency of the situation. Is the child in immediate danger? Safety needs may make a difference in your response.
  • Confirm the child's feelings. Let him know that it is okay to be scared, confused, sad, or however he is feeling.
  • Believe the child and be supportive.
  • Assure the child that you care. Some children will think you may not like them anymore if they tell you what happened. Let her know that you are still her friend and that she is not to blame.
  • Tell the child it is not his fault. Many children will think that the abuse happened because of something they did or did not do. Don't over dramatize.
  • Tell the child you are glad he told you.
  • Tell the child you will try to get her some help.
  • Let the child know what you will do. This will help build a sense of trust, and he will not be surprised when he finds out that you told someone.
  • Tell the child you need to tell someone whose job it is to help with these kinds of problems.
  • Report your suspicions to the appropriate agency.

National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the National Extension Service Children Youth and Family Educational Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials in whole or in part for educational purposes only(not for profit beyond the cost of reproduction) provided that the author and Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is included:

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Reilly, J. & Martin, S. (1995). Responding to a disclosure of child abuse. Fact sheet 95-12. Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved by the author.

Jackie Reilly
University of Nevada
Cooperative Extension Service
P.O. Box 11130
Reno, NV 89520-2893
PHONE: (775)784-4848
FAX: (702)784-4881

Jackie Reilly
University of Nevada
Cooperative Extension Service
P.O. Box 11130
Reno, NV 89520-2893
PHONE: (702)784-4848
FAX: (702)784-4881

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