How to respond to a child sexual abuse disclosure
Guidance for how to support victims and survivors disclosing child sexual abuse.
The National Office for Child Safety is currently redeveloping this page. Check-in again soon for more content and resources on how to respond to child sexual abuse disclosures.
Help is available if you or someone you know has experienced, are experiencing, or are concerned a child or young person may be at risk of harm including child sexual abuse. If you need assistance or support, our Get support page provides a list of dedicated services. If you need information or resources for reporting child safety concerns, please visit our Make a report page.
If you or a child are in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000).
What is a disclosure of child sexual abuse?
A child sexual abuse disclosure is the term used to describe the process where a child or young person conveys (verbally or non-verbally) or attempts to convey that they are or have been sexually abused as a child or young person. It also describes a child, young person or adult conveying or attempting to convey past or historical child sexual abuse. You can find a definition of child sexual abuse and further information on our What is child sexual abuse page.
Victims and survivors are people who have experienced child sexual abuse. People with a lived experience of child sexual abuse may prefer to identify as a victim, a survivor, as both, or neither. Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse come from all walks of life.
We all have a responsibility to be informed about how to appropriately and respectfully respond to a disclosure of child sexual abuse. How we respond to disclosures is critical in ensuring a victim or survivor knows they are believed and supported.
However, many Australians don’t feel well equipped to appropriately respond to disclosures of child sexual abuse. A report by the Australian Childhood Foundation found that over 1 in 5 (22%) Australian adults lack the confidence to know what to do if they suspect that a child is being abused or neglected. 1
Why victims and survivors do and don’t disclose
Disclosing an experience of child sexual abuse is a difficult thing to do. It can take victims and survivors decades to disclose 2, and some never do. Some of the reasons victims and survivors may delay disclosure, or not disclose include:
- not understanding that what happened to them was child sexual abuse, or understanding but feeling or being coerced to stay silent
- fear of not being believed
- feelings of shame and blame, or concern about being judged
- concern about relationships, including worrying about ‘burdening’ someone with knowledge of the abuse, or the impact on their family
- having previously disclosed to someone and having a negative experience.
When victims and survivors do disclose, they may do this in a number of ways, including:
- directly, usually by verbally or non-verbally telling or conveying to someone they trust
- indirectly or partially, for example by telling someone part of their experience(s) or raising the topic of child sexual abuse to see how they respond before providing more information
- inadvertently, for example asking questions about what happened to them
- through changes in behaviour.
How a child or young person may disclose child sexual abuse
Only a small number of children and young people will actually tell or convey to someone directly that they have been sexually abused. It is more common for children and young people to tell people indirectly.
One way we can help keep children and young people safe is by understanding how they may behave, talk or change if they have experienced abuse. Abuse can affect children and young people in many ways, so being aware of a range of common signs of abuse helps us protect them as early as possible. You can visit our Signs and indicators of child sexual abuse page for more information.
Children and young people are still learning to communicate and express their feelings, and may not understand what has happened to them is abuse. Alternatively, children and young people may understand what has happened to them is abuse, but may feel or be coerced to stay silent. In either case, it can be difficult to recognise when a disclosure is made.
Responding to disclosures
Any direct, indirect or suspected disclosure of child sexual abuse should always be believed and responded to. It is important to emphasise that it is not the victim or survivor’s fault and they have shown courage and done the right thing by telling someone.
It is important to stay calm and not to disbelieve or ignore a disclosure, ask a victim or survivor why they didn’t disclose sooner, or minimise or question the abuse.
If a child or young person is in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000).
The eSafe Kids website provides guidance on the words that every person should hear if they disclose child sexual abuse, including:
- Thank you for telling me
- I’m sorry this happened to you
- It’s not your fault
- I believe you
- I will help you.3
If the victim or survivor is an adult and there are no children at current risk of harm, it is important to empower them to make their own decisions, including whether or not they want to report to police or whether or when to seek support.
Reporting child sexual abuse
Please visit our Make a report page for more information about what to do if you know about or suspect abuse, including contact details for state and territory child protection agencies. For information on reporting historical child sexual abuse, please visit our Report historical or past abuse page.
Other helpful resources
You may wish to find further information about disclosures of child sexual abuse, including on:
- Bravehearts and the Daniel Morcombe Foundation – for useful tips and information on what to do if a child, young person, or adult discloses harm to you
- Tell Someone – information from the Tasmanian Government about how to spot the signs of child sexual abuse, and resources for children and young people who have experienced, or are experiencing child sexual abuse
- Emerging Minds – for step-by-step guidance on responding to disclosures of child sexual abuse
- The National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse – for information on building your preparedness for disclosures of child sexual abuse.
The information on this page may bring up strong feelings for some people. Remember, you are not alone. You can visit our Get support page to find a list of services that can provide support.
1 Still Unseen and Ignored: Tracking Community Knowledge and Attitudes about Child Abuse and Child Protection in Australia (2021) Australian Childhood Foundation, 25
2 The Royal Commission found victims and survivors take on average 23.9 years to disclosure child sexual abuse.