What Do I Say & How Do I React When Someone Discloses CSA?

Recently I’ve been putting this question out to many different groups.

A lot of good ideas have come back. Some pieces of advice stand out:

– maintain a state of calmness. Try not to react with shock or upset. The person disclosing needs to be free to attend to her own emotional response and not be distracted by yours. The person shouldn’t have to look after you and your response to her disclosure.

– A calm, accepting presence is needed here. Ideally, your attitude will show that you’re able to hear what the person has to say.

– be prepared to tolerate ambiguity. People who are beginning to uncover traumatic memories need room to doubt their own experience and to deny what they are remembering. They need room to swing back and forth, between believing and disbelieving. For the person who has survived childhood trauma by dissociating, memory may be inconsistent. Don’t insist on historical accuracy or a consistency.

– It’s important not to have an agenda. You are not the judge presiding over a court of law. Don’t try to verify or deny their memory. Ideally you will just provide a safe place for the person who’s finally found the courage to tell her story.

– Any questioning must be meant to help the client, not to satisfy your curiosity. Stay focused on the person who is disclosing. Keep yourself out of it.

I have my own painful memory of telling when I first accessed my own history of incest. You can read about this in Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation, in (“You Tell You Die,” pages 171-182.)

Do you have an experience you’d be willing to share in the comments section below? Perhaps you have some thoughts to offer about how to respond to disclosures.

Please help others with your ideas.

7 comments

  1. I’ve been wondering why my Christian family reacted so poorly to finding out about my childhood sexual abuse…the offender was my sister’s husband and he’d been molesting me from the time I was 12 until I was 14.

    http://suzannemosley.blogspot.com/2012/02/my-childhood-sexual-abuse-story-part-16.html

  2. Disclosing abuse to one’s family is really loaded. You’re not only telling them about what happened to you – you’re telling them their family has a dirty secret.

    It’s so sad how many families would rather maintain their view of their “nice” family instead of enfolding and helping the family victim.

    Have you read in my book “Confessions of a Trauma Therapist” how my family reacted? If you haven’t, I think you’d find it helpful. It’s in the chapter You Tell,You Die.

  3. Mary Moonen says:

    First of all, I am enjoying reading about you and your work.
    When someone confides in me, I agree, staying calm and supportive, because the person who confides is propably highly intune to any facial expressions of shick. dibelief, and rejection. I would also say it depends on the age of the person, as well as their gender becasue there some specific concerns. My first thought is “are they in immediate danger now?”
    My other thoughts are about being sure not to push for details, or try to play “detective” as you had mentioned. I agree totally it is NOT my job, and that it doesn’t matter about the chronologicl reporting, or other vague details. Again I concurr that the memories may be hazy. They may have been drugged, or forced to become intoxicated so that they are easier prey.
    I specialize in PTSD in my private practice, and also deal with mood disorders and addiciton. Like you, I am becoming more transparent with my clients to reduce the stigma of any mental health issues. Thank You for making such huge contributions to the field of Trauma and Abuse, your work is invaluable.

  4. I would tell them I am listening. I would also tell them that I care. I would help provide resources and safety if needed. I would tell them, if they are receptive that I have been there too. I would let them know that they are no longer alone.

    • Disclosing your personal knowledge of abuse could be very reassuring to someone who no doubt feels like a case of one. It’s usually not until people tell their story that they realize how much company they have – and how people like you don’t look any different from the rest of the world.

  5. Ricardo Snyder says:

    I have done limited work with children who have been sexually abused. The ones I get usually are where it was previously disclosed and reported. Where this issue gets tricky for me, is regarding my responsibility to report if the child/teen is still living with the perpetrator (or the perpetrator still has access to them). Do you still just let them tell you what they want, or do you ask any questions to try to fill in the gaps? How would you present the need to report to them? I’m assuming you would do it saying that in order to help protect them from further abuse, this is what you will be doing…! Is there a better way?

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