Why Children Don’t Disclose Child Sexual Abuse



“Why didn’t you tell somebody?” That’s the response victims of child sexual abuse often hear when they disclose their traumatic lives as children.

I’d like to offer some reasons children don’t tell:

1) Some children’s brains protect them from what’s inescapable and intolerable by forgetting (dissociating.) Since they don’t remember what happened last time they’re lured by candy or the promise of a cute puppy, again and again. Only later, when it’s safe to remember, do they piece together the underlying causes of their difficulties in life. Some people never remember. Instead their lives are shaped by emotions and fears they don’t understand. Personally, I remembered when I was in my late 40’s, a common age for surfacing lost memories.

2) Some children tell, but regret confiding in the adult they’ve trusted. In my book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation, I explain what happened when I told my mother the recreation director was sexually abusing his charges. Here’s what I said:

“When it came my turn for the honour of riding on Bert’s shoulders, I was confused and uncomfortable to realize his hand was inside my underpants rubbing my genitals….It was months later that I decided to tell my mother the truth about Bert. His assault still bothered me and I hoped that, in telling her, I would feel better. No sooner had I got the words out of my mouth that she turned on me.”

“You nasty little girl,” she almost screamed. “You must have liked it.”

“No,” I protested, “I didn’t like it.”

It was no use. I’d told her and now she looked on me as a bad girl (p. 172)

In all likelihood, I tried to tell her about something much worse – my father and grandfather. It makes sense that her response would have convinced me my intolerable situation was also inescapable. The only way to survive was to “forget.”

3)   Nancy Brown, author of Facing Life, had decent, loving parents. Her strange behavior (stealing candy and later drunkenly acting out with people her policeman father knew as criminal types) reflected her shamed view of herself. This child who was being used sexually by the man across the street, blamed herself. There was something awful about her that bad men recognized. She couldn’t bear to tell her parents what she suffered regularly in the house across the street. Her perpetrator threatened to skin her dog and harm her little brother if she told.

“I was tired of hurting down there all the time. I wanted to run away but I couldn’t leave Peter and Rusty with no one to protect them. And Mom and Dad would miss me, even though I worried them.”

Children often keep the perpetrator’s secret out of fear.

4)  There’s another reason children keep their perpetrator’s secret. These are children who believe they are involved in a love affair. In my years as a trauma therapist, I often worked with adolescents who thought they were special to the teacher who was abusing them. It was only when it came to light that their lover had a ring of young sexual partners that these young people felt betrayed and disclosed the abuse.

Are there more reasons children keep their terrible secrets? Please leave your comments if you can add to this discussion.


  1. Bernadette says:

    Yes – all the above pretty much! My parents would never have believed me (proved later when an adult so now disowned them), I thought I must be bad as had two men who didn’t know each other abusing me, I enjoyed the attention of one of the abusers – I thought he loved me. The other I hated, but he said he’d stop buying my siblings sweets and giving us treats if i said anything and also assured me that I would never be believed. I normalised it – when I told a friend once in my 30s the age i was (from 7 to 15) her reaction made me realise how much I’d normalised it), when a child I confessed to a priest – had to say the Hail Mary 30 times – usually it was only 10 for other misdemeanours so again – my fault. I was triggered by the birth of my daughter – after a few months I told. And that showed other reasons why people don’t tell!! But now glad I have – silence is broken, I have been heard and I am finally free.

    • I’m so glad you’ve been heard and are finally free. Imagine being punished, instead of helped,by the priest when you told. This was your chance to be rescued. No wonder you never told an adult again. Clearly your parents didn’t protect you then, and are not standing by you now. In such a case, it’s healthiest to stop relating to family and to develop a chosen family of friends who really care about you.

  2. Ben says:

    Sometimes, adult abusers are so calm and good at ‘normalizing’ the abuse, the child comes to believe the sexual abuse is normal, that it is not a problem.

    The 5 y/o sister of a private student once sat at my feet while I waited in the living room and said, “Mr. B, I wish my arm was SO long, because if it was SO long I could put my hand right up your pants and hold your penis!” Then, while I was processing that statement and about to call her mother into the room, she climbed up on my lap and started rubbing herself against me.

    Of course, I did a redirect, I picked her up and sat her next to me while saying, “Here, come sit close to me and I’ll read you a story.” But she began to cry and tried to climb up on my lap again.

    She felt rejected because, in her innocence, she believed she was offering me an act of love. She didn’t know her behavior was inappropriate.

    When I told her that grown-ups who love children don’t do these things with children, she was genuinely shocked. She said, “But my brother T and I do this together all the time!”

    Discussions with her, the parents, and the (much much older) brother revealed that they had been doing this together for perhaps a year or two. The brother had presented the sexual abuse as a game, a secret game between the two of them. Because he had not caused her physical pain during the process, because she had ‘agreed’ to participate, and because they had laughed and enjoyed themselves during the process, the little girl had innocently believed that what occurred between them was normal.

    Of course,she never thought to reveal their little ‘game’ to her parents.

    How shocked she was to find out that what her brother had done was wrong!

    • I really admire and appreciate your response to the little girl’s sexualizing of your relationship. Sadly, most people would react by 1) telling her she was a nasty girl or 2) taking advantage of her innocence. It’s so important that we break the silence. I like the way you got help for her without rejecting her.

      • Ben says:

        Thank you for your kind words.

        Do you know, for some reason, my very first impression was that I must not make her think she was ‘bad’. I knew she was innocent and was only trying to show me how much she cared about me.

        It was so sad, the way she raged against me when I redirected her. She howled and kept trying to climb back onto my lap.

        A month or so later, her parents asked me to take her to her weekly visit with her female incest therapist. When we got there, she refused to go into the therapy room without me. I sat quietly while she played on the floor with a dollhouse and acted out the daily familial violence. Suddenly, she jumped up off the floor, ran over to me, put her arms around my neck, and held on tight.

        Other than comfort herself, I wonder if she was trying to show the therapist that she felt safe with me, that I was a protector? I certainly felt like her protector.

  3. Ben says:

    As a toddler, I witnessed my grandfather molest my 16 y/o aunt. Unable to understand his actions, I mistakenly thought he was trying to ‘eat’ her. Given my primitive communication skills and confusion, I was not able to relate the incident to my parents.

    My memories of that event evolved into fears of the night. I feared the ‘monster’ under the bed and the ‘monster’ hiding in the closet. I would only sleep with the bedroom door wide open, and the hall light on. I also slept with my back to the wall and face towards the door. I had nightmares of being chased by an adult male, and eventually had repetitive nightmares of talking to someone who would suddenly turn into a skeletal monster and eat me. These fears, nightmares, and behaviors haunted me until relatively recently.

    I was not able to unravel all the nightmares and memories until my early fifties.

  4. Gisela Uhl says:

    Dear Mary,
    something comes to my mind, what I have often said: when a child can trust the parents, totally, when the child’s reports are ALWAYS take serious, when the child can always expect a listening, empathic and understanding grown-up, it can tell what happened. But this is not enough, as I see from what you write. ALSO, the child needs to have firmly embedded in his/her person a sense of self-value, a sense that she/he is a most precious, “good”, and lovable person, to whom no one has the right to behave in a oppressive and down-putting way. To prevent child abuse, we need to educate the parents…..or cure the parents……
    There is no license for having children, but there would be a need for it, if this could be done without bureaucracy and yet another kind of oppression…….

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