Parent’s Role in A Teen’s Sexual Abuse Disclosure: Research Tips and How to Hold a Conversation with Your Teen

Published by Amanda Lynn Helman on

Why is it important to be a safe space as a parent or as an adult?

One important consistency across different models of CSA is that children’s expectation of disclosure recipient’s potential reactions is central. A teen’s decision about when to disclose sexual abuse is a dynamic process with three key components: there is a conflict between a desire to tell and a desire to keep the secret and expectations for the disclosure itself, depending on whether a trusted confidant is available to listen to the disclosure.

Teens may have trouble deciding what to do; they may take time to weigh the downside against the benefits of disclosure. They may hesitate because they are unsure of how the parent will respond.  Supportiveness is defined as accepting that CSA occurred, showing positive actions/protectiveness, and not punishing victims following disclosure. Even teens who do not disclose to their parents may be concerned that their parents will find out, and they may thus still fear negative responses (Malloy, Brubacher, & Lamb, 2011). Families with less support may delay the disclosure or prevent the teen from telling anyone.

Moms are most often the recipient of CSA disclosure. The relationship between the teen and their mother may help them consider whether to share the information or not. Studies often show less maternal support after CSA disclosure.  If the teen perceives the parent figure as emotionally hostile and physically abusive, those children will have developed negative expectations for parental figures’ reactions in distressing situations (Bowlby, 1980).

Helpful Tips for Parents

  1. Please make sure the teen knows that you are a safe person, but that anything revealed about sexual abuse, self-harm or harm to others would be reportable.  Do not tell them you will keep everything a secret.
  2. Keep eye contact with the teen. If they seem nervous, ask them if they would like to go somewhere else; somewhere they feel more comfortable and safe.
  3.  It is a good idea to sit facing each other as you talk, if that feels safe for them.
  4. Put all distractions away from you. It would be difficult for the teenager to share emotional, sensitive information with you if you are not fully present.
  5. Don’t rush the conversation; let the teenager take the lead and share what they feel safe to tell you. If they need for you to sit quietly and just listen, please do. [ZC1] 
  6. Pay attention to them while they share the details. When they pause or are able to take a breath, keep looking at them and affirm them.

Affirmation example: “I am so sorry that happened to you, (name). That is hard. Or, I hear you, (name). This is so hard and sad.”

  • Thank them for sharing this information with you. If the teen stops talking and becomes silent during the conversation, you can ask them if they have told anyone else.
  • If they are a minor, and the sexual abuse occurred recently, ask if they have told this information to other friends or family members.
  • If the teenager begins to shut down emotionally, please give them some space and don’t ask any other questions. 
  • If you are unsure whether you should report the abuse, please call the mental health hotlines below to find out.

Pennsylvania Sexual Abuse Hotlines

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR):’reporting-child-sexual-abuse

For general inquiries or requests for assistance: 1-800-692-7445 or 717-728-9740 Hotline for rape: 1-888-772-7227.

Powers, A., Ressler, K. J., Bradley, R. G. (2009). The protective role of friendship on the effects of childhood abuse and depression. Depression and Anxiety (2009), 26 (1), 46-53. Doi:10.1002/ea.20534

Tashijian, Goldfarb, Goodman, Quas, & Edelstein (2015). Delay in disclosure of non-parental child sexual abuse in the context of emotional and physical maltreatment: A pilot study. Child Abuse & Neglect, (58), 149-159.

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Amanda Lynn Helman

Hi. I'm Amanda Helman, Ph.D. I promote body, mind, soul wellness for children, youth, and adults. Connect with me here or on our Facebook page Amanda Helman-Author and Speaker.