Why is sexual abuse disclosure so hard for teenagers?
Imagine you are a teenager who was sexually abused as a child or as a teenager. The idea of a safe person will instantly change after sexual abuse. This is especially true for teenagers who were sexually abused by a close family member. It is also alarming to share about sexual abuse that happened with someone outside of the family. The thought of sexual abuse disclosure can be complex because it requires the teen to identify a safe person.
The burden of disclosing childhood sexual abuse for teenagers can also be hard to do if they do not have safe friendships. That is, some teenagers may grow up in an unsafe environment and there is no safe person for them. For example, their family may tell them not to say anything about the abuse due to fear or brush it off as something that happens to everyone. Disclosing sexual abuse can be challenging due to an absence of physical evidence. For example, the teen may delay disclosure for several days or weeks that would lead to no evidence of abuse during a physical check-up by a physician. Or, the teen who experienced sexual abuse may have fragmented memory of the events that happened to them. Often, the fear of their friends not believing or supporting them may cause them to hesitate to share such personal information. It is hard to want to share something and know that you may not be believed. Due to the fear of unbelief, the National Children’s Advocacy Center (2013) recognizes that these example barriers and fear of negative consequences often delay sexual abuse disclosure.
What happens when teenagers delay sexual abuse disclosure?
Childhood abuse disclosure rates are as low as 16-25% for teenagers (Tashijian, Goldfarb, Goodman, Quas, & Edelstein, 2015). This is a low rate and it is alarming that youth do not feel enough support to disclose sexual abuse. Delay in the disclosure can reduce prosecution of the perpetrator. If the teens and youth are young, it is important for the perpetrator to get help or support so that other children are not harmed. Youth are most likely to disclose sexual abuse to someone outside of authorities such as the police. Second, delay in the disclosure can postpone counseling therapy and intervention techniques that can help the teenager process the events. Delayed disclosure may result in more harmful long-term negative predictors associated with child abuse such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, confusion, and sexual promiscuity (Tashijian, Goldfarb, Goodman, Quas, & Edelstein, 2015).
Research shows that early disclosure of sexual abuse after the event occurs is associated with significant emotional benefits that include less depression and reduced anxiety (Powers, Ressler, Bradley, 2009). Safe recipients of the sexual abuse disclosure are necessary. Disclosure of the abuse to an unsafe person may be more harmful to the teenager. Ensuring that teenagers have a safe person at home, school, or in the community, such as a mentor, is critical to the healing process.
National Children’s Advocacy Center. (2013). Annotated bibliography for the empirical and scholarly literature supporting the ten standards for accreditation by the National Children’s Alliance. Retrieved from http://www.nationalcac.org/images/pdfs/CALiO/Biliographies/annotatedbibliography-standards-second-ed.pdf.
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.