How to Get Children to Open Up About Sexual Abuse

One of the reasons many children do not tell anyone about being sexually abused is because they fear that their loved ones will not believe them. Often, their abuser is a friend or family member, and although children may know that what occurred is wrong, they may be confused and worried that their caregivers will think they have misconstrued the behavior. Children who feel neglected or maltreated by caregivers may feel reluctant to disclose abuse, and many abusers threaten children, creating more reasons for nondisclosure. However, when children do reveal abuse, getting them to explain the abuse in a way sufficient to lead to prosecution can be challenging.

Various methods of interrogation are used on child-abuse victims, including open-ended questions, yes/no questions, “What happened?” questions, and “How did that make you feel?” questions. For the most part, open-ended questions and “what” questions tend to provide the least amount of detail. Children often are unable to articulate the details of their abuse. And while “how” questions that prompt children to reveal their physical reactions and feelings allow them to detail their personal experience in great detail, this is the most rarely used form of interrogation. To explore which method would provide the most accurate recollection of abuse and elicit emotional responses that could demonstrate credibility to jurors, judges, and therapists, Thomas D. Lyon of the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California recently examined transcripts from more than 100 child-abuse cases.

Lyon discovered that when children were asked closed-ended questions such as yes/no, their responses were narrow and they exhibited little emotion. Similarly, when they were asked “What happened?” they were hesitant to reveal details and appeared emotionally undisturbed. But when children were asked how the abuse made them feel and what their physical reactions were, the responses were extremely vivid and consistent. They demonstrated emotional responses and used words such as angry, sad, afraid, confused, “sick to my stomach,” and dirty. They manifested facial and physical reactions that allowed those interviewing them to see the damage of the abuse in ways that the children could not articulate when prompted with direct questioning. “Children can be surprisingly articulate about their reactions to sexual abuse, despite their apparent lack of affect in describing the abuse itself,” Lyon said. He hopes that these findings will motivate interviewers, prosecutors, and mental health professionals to evaluate physical and emotional reactions of abuse as a means to gather details from child sexual abuse victims.

Lyon, Thomas D., Nicholas Scurich, Karen Choi, Sally Handmaker, and Rebecca Blank. ‘How did you feel?’: Increasing child sexual abuse witnesses’ production of evaluative information. Law and Human Behavior 36.5 (2012): 448-57. Print.

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  • Jean.

    October 25th, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    One of the biggest things that I think that children see is that they don’t fully have the owrds or the understanding to talk about the situation so they choose instead to either act out in different ways or they keep it all inside. I think that all parents would know that something was going on if they were able to really see how their child’s behavior has changed, but many times they do not wnat to see the truth that is hitting them right square in the face. I know that this has to sound like I am placing blame, and I don’t want to do that. But I do feel that we have to pay better attention to our children and what is going on in their lives because it is up to us to make sure that they are getting what they need

  • Ronni

    October 25th, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    Really in situations like this I would always err on the side of caution and have a professional counselor lead the conversation. There are some things that are so sensitive and hurtful that it takes more knowledge than that that a parent could lead. I know we all want our kids to know that they could talk to us when something terrible happens to them but many times you need someone who is trained in this area to be able to effectively lead this sort of conversation and glean all of the pertinent information from the child in a way that still helps them feel safe.

  • KD

    October 26th, 2012 at 2:37 AM

    I saw this little documentary online. And the advice they gave was to no be dismissive of what your child says and also educate them about private parts and how nobody can touch them. It’s good to tell them about the good touch and the bad touch.

    Simple rules but not followed too often.

  • celia j

    October 26th, 2012 at 4:01 AM

    You give them a safe and soft place to fall
    That’s what they need
    They nee d to know that you care
    And they need to know that once they open up you will help to keep them safe

  • nobel

    October 26th, 2012 at 7:51 AM

    usually one of the parents is closer to the child than the other and it would be a good idea for that parent to be the one who tells the child about all of this and keeps them aware.awareness is a big weapon against abuse in childhood and maybe even a “I know this is wrong and will tell momma” could be enough to save the child…!

  • Jade R

    October 26th, 2012 at 11:20 AM

    First of all I think that it’s so terrible that we even have to talk about the best ways to have kids open up and be honest about this kind of abuse that they have had to live with. I find that anyone who does this to a child just a sick, sick person that I could never even stand to be in the same room with. But to teach a child that everyone is not like this, and give them comfort in knowing that there are adults out there who will love you and care for you in a way that does not use you and damage you, that can end up being so relevant in their lives. I wish that there were ways to just erase what happened to them from them so that it did not haunt them and their future relationships but we all know that is not a possibility. So I continue to think that it has to be by taking small steps that you encourage them into recovery and given them comfort when those hauting memories come back to harm them.


    October 26th, 2012 at 11:35 PM

    I think the denial and non-acceptance by some parents after a child has been abused only furthers the pain and trauma that they experience.That is a terrible thing to happen to any child.It is in no way the child’s mistake and even if a parent does realize his child has been subjected to abuse it is necessary that the parent treats the child with empathy and tells the child that he is there for the child.That will help the child rather than putting him under more confusion and even preventing future reporting!

  • javier

    October 27th, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    not easy for a child to come out with this.parents could be mad at me,maybe I did something for this to happen,there could be so many fears in a child’s mind and prior experience with parents not believing can cause further damage.I just hope kids can have something at school through which they can speak out fearlessly and then the parents informed.I know just how afraid I was of parents.

  • V.T

    October 27th, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    With my experience as a school teacher I can attest to the fact the the way a question is asked can fetch us different answers from a child.In case of abuse the child is already frightened and maybe even traumatized.SO the right questions need to be asked and in the right way.Also,listening should be given a lot of importance to ensure the child feels he has a guardian to protect him and that he need not fear any longer.

  • nene

    October 28th, 2012 at 5:18 AM

    Look at the whole Penn State case:
    this is often perpetuated by such “upstanding” adults that the kids feel like no one will believe them if they do tell.
    No matter what we have to get our children to hear that if someone is doing something to you that feels inappropriate or wrong, you tell, end of discussion.
    If it turns out that it can be explained away, then fine.
    But it is always better to be safe than sorry

  • Dalton

    October 28th, 2012 at 5:39 AM

    An advice-do not,i repeat, do not blame the child if something like this happens.the child is hurt and traumatized and you could cause irreversible damage by blaming or ignoring the child.always pay attention to what they say and even when they do not.;watch out for signs and change in behavior and be as subtle and gentle as possible.that has far more chances of better details and revelations from children.

  • PurpleHaze

    October 28th, 2012 at 11:52 PM

    Trust no one should be the phrase kids ought to know. And because most abusers are known people this becomes very important.Teaching them about what and how someone can and cannot talk or touch them is an important aspect too.

  • beth

    October 29th, 2012 at 2:02 PM

    most child abusers think they can get away with it because they think they can either coerce or threaten the child into maintaining silence.if we take this tool away from the abuser then there is not much that can save and protect this can be done is by teaching and training the child.and this does not happen in a day or in a classroom.everyday practices and advice are what imbibe these things in a child and if and when such an incident occurs the child will not only benefit by telling you about it but also due to knowing things and being able to let off the steam and not being traumatized from the inside without an outlet.

  • lori

    October 29th, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    PurpleHaze- I too think that it is important to talk to your children about whom they can and cannot trust, but do we really want to make them so cynical that they can’t trust anyone anymore? I hope not. There is still no guarantee either that just because you tell them not to be trusting that they won’t still be harmed by a predator. Teach them how to be safe and that it’s okay to come and talk to you when something does not feel right, but please let’s not give them the story that everyone is bad and out to get you because that’s just not true.

  • mary

    September 21st, 2014 at 9:12 PM

    My daughter came to me on 11/23/12 and asked me did you ever know daddy touched my potty and butt ? She also shows the signs of having been molested . Can any one help me ?

  • Ambee

    July 17th, 2017 at 11:02 AM

    I think young children dont tell because they dont know how…they cant even comprehend what has happend to them much less kno how to talk about it.

  • Robin

    May 6th, 2021 at 11:44 PM

    Trying to help my granddaughter in any way. She told my daughter that dad touched her privates and did a sexual act. She refused to open up at a interview meeting. If no physical evidence doesn’t come back from clothing they will allow her to go back to him. I believe her she is five. I need her to open up but she’s been taught to not talk to strangers and interviewer was a stranger. I’m so scared.

  • Brandy

    July 17th, 2021 at 12:01 AM

    My son is 5 and is showing some signs of sexual abuse such as inappropriate touching of others and running off laughing like it was some kind of game he has played before. When asked by my father (the same person he touched) and said his older cousin’s name . He also said that this same cousin hurt him and when asked where or how he hurt him his response was ” I WILL NEVER TELL” I am waiting on his therapy appointment so I tried to get him to open up to me tonight and he got so upset and angry at the question about his cousin’s behavior toward him even though I assured him that he could tell me anything and he would never be in trouble no matter what. He denied that anything had ever happened and ran to another room put his head under a blanket and yelled through it that he never wanted to talk to me again. I am in shock I know in my heart something has happened and his behavior is obviously telling. this cousin is 11 years old and my son is 5 .Is this a criminal matter or is the child too young? Is this kind of behavior common in children that are sexually abused by someone they so deeply care about and admire? Is there anything I can say that would help him to feel more comfortable to open up to me?

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