How do you respond to an adult who tells you they were abused as a child? While we are well rehearsed in child protection, there is little guidance available for when a colleague or parent makes a disclosure. Child protection trainer Karen Roberts shares her story.

Listening to the truth of someone’s life is a privilege and an honour. When you tell someone your history, they should receive it as such.’ (Bass & Davis, 1997, p.100).

The first part of this quote is something I say frequently, as a trainer in child protection. As educators within children’s services, it is important that we learn how to respond to a child’s disclosure of abuse, and this is a vital component of child protection training.  A child who tells of their abuse has most likely overcome intense fear and anxiety to be able to talk to an adult they respect and trust. If they place this trust in you, it is an honour—an honour that requires you to manage your own emotions that may surface, in order to respond in a privileged manner at the time.
It may shock, upset, horrify or sicken you to hear their story, but it is necessary to remember that you are the adult, that it is the child this is happening to, and they need you to focus on them in the moment and to keep your emotions to yourself. There is ample literature on the topic of child abuse and protection, and within this body of work, there are consistent strategies recommended for an adult to use when responding to a child’s disclosure of abuse.

The NSW Interagency Guidelines for Child Protection Intervention (2006) is one valuable and reliable resource which includes the following recommendations: ‘We need to listen to children, to allow them to tell their story in their own way, and to let them know we believe them. They need to hear that they have done the right thing in telling, that the abuse was not their fault, and that it is never OK for an adult to harm a child. We should use a calm and reassuring tone, be open and non-judgemental, and provide appropriate comfort and support. We should not express shock, disapproval or disbelief, try to stop them talking, ask leading questions, make unrealistic promises, or make negative comments.’ (p.18).

For children, we need to abide by our mandatory reporting requirements, and other professionals will then ensure they receive support and counselling to help them deal with the trauma of abuse.

The hardest words to hear

While these strategies for responding to a child’s disclosure are well documented, and can relate to any area of abuse, a disclosure is generally related to sexual abuse. But disclosures can happen at any age. In fact, because of the secrecy around sexual abuse, the perpetrator’s skill in convincing the child to keep the secret, and the range of emotions experienced by a victim, many disclosures are actually made by adults (survivors) who experienced childhood sexual abuse.

A disclosure of abuse can be prompted by various reasons in a range of situations, at any time. In particular, working with young children, and training on child protection, can induce feelings and memories of one’s own childhood abuse, and can provoke a disclosure. It is therefore important that all of us working in children’s services consider the possibility of a colleague or staff member in our service disclosing to us.

So how does someone respond to an adult who discloses? There are many books dedicated to help survivors cope as adults, but it is not so easy to find literature related to helping someone respond to an adult’s disclosure. How do you respond if a colleague opens up to you, to tell you their history, and share their story of being abused as a child?

They are no longer seen as the child, but in a sense they are. An adult disclosing is an adult talking about their life as a child, with all the same feelings as the child (especially if disclosing for the first time), and more—the years of coping with and battling the memories, surviving the long-term implications, and possibly overcoming the trauma. But we just see the adult, someone we know, someone we see as competent and capable, someone whose childhood we have never considered.

Imagine responding to the child that adult once was, a child who wants the abuse to stop— a child who wants to heal. Imagine the child who is now an adult, yet may still feel scared, guilty and anxious, who wants the pain, the memories and the repercussions to stop—an adult who wants to heal.

Personally, as someone who was a victim, and now a survivor, having disclosed to others with the view that sharing this story may assist others to heal, I have a strong belief that the strategies we use in responding to a child are just as useful when responding to an adult’s disclosure. This conviction has been validated, not just through my own reading and counselling sessions, but also in talking with friends and colleagues, who have either disclosed or received a disclosure by another adult.

One woman described her father’s response to her disclosure of abuse by his own brother in this way: ‘He said ‘I don’t feel defensive for (*Steve). What I feel is for the little girl and I just want to pat her and say: “There, there”. It was just the perfect response. There was no question at all that he believed me.’ (Bass & Davis, 1997, p.101).

In an example from an early childhood context, a centre director (*Sally) said she was shocked and horrified when a staff member (*Anne) said: ‘I’ve never told anyone this, but my grandfather sexually abused me for years, from when I was aged about five until I was 15’.

She was, Sally said, shocked into silence, yet remembers thinking… ‘don’t do anything, just sit there, shut up, and remember all the things you learnt in child protection when a child discloses’. And that’s what Sally did, and later Anne expressed deep gratitude and told her how much she trusted her. Just as a child chooses someone they trust and feel safe with, so does an adult.

Sally had respected that trust. She shut the door, listened, believed Anne, and asked her how she felt and whether she wanted to talk about it more. She acknowledged her strength and her accomplishments in her career, and asked her if it would be OK if she helped her to access some sort of professional support, such as counselling.

The accidental counsellor

We have diverse roles in children’s services and one is that of an accidental counsellor. The expectation is not for us to be an actual counsellor who has completed expert training for the job, but to have some supportive skills to help us respond to other people in times of need.

Active listening and empathy are most helpful in these situations, as well as providing an understanding response that allows the person ‘to feel heard and understood, that does not judge or interpret, and that provides an accurate awareness of the other person’s thinking, feeling and experience.’ (Webb & Losurdo, 2006, p. 117 and 127).

This incident ‘came completely out of the blue,’ said Sally. ‘You don’t expect a disclosure, and it took everything I could do to not cry and show the horror I felt.’

Yet, instinctively she thought to follow the same rules as with children. In doing that she had allowed Anne to feel heard and believed and open to external support. Yet Sally felt this next step wasn’t as clear as for a child, so she sought help and advice. She rang a colleague and then recommended Anne to see a counsellor.

While she felt devastated and unsure of what to do with the information, Sally remembered confidentiality. She needed to speak with someone she trusted in terms of friendship as well as professionally, not just for advice for Anne, but also for support for herself.

You need to ‘know your own limitations… and be prepared to get support where needed’ (Webb & Losurdo, 2006, p.131).

The closer you are to the person disclosing, the more intense emotions may become, and counselling for yourself may also be necessary to help take care of yourself.

Anyone who experiences trauma of any type can benefit from counselling, but many of us struggle, believing that we are fine. We may compare ourselves with others and think they have suffered more and have been affected more than us. We feel we are coping and we live our lives believing we don’t need help from others. I know someone who, in her 60s, had counselling for trauma related to a childhood experience. Although she has lived her life as a strong, competent and resourceful woman, she now says that, with professional and responsive counselling, she feels peace and more inner strength than ever before.

She was fortunate to find the right counsellor the first time, but this is not always the case. For myself, it took a second attempt several years after the first counsellor, inappropriately told me she was shocked by a comment I made in my first session. Two years with a truly understanding and compassionate counsellor, however, helped me to overcome many negative thought patterns and to look at myself, and my life, in a more positive way.

Whether you have experienced abuse or you are the person someone discloses a history of abuse to, I would encourage you to take whatever steps you need to find the right support for you—and to persist. Taking that first step may not be easy. It may help if it can be a friend, family member or colleague, because you already have a trusting relationship with that person.

When dealing with the life long impacts of childhood abuse and trauma, more professional, independent, long-term support can be a powerful influence on healing and recovering.

To assist us in everything we do in children’s services, we have policies to guide us. We have child protection policies, which should include procedures for responding to a child’s disclosure. A separate policy on responding to an adult’s disclosure could also help us prepare for the possibility of this happening. It would need to outline clear procedures to follow and contacts for counselling or other support.

Prior training, policy and procedures can assist us in responding to a disclosure, whether the disclosure is made by a child or an adult. Followup support, and often professional counselling, can be beneficial for both the person disclosing and the person hearing the history of the other person’s life.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy and confidentiality.

Warning: events that may prompt disclosure

  • Be mindful that a child protection incident at your children’s service can potentially trigger adult recollections of past abuse.
  • It is important to also realise that sometimes reading or training with child protection materials can have a similar effect.
  • As a supportive person you can play a significant role in helping a staff member who has experienced abuse to seek professional help.


  • Bass, E. & Davis, L. (1997) The Courage to Heal. A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. London: Vermillion.
  • NSW Interagency Guidelines for Child Protection Intervention (2006).
  • Webb, L. & Losurdo, M. (2006) On the Run Counselling, Train the trainer manual. NSW Government families first.

This article first appeared in Rattler Magazine, Issue 96, Summer 2010

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