It can be very hard for children and young people to reveal abuse. Often they fear there may be consequences. Some delay telling someone about abuse for a long time, while others never tell anyone, even if they want to.
Children value being believed and, as the adult they have chosen to tell, it's vital that you act on what you've been told.
Below you can find advice on what steps to take if a child tells you they've been abused and how you can help keep them safe.
If a child discloses abuse
If you're in a situation where a child discloses abuse to you, there are a number of steps you can take.
- Listen carefully to the child. Avoid expressing your own views on the matter. A reaction of shock or disbelief could cause the child to 'shut down', retract or stop talking
- Let them know they've done the right thing. Reassurance can make a big impact to the child who may have been keeping the abuse secret
- Tell them it's not their fault. Abuse is never the child's fault and they need to know this
- Say you will take them seriously. A child could keep abuse secret in fear they won't be believed. They've told you because they want help and trust you'll be the person who will listen to and support them.
- Don't talk to the alleged abuser. Confronting the alleged abuser about what the child's told you could make the situation a lot worse for the child
- Explain what you'll do next. If age appropriate, explain to the child you'll need to report the abuse to someone who will be able to help
- Don't delay reporting the abuse. The sooner the abuse is reported after the child discloses the better. Report as soon as possible so details are fresh in your mind and action can be taken quickly.
Reporting the abuse
It can be helpful to make some notes on what the child said to you, trying to keep this as accurate as possible.
You can report the abuse to the NSPCC helpline at any time where a helpline counsellor will speak with you about what the child has said and advise you on what needs to happen next.
If we decide a child is at risk of harm or is in need, we will:
- ask you to provide the child’s details (name, age, address) as well as any information you have about the alleged abuser
- take detailed notes on what you tell us
- share this information with children’s services as well as the police, if necessary
- advise you on any other support available to you
- You can find out more information about what to expect when you contact us on our reporting abuse page.
You can also report abuse directly to children's services where the child is living.
If a child is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.
What we've learned from children who disclose abuse
The research found that the majority of young people did tell someone about the abuse in some way before they reached 18, but this was usually a long time after the abuse began. In the case of sexual abuse, disclosure took an average of 7 years after the first incident. Many said that it would have helped if someone had noticed the signs and asked them if anything was happening.
There are lots of reasons or triggers that can lead to a child reporting abuse, including:
- realising that the abuse they've suffered is wrong
- not being able to cope with the abuse any more
- the abuse getting worse
- wanting to protect other children from being abused
- the desire the see the abuser punished
- reaching a point where they trust someone enough to tell them
- when someone notices some signs and asks them directly.
When a child did tell someone, it was most commonly a friend or their mother. If they told a professional it was most likely to be a teacher.
When telling their mother, it was usually because they wanted the abuse to stop. When telling a friend it was most often to get emotional support. Friends were more likely to pick up on the signs of abuse and were more likely to ask them questions that prompted a disclosure.
Children and young people made their disclosure in a number of ways such as: verbally or non-verbally, directly or indirectly, fully or partially. In some cases they freely volunteered the disclosure, in others they were prompted or accidentally told someone.
Of those who told someone about the abuse whilst it was ongoing, less than half said that it stopped. The reasons were because the person they told:
- did not hear or recognise the abuse
- denied or ignored what the young person said
- took insufficient or unhelpful action or involved the alleged abuser
Children often felt they had been let down when families tried to deal with disclosures ‘in house’ by not reporting this to the appropriate support agencies.
For advice and support for adults who were abused in childhood, please see our information on non-recent abuse.
If you work with children or young people
All organisations that work with or come into contact with children should have safeguarding policies and procedures in place that are available to all staff. This is to ensure that every child, regardless of their age, gender, religion or ethnicity, can be protected from harm.
If a child that you come into contact with in a professional capacity discloses abuse to you, you should follow your organisation's safeguarding policies and procedures as soon as possible. These should provide clear guidelines on the steps you need to take if a child discloses abuse. They will state who your organisation has responsibility for safeguarding or child protection and who you should make your report to.
If a child is suffering, or at risk of suffering significant harm, the law supports you in sharing the information with appropriate agencies or professionals without the child's or parent's consent. Find out more about specific guidlines for reporting abuse in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
If your organisation doesn't have a clear safeguarding procedure or you're not comfortable with how your organisation has responded to your report, call the Whistleblowing Advice Line to discuss your concerns.
More advice and support
Get advice and support
What to do if you suspect abuse
Are you there for children's mental health?
We need to make sure every child always has a place to turn - night and day. Sign our petition calling on the government to help our Childline service be there for every child.