There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
Disclosure is the word used when an act of sexual violation becomes known to others. Usually this happens when the person who was violated decides to tell their story, whether to a friend, family member, or mandatory reporter. But disclosure includes other possibilities, such as a parent walking in and seeing inappropriate sexual behavior, or a doctor finding evidence of sexual trauma or pregnancy.
Most people who have been sexually harmed by a sibling do not tell anyone until adulthood, if at all. The best estimates available are that only 15% of those who have experienced sibling sexual trauma tell someone else by young adulthood.
Parents’ reactions are very important to a child’s experience after disclosure, no matter the age. Parents’ very first reaction may be based on shock; the sooner they can move toward belief and support the better it will be for everyone.
Most Helpful Messages when a Survivor Discloses
* I Believe You
* What Your Sibling Did Was Wrong
* It Was Not Your Fault
Follow up with action to protect and assist in finding help, as appropriate to the survivor's age and relationship to you.
Disclosure is a process that starts in a single moment and then unfolds over time--days, weeks, even years. One person finds out, then others. Then follow more reactions, consequences, more memories and revelations, more people learning more of what happened. The survivor, offender, and/or parents may decide, or be expected, to tell their story to law enforcement and social services.
Sometimes children retract, or take back, all or part of what they first disclosed. There are many reasons for this, ranging from fear of retribution, to lack of support and belief from families or systems, to the trauma of having their family disrupted and their world upended, to concern for punishment toward the one who hurt them. If this happens, it is important to trust the child’s first report. But it is equally important to address the concern that caused them to take back the truth that cost them so much to tell.
On the other hand, the survivor’s story may emerge little by little. A child or adult survivor may tell a bit to test the waters, and tell more only if they feel safe and supported. Memories of sexual trauma are often recalled in bits and pieces and may come out over time or through the therapy process. In those cases, the child’s or adult survivor’s initial report may be incomplete.
Survivors who disclose in adulthood are forced to step back in time, to mentally and emotionally revert back to the age when the trauma actually happened. They may speak and act and feel as they would have as a child of that age. This is not something they are choosing to do; they may not even be aware of it. If their memories have been long-buried, it can be a long process for the survivor to recall them, trust them, and decide whether and how to share them. It is important for those supporting the survivor to be patient and open-minded, to trust the essential truth of the disclosure even if details of memories change or are recalled differently.
No matter when or how disclosure happens, it is a difficult time for everyone involved. Some survivors say that disclosure and the events surrounding it are as difficult to deal with as the abuse itself. For parents who had no previous knowledge, disclosure is their primary shock and trauma. Those who are responsible for the harm usually experience intense fear and humiliation, which they may or may not show to others.
The disclosure process is difficult, messy, unpredictable. Everyone in the family is both vulnerable and acting under stress. Professionals who are involved need to be aware of this and ready to offer support. This is an important time for everyone in the family to learn or use coping skills and reach out for support.