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Why don't they tell parents?

“I talked to her about safe touch.  I was open about my own experiences. I told her she could tell me anything. I thought we had a close relationship. So why didn’t she tell me?”  


There are some children who go straight to Mom and say, “Joey was playing a game with me last night that felt funny. Can you stop him from doing that?” But there are far, far more who keep the experience to themselves, to their teen years, to adulthood, even to their grave. This is true of all children who are sexually abused by anyone. It is even more common when the one who harmed them was a sibling.


Many parents have feelings of disappointment, failure, disillusionment, even betrayal, when they find out their child did not tell them about such a significant and terrible experience. These are all normal reactions. But it is best not to share them with your child. Whether your child is still in your care or is now an adult, the important thing is that their trauma is no longer hidden, and that you are there to support them.


If your child did not tell you, or did not tell you sooner, that does not make you a bad parent. Bad things happen to the children of good parents, and even children who have strong connections with their parents often can’t bring themselves to tell them about it.


You are not to blame for your child’s inability to report the abuse to you. There are many, many factors that make it hard for a child to tell a parent about an unexpected, unwanted, and poorly understood sexual experience.  


  • The child is too young to have the words to label or describe what happened

  • The child does not fully realize this is not normal and should not have happened

  • The sibling who is responsible may have used threats or warnings against telling parents

  • Feelings of shame or embarrassment

  • Feeling they did something naughty and could be punished

  • The child perceived it as a mutual experience, something they wanted or even initiated

  • The child is not sure if the event actually happened, vs. a nightmare or movie or imagination

  • The child had a trauma reaction that kept the memory inaccessible even to themselves

  • The child is afraid their parents will feel sad or hurt

  • The child doesn’t want to get their sibling in trouble

  • The child is afraid of what will happen to the family if they tell

  • Not finding a private or appropriate time to tell a parent

  • General feeling of fear, unable to pluck up the courage and the words at the right time

  • Some children have a feeling that the abuse will become real if they speak about it 


Stop It Now!: Why don’t children tell when they’re abused

Psychology Today: Understanding Delayed Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse

Siblings Too Podcast: Why Didn't You Tell Anyone?

It might be helpful to think back to one of your own darkest secrets, and imagine telling your parents or close friend or partner about it. Most of us have memories of something that our mothers never found out about, ranging from silly and harmless to tragic. Adults struggle to share difficult things with others, even those they trust. What an uphill climb it must be for a child, who doesn’t have a concept or words to understand the way their body and spirit was violated, to share that experience with a parent.

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