The Psychological Impact of Withholding Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse

By Sinclair, Barbara B.; Gold, Steven R. | Violence and Victims, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Psychological Impact of Withholding Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse


Sinclair, Barbara B., Gold, Steven R., Violence and Victims


Researchers have found equivocal results with respect to whether the disclosure of child sexual abuse is helpful or not. The threat of harm as well as the possibility of being humiliated, not believed, or blamed, render the disclosure of child sexual abuse difficult for some victims. Suppressing of traumatic events has been linked to negative health effects. The current study investigated the relationship between the inability to fully disclose the abuse and subsequent traumatic symptomatology. Questionnaires including the Trauma Symptom Checklist 40, the Child Sexual Experiences Questionnaire, and the Parental Support Scale were completed by 204 victims of child sexual abuse. Multiple regression analyses were performed using traumatic symptomatology as the dependent variable. The extent to which a victim wanted to tell about the abuse but held back from doing so and the severity of the abuse were related to adult symptomatology. Findings suggest that victims enduring more severe abuse are more likely to hold back from fully disclosing the abuse which is associated with more trauma-related symptoms.

As the literature on the impact of child sexual abuse burgeons, researchers are discovering relationships among victim experiences, the outcome of the experience(s), and the factors that mediate the two (e.g., Browne & Finkelhor, 1986; Wyatt & Newcomb, 1990). Although several negative consequences of child sexual abuse have been identified (Finkelhor, 1990), some victims appear to fare better than others, even to the extent of reporting some perceived benefit from the abuse experience (McMillen, Rideout, & Zuravin, 1995). While certain factors associated with either the victim or the experience appear to contribute more clearly to subsequent outcome (e.g., parental support has been associated with less negative outcomes, whereas severity of abuse has been associated with more negative outcomes), the contribution of other factors has been more equivocal.

Research on the disclosure of child sexual abuse is unclear on whether "telling" is helpful, and if helpful, how. Finkelhor (1979) found that whether a victim tells about the abuse is not significantly related to a self-reported sense of trauma. In a study examining the stresses associated with disclosure, Sauzier (1989) reported that for 17% of victims, the child's disclosure of the abuse was met with either disbelief or inaction on the part of the adult who was told about the incident. Furthermore, in an 18-month follow up, 19% of the adolescents in the study indicated that they regretted telling about the abuse. Thus, when victims tell about the abuse, there is no guarantee that they will feel better or that the disclosure will lead to an intervention of some kind.

On the other hand, there are potential positive outcomes of disclosing child sexual abuse. Some of the benefits include stopping the abuse, obtaining emotional support, and preventing the perpetrator from abusing others. In addition, talking about the abuse might help the victim psychologically organize and integrate the experience. Horowitz (1976) suggested that disclosing a traumatic event allows the victim to encode the experience into language, which aids the victim in cognitive reorganization of the event. As the event is discussed again and again, the victim is able to gradually understand and process different components of the event. Rachman (1980) suggested that repeatedly talking about the traumatic event serves to habituate the victim to the emotional response associated with it. Lamb and Edgar-Smith (1994) found that stopping the abuse and gaining support were the two reasons most often cited for self-initiated disclosures among children. Sauzier (1989) reported that nearly one half of parents whose children had been abused thought that the disclosure of the abuse was helpful to the child or to the family. Thus, there appear to be ways in which an individual can benefit from talking about a trauma. …

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