Receiving a disclosure of sexual assault

This text is intended to support people who receive - or who want to know what to do if they receive - a disclosure of sexual assault, whether made by a child or an adult. It provides information on how to receive a disclosure of sexual assault, and in no way replaces the expertise of counsellors and professionals working with victims of sexual assault.

If you are or have been a victim of sexual assault, we invite you to consult our Resources page.

Highlights

  • There are no specific indications as to whether a person has been sexually assaulted, except in cases where witnesses are present. Generally, the only clear sign that a sexual assault has been committed is a disclosure by the victim.
  • However, some of the consequences associated with sexual assault can be signs that warrant special attention, whether these are psychological, behavioural, physical or sexual in nature.
  • The reactions of the person who receives a disclosure of sexual assault are important, as they have a direct impact on the victim’s recovery.
    • Listening to the person, believing them, acknowledging them, alleviating their guilt, offering support, ensuring their safety, and directing them to resources are examples of positive and helpful reactions to a disclosure.
    • Judging the person, asking leading, probing or detailed questions, making the person feel guilty, or minimizing the situation are examples of harmful reactions.
  • It can be difficult to receive a disclosure of sexual assault. In addition to referring the victim to resources that can help, it can also be beneficial to seek support for yourself.

To consult resources that offer help and support to victims and perpetrators of sexual assault and to their loved ones, visit the Resources section.

Introduction

Signs that may lead others to believe that a person has been sexually assaulted often correspond to the consequences of the violence experienced. However, these signs are not always present in child and adult victims of sexual assault, and may also be present in non-victims. Recognizing these signs is nevertheless a first step in supporting victims.

Sexually abused children may experience a variety of psychological (e.g., post-traumatic stress symptoms, difficulty regulating emotions, depression, anxiety), behavioural (e.g., sudden changes in behaviour, early or problematic sexual behaviour, learning or interpersonal difficulties), or physical reactions (e.g., injuries, genital pain, sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection) as a result of the abuse. Adult victims of sexual assault may also experience psychological and emotional reactions (e.g., depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress symptoms, difficulty being in the moment, distrust of others), behavioural reactions (e.g., avoidance of intimate relationships or sexuality, relationship difficulties, self-harm), and physical and sexual reactions (e.g., injuries, pain during intercourse, avoidance of sexuality).

The support offered by loved ones is essential in the recovery of victims of sexual assault following their disclosure. Regardless of whether the sexual assault is disclosed by a child or an adult, it is important to listen openly to what the person has to say and to believe them. Staying calm, alleviating the person’s guilt, acknowledging them, and offering support are helpful attitudes to adopt when receiving a disclosure. When a child discloses sexual abuse, it is important to avoid interrupting them, asking suggestive, detailed or leading questions, so as not to contaminate their story, or promising to keep it secret. After receiving a disclosure from a minor (under 18 years of age), it is mandatory in Quebec to report the situation to the Director of Youth Protection (DYP).

 

Child sexual abuse

Possible signs of sexual abuse in children

There are no specific signs or indications that make it possible to know with certainty whether a child has been sexually abused, except in cases where there were witnesses. The majority of child victims show no physical signs of sexual abuse. Therefore, most of the time, the only clear sign that a child has been sexually abused is a disclosure.

Most of the signs that may lead those close to a child to believe they have been sexually abused correspond to the consequences of the event. However, these signs can also be observed in non-victimized children.

For example, children who have been sexually abused may display certain psychological, behavioural or physical reactions1-6. The list of reactions presented below is not exhaustive. To find out more about the consequences of child sexual abuse, consult the Consequences section.

  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Difficulty being in the present moment
  • Altered identity and self-concept (e.g., low self-esteem, altered self-perception, feelings of ineffectiveness)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, dissociation, dissociative amnesia, avoidance)
  • Other mental health disorders
  • Altered understanding of the world (e.g., erroneous perception of the world, altered perception of the perpetrator)
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Early, worrisome or problematic sexual behaviour
  • Sudden changes in behaviour (e.g., certain regressive behaviours)
  • Dangerous or destructive behaviours towards self (e.g., self-harm) or others
  • Risk-taking and impulsivity
  • Inappropriate knowledge of sexuality in relation to the child’s psychosexual development
  • Eating disorders
  • Learning and information processing difficulties (e.g., difficulty concentrating, difficulties at school, attention deficit, memory problems)
  • Interpersonal difficulties (e.g., difficulty developing healthy relationships, social isolation)
  • Attachment problems (e.g., lack of trust in others, insecure attachment or disorganized attachment)
  • Sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs)
  • Injuries or genital pain
  • Gastrointestinal and somatic problems (e.g., incontinence)
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Developmental delays

An adult who suspects or has reason to believe that a child has been sexually abused can share what they observe with the child, and be open and available (e.g., “I'm worried that you’ve been sad lately... I’d like to help you.”). Avoid questioning the child in such a way as to suggest answers. In all cases, when there is suspicion or reason to believe that a child’s safety or development is being compromised, it is mandatory to report the situation to the Director of Youth Protection (DYP).

What to do if a child discloses sexual abuse

When children disclose sexual abuse, they don’t necessarily know that they’ve been victims of sexual abuse, especially younger children. They will often reveal bits and pieces of information about what happened, whether accidentally or deliberately. Children can be hesitant and ambivalent about disclosure, due to shame, mixed feelings about the perpetrator, and fears about the impact of disclosure on the perpetrator or their family2,7. The reaction of the person who receives the disclosure and the support of family and friends have a major impact on the child and their short- and long-term well-being. A child who receives strong support from those close to them, as well as psychological help from professionals, is likely to recover better after sexual abuse7.

It can be difficult to receive a disclosure of sexual abuse from a child. It’s normal not to know how to react at first. What’s important is that the child is listened to and supported, and feels safe when disclosing and afterwards. It is therefore recommended that you consider the following when receiving a disclosure of sexual abuse.

How should you react when a child discloses sexual abuse?

  • Remain calm in front of the child.
  • Listen to the child openly and let them speak freely.
  • Avoid judging or questioning the child.
  • Believe the child and take what they say seriously.
  • Reassure the child.
  • Do not promise to keep what the child told you a secret.
  • Memorize and write down the child’s words as soon as possible.
  • Report the situation to the Director of Youth Protection (DYP) or, in an emergency, call 9116,8.

A child’s disclosure of sexual abuse can lead to multiple reactions and have a major impact on the person who receives it, particularly the parent. Considering that parents are the most important people in a child’s life, it is important that they create a circle of support and take care of themselves. For example, they can reach out to those around them for help and support (e.g., family, a friend), join a support group (e.g., a group of parents who have experienced a similar situation), or contact a victim support service2.

Reporting child sexual abuse

In Quebec, under the Youth Protection Act (YPA)9, everyone has a legal obligation to report a situation to the Director of Youth Protection (DYP) or the police when they have reasonable grounds to believe that a child (person under 18 years of age) is the victim of sexual abuse, even if they believe that the parents are taking steps to put an end to the situation. It is not necessary to be certain that the sexual abuse has taken place, and it is not the responsibility of the person reporting to validate the information. The DYP will take the report, evaluate it, and ensure that the child has the necessary support.

It is everyone’s business, our collective responsibility, to create a circle of support around children in difficulty.

To report a situation, you can contact your local DYP, 24/7, by telephone or in writing. To learn more about the reporting process, consult the guide Reporting a situation to the DYP is already protecting the child - When and how to report?

Helpful and harmful attitudes when a child discloses sexual abuse

Helpful attitudes Harmful attitudes

Listening

Every child who discloses sexual abuse does so in their own way and at their own pace, so it is important to listen attentively and openly, and to show empathy.

Examples: Ask open-ended questions, using the child's words:

  • “Tell me all about... [child’s words].”
  • “Tell me more about... [child's words].”
  • “Tell me what happened...”

Avoid asking leading, suggestive or detailed questions:

Examples:

  • “Who did this to you?”
  • “When did this happen?”
  • “Did they touch you over or under your clothes?”

Avoid interrupting the child.
Avoid strong reactions (e.g., grief or anger).
Avoid trivializing or minimizing the acts of sexual abuse.
Avoid dramatizing the situation.

Believing

It’s important to believe a child who discloses sexual abuse. Some children choose to do so because they hope to be believed.

  • Example: “I believe you.” 

Avoid comments that cast doubt on the child’s word.
Avoid telling the child to just forget it.
Avoid promising to keep the secret, even if the child asks:

  • Example: “I won't tell anyone.”

Encouraging them and highlighting their strength

Highlight the child’s courage in talking about it; pointing out their strengths will help them feel reassured and supported.

Examples:

  • “I'm glad you told me.”
  • “You did the right thing by telling me.”
 

Alleviating guilt

Child victims often feel responsible for the sexual abuse. It’s important to make them understand that it’s not their fault.

  • Example: “It’s not your fault.”

Avoid blaming the child:

Examples:

  • “Why didn't you tell me about this earlier?”
  • “Did you try to defend yourself? Did you say no?”

Avoid charged emotions or comments about the perpetrator.

Acknowledging their emotions

It’s important to recognize the emotions the child is expressing, whether it's anger, sadness, fear or shame.

Examples:

  • “Are you angry with them? You have every right to be angry, because what they did was wrong.”
  • “It's normal for you to feel...”
 

Sources: A guide for parents/guardians after abuse is discovered by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection2; Guide à l’intention des parents by the Centre de prévention et d’intervention pour victimes d’agression sexuelle (in French only)7;Information Guide for Sexual Assault Victims by the Table de concertation sur les agressions à caractère sexuel de Montréal10.

To find out more about how to help and support a child who has been sexually abused, visit the following websites:

See also the other tab > Adult sexual assault

Adult sexual assault

Possible signs of sexual assault in adults

As with children, there are no specific indications that an adult has been sexually assaulted, whether the abuse occurred in childhood or adulthood. The signs that make it possible to suspect an adult was a victim of sexual assault correspond mainly to the consequences of the sexual assault. Although non-victims may also show some of these signs, victims are still more likely to display a variety of psychological and emotional, physical and sexual, and behavioural reactions11-14. The list of reactions presented below is not exhaustive. To find out more about the consequences of adult sexual assault, see the Consequences section.

  • Sadness, anger, shame, self-blame, guilt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Altered identity and self-concept (e.g., low self-esteem, feelings of inner emptiness, difficulty connecting with oneself)
  • Difficulty projecting oneself into the future or pursuing personal goals
  • Difficulty stopping and being in the present moment
  • Self-consciousness, distrust of others, fear or expectation of rejection or abandonment
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, dissociation, dissociative amnesia, avoidance)
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Identity issues
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • Stress-reducing behaviours (e.g., self-harm, substance abuse)
  • Eating disorders, discomfort with body or body image
  • Sleep disorders
  • Avoidance of intimate relationships, sexuality, emotions, situations that could be a reminder of the assault
  • Relational difficulties or social isolation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Academic difficulties
  • Injuries or sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs)
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Fatigue or sleep disorders
  • Pain during sexual relations
  • Avoidance of sexuality
  • Sexual compulsion
  • Low sexual satisfaction
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Lack of sexual self-esteem
  • Dissociation or flashbacks during sexual relations

What to do if an adult discloses a sexual assault

When a disclosure of sexual assault is made, it is normal for the person receiving the disclosure (e.g., a family member, partner or friend) to be unsure of how to react, to have questions, to need support, or to feel the impact of the disclosure. Reactions to receiving a disclosure of sexual assault vary greatly from one person to another; some reactions may be more helpful (e.g., listening, alleviating guilt, supporting) than others (e.g., judging, blaming, trivializing, ignoring, overprotecting15. The nature of these reactions and the support of loved ones have a major impact on the victim’s recovery, which is why it’s important to learn about helpful reactions, adopt them as best you can, and seek support for yourself and the victime10.

How should you react when an adult discloses a sexual assault?

  • Listen to the person (e.g., actively listen to what they have to say without judgment, let them express themselves at their own pace, avoid leading questions).
  • Believe what the person says (e.g., avoid comments that cast doubt on their experience).
  • Stay calm (e.g., control your reactions so that the person feels free to express their emotions).
  • Receive without exaggerating or minimizing (e.g., don’t minimize, dramatize or compare what they are experiencing).
  • Alleviate their guilt (e.g., help them understand that it’s not their fault and that the person who committed the sexual assault is the one responsible).
  • Acknowledge and validate their emotions (e.g., point out their strengths and courage in talking about it, let them express their emotions).
  • Encourage their independence (e.g., help the person regain control over their life, at their own pace).
  • Offer support (e.g., be available to talk or be there for them, check whether they have a support network).
  • Verify and ensure their safety, if possible (e.g., check whether they are in danger, have suicidal thoughts and need professional help).
  • Refer them to resources (e.g., encourage them to seek support, direct them to resources adapted to their needs)10-16.  

If necessary, those close to the victim can turn to professional services and resources that could help and support them and the victim10

To find out more about how to help and support a victim of sexual assault, consult the following websites:

What to do if you witness a sexual assault

There are several things you can do if you think you've witnessed a sexual assault, regardless of the context.

If you feel that you or the victim are in any danger, call 911 immediately.

You can also:

  • Establish contact with the victim and communicate your support.
  • Inform those close to the victim of the situation.
  • Take the necessary steps to put an end to the situation, if it is safe to do so (e.g., divert the perpetrator’s attention; talk to the victim).  
  • Act as if you know the victim, to help them get out of the situation.
  • Help the victim get to a safe place.
  • Refer the victim to resources that can help.
  • Report the situation to a competent authority (e.g., security guard, person in charge, trusted person)12

To find out more about what to do if you witness a sexual assault, visit the following websites:

References

  1. Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes « Soutenir son enfant victime d’agression », In Traçons les limites, [online] (Retrieved on January 27, 2023).
  2. Canadian Centre for Child Protection (2018). Child sexual abuse: Picking up the pieces - A guide for parents/guardians after abuse is discovered, [online], Canadian Centre for Child Protection (Retrieved on January 27, 2023).
  3. Hailes, H. P., R. Yu, A. Danese et S. Fazel (2019). « Long-term outcomes of childhood sexual abuse: an umbrella review », The Lancet Psychiatry, vol. 6, n° 10, p. 830‑839.
  4. Hornor, G. (2010). « Child Sexual Abuse: Consequences and Implications », Journal of Pediatric Health Care, vol. 24, n° 6, p. 358‑364.
  5. Marie-Vincent Foundation (2019). « Disclosures of sexual violence », in Marie-Vincent Foundation, [online] (Retrieved on November 13, 2023).
  6. Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (2020). Reporting a situation to the DYP is already protecting child - When and how to report?, [online], Montréal : Québec, Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux (Retrieved on November 13, 2023).
  7. Centre de prévention et d’intervention pour victimes d’agression sexuelle (2021). Guide à l’intention des parents - Mon enfant a été victime d’une agression sexuelle, [online], Laval : Québec, Centre de prévention et d’intervention pour victimes d’agression sexuelle (Retrieved on January 27, 2023).
  8. Roy, S. (2022). L’intervention en contexte de dévoilement d’une violence sexuelle ou dans une situation de soupçon [Webinar]. Marie-Vincent Foundation.
  9. Youth Protection Act. (1977). RLRQ, ch. P-34.1, LégisQuébec (Retrieved on November 13, 2023).
  10. Table de concertation sur les agressions à caractère sexuel de Montréal (2018). Information Guide for Sexual Assault Victims, 3rd edition, [online], Québec, Secrétariat à la Condition féminine (Retrieved on November 13, 2023).
  11. Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes « Comment recevoir le dévoilement d’une amie? », In Traçons les limites, [online] (Retrieved on January 27, 2023).
  12. Centre d’aide pour victimes d’agression sexuelle « Proche de victime », In CAVAS, [online] (Retrieved on January 27, 2023).
  13. Cotter, A., et L. Savage (2019). Gender-based violence and unwanted sexual behaviour in Canada, 2018: Initial findings from the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces, [online], Statistics Canada (Retrieved on November 13, 2023).
  14. Dworkin, E. R., S. V. Menon, J. Bystrynski et N. E. Allen (2017). « Sexual assault victimization and psychopathology: A review and meta-analysis », Clinical psychology review, vol. 56, p. 65‑81.
  15. Montréal Sexual Assault Centre (2023). « Helpful attitudes », dans Sexual Violence Helpline, [online] (Retrieved on November 13, 2023).
  16. Quebec Coalition of Sexual Assault Help Centers (2023). « Helpful attitudes », In RQCALACS, [online] (Retrieved on November 13, 2023).

Author
Maude Lachapelle, Scientific Advisor, INSPQ

Contributor
Dominique Gagné, Scientific Advisor, INSPQ

External review
Natacha Godbout, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and Professor at the Department of Sexology, Université du Québec à Montréal
Gaële Côté, Sexual and Domestic Violence Counsellor, Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux

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