Eight golden rules for carers when a child discloses a traumatic experience
“Can I tell you something?” It often comes from behind. Like from the back seat of the car. You’re driving them to school or a club. You know you have 7 minutes. And then they will be gone into school and you won’t see them again for hours.
It’s really difficult to hear about someone else’s traumatic experience. Even more so when it is coming from a child.
We worry about what to say and how to say it. In the moment, it helps to keep to some simple golden rules. Four don’ts and four dos.
1. Don’t ask
Our natural instinct is to want to know more. Who, where, when. What, specifically, happened? And then what?
But we must resist our inquisitiveness. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, whilst our questions may be driven by concern and love, the child experiences them as interrogation.
It’s their story, not ours
They have built up to this. They will have been thinking about it and how they will broach it. They know the story they want to tell and they know how much of it they are ready to tell.
Questions dictate the direction stories take. By asking questions, we change their story from the one that they want to tell and into the one we want to know.
The child may not be ready for this and the change in direction may cause them distress. They will start to feel like this is not going the way they planned. The way they expected. This can cause them to panic and feel under pressure.
Our questions may relate to a part of the story the child is not ready to disclose. This will cause greater distress if the child feels they are being pushed towards a memory that they don’t want to re-live right now.
Imagine recalling a traumatic event is like walking through, and describing, a field of emotional land mines.
The child may be able to get close enough to one of these land mines to safely tell us something about it. But asking them about it may inadvertently push them right onto that land mine.
By asking questions, we change their story from the one that they want to tell and into the one we want to know.
Secondly, if the child is disclosing abuse, then they are disclosing a potentially criminal act. This may need to be investigated with a view to a prosecution or a Section 47 enquiry.
Such an investigation will consider the chld’s disclosure as evidence.
Asking questions of a traumatised child is a highly complex skill, requiring specific training. Without training, it would be an easy mistake to ask the child leading questions – where the answer is built into the question.
For example, “did this happen at home?” would be a leading question. A non-leading question would be “where did this happen?”
The wrong questions can turn an honest disclosure into a web of lies
Right at that moment, what the child needs most is our acceptance. They need to know that we still love them. So if it did not happen at home, the child has to make a choice. Do they correct us, say “no” and risk losing us. Or do they go along with us and say “yes”?
If they say “yes” this invites us to ask follow up question, such as “was it in your bedroom?” And in just two questions, we have turned an honest disclosure into a web of lies.
We document and report on what they said. The documentation also becomes evidence in an investigation.
When it is subsequently discovered that the event did not happen as described, case thrown out, abuser walks free from court. Everyone sits around wondering why the child would lie about such a thing and the child loses all trust in everyone around them.
So don’t ask questions.
2. Don’t lose control of your face
Children are very sensitive to detecting displays of emotion. They’re not as good at deciphering what they mean.
To a traumatised child, a loving, sad smile just looks like a smile. And people smile when they are happy. So we must be happy. Why would we be happy about what they have just told us?
Express the acceptance and love that the child is looking for
If we are visibly upset, the child may think that they have upset us. Their disclosure is now polluted with their concern about our reaction. Should they comfort us? Should they stop now, to save us further distress? Is our distress a sign of our rejection of them?
It can be helpful to practice “concerned, loving face” in the mirror. You might feel a bit stupid doing it. I know I did. But do it a few times, and you’ll have a facial reaction practiced that you can be confident expresses the acceptance and love that the child is looking for.
3. Don’t touch
Our natural, compassionate reaction to someone in distress is to reach out and offer them comfort. A warm hand on the shoulder or a hug.
We need to exercise extreme caution doing this immediately after a child has disclosed.
In order to disclose, the child has to dig up the memory and re-live it. We only get to hear about the bits that come out of the child’s mouth. But there will be dozens of details left unsaid, and the child will have just re-lived them all.
By touching the child, we risk becoming part of their trauma
With all their traumatic memories front-and-centre in their mind, a physical touch risks firing one of those memories. They may misinterpret our intention, linking our touch to something that happened to them. We risk becoming part of the child’s trauma.
4. Don’t apologise
Particularly for younger children, sorry means that you have done something wrong. They haven’t learned the nuances of language yet, so may misinterpret “I am sorry that happened to you” as being an admission of guilt.
If the child knows we weren’t responsible they may try to comfort us, “it’s not your fault”. The conversation just got back to front and we have to rescue it.
If the child doesn’t know that we weren’t responsible, then things can get pretty ugly from this point.
1. Thank you for telling me
It can’t be said enough times that the child is not looking at us for signs of our investigative prowess or our ability to fix things.
They want our acceptance, belief and our assurance that they did the right thing by telling you.
So be explicit. “Thank you for telling me. I believe you. You did the right thing. It must have been difficult.”
Acknowledge the uniqueness of the child’s trauma and show your admiration for their ability to talk about it
Avoid “I know how you must feel” type statements. They are belittling and patronising. Even if you have been through similar experiences, you still don’t know how this particular child is really feeling about their specific experience.
It’s much better to say something like “I can’t even imagine how hard that must be”. This acknowledges the uniqueness of the child’s trauma and shows your admiration for their ability to talk about it.
2. It’s not your fault
After our acceptance, the next thing the child wants to hear is whether we think they are to blame for what happened. It’s possible that someone – maybe the abuser – has repeatedly told them that it is all their fault. They may have come to believe this.
“What happened is not your fault. You are not to blame” can be a very powerful thing for the child to hear at this point.
We don’t necessarily have to elaborate right now (e.g. with “that person did this. They were wrong” etc). The child might not be ready for that, particularly if they still have close emotional ties with the perpetrator.
Just keep it simple.
3. Contain it, but don’t keep it secret
Children will often start a disclosure with something like “I want to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone”. Often they don’t mean this literally.
They worry that this Thing they have kept inside themselves will go viral once it comes of their mouths. It will be uncontainable and uncontrollable. Everyone will know. Teachers, friends at school, shopkeepers, strangers in the street.
Keeping a traumatic experience secret is safe for the child. They know where it is. By disclosing, they lose this control and they are putting their faith in us to hold on to that control.
It is as though the child has let the cat out of the bag, and now it is free to roam wherever it wants. We need to reassure them that the cat is now just in a slightly bigger bag.
Respect their wishes and make sure everyone understands their wishes
The child won’t know the ins and outs of child social work procedure. And neither should they have to. We just need to explain to them the exact size of this bigger bag – informing your supervising social worker and the child’s social worker is non-negotiable.
But involve the child. Listen to their concerns. Ask who they are ok with knowing and who must not know. For right now, respect their wishes and make sure everyone understands their wishes.
If the child said they don’t want the police involved, respect that. You can always revisit it with them later.
4. Look After Youself
Being on the receiving end of a disclosure can be traumatic in itself. We can often feel angry and helpless and sad about what happened. It’s called Secondary Trauma.
We may want to drive across town with a nail-studded cricket bat and resolve the issue one to one with the perpetrator.
We may want to wrap the child in a big cotton wool blanket and protect them from the evils of the world. We may want to drink all the wine and sob.
We may want to confront the perpetrator with a nail-studded cricket bat.
But we chose this path. And choosing this path means being there for these incredibly resilient and courageous children. And if we don’t look after ourselves, we can’t look after them.
Secondary trauma hurts us and it hurts our children. So make sure to reflect on it in supervision, talk to your supervision social worker. Lean on any crutch you can find (as long as it is bound by confidentially clauses). Take a long bath. Walk the dog. Go for a drive.
Whatever’s your thing for finding a bit of mental peace, find it. And do it.