How children tell: containing the secret of child sexual abuse

Rosaleen McElvaney, Dulbin Institute of Technology

Sucessfully submitted for the award of Ph.D. from the School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, June 2008.


In recent years, research on the subject of child sexual abuse disclosures has seen an increase in the use of qualitative methods to explore individual experiences, reflecting an emphasis on understanding diversity rather than typicality. This research study builds on previous work that viewed disclosure as a process that occurs over time, influenced by both anticipated reactions and actual reactions that in turn influence future decisions about disclosing.

The study has as its fundamental focus the experience of telling. Interviews were conducted with young people aged 8 to 19 years (n=22), parents (n=21) and adults who had experienced sexual abuse in childhood (n=10). In all, 29 young people’s stories were represented in this study. The study was informed by Grounded Theory methods and data was managed using the NVivo computer programme. By directing the analysis to take account of the impediments to telling, the motivation to tell and the consequences of telling, a theoretical framework emerges that suggests that the experience of disclosure needs to be seen in the context of a process of containing the secret of sexual abuse. This process, it is suggested, involves three key dynamics: active withholding, pressure cooker effect and confiding the secret.

The additional characteristics of this process for participants in this study were that it was an active cyclical process that was adaptive for the individual, was re-negotiated over the course of the lifespan in the context of different relationships, was influenced by multiple factors operating at multiple systemic levels – child, family, school, child protection and legal systems, and wider society - and changed over time. Key factors that influenced this process included being believed, being asked, shame/embarrassment/self blame, fear, concern for others (both not wanting to upset others and concern for other children) and peer influence.

The diversity of children’s experiences of confiding sexual abuse suggests that a multifaceted and multisystemic approach to prevention and intervention is needed that takes account of the potentially conflicting needs of child protection, therapeutic and legal systems and the needs of children and their families to contain the secret of sexual abuse. A holistic approach to educational and awareness-raising campaigns is required, incorporating individual children, peer groups (particularly adolescents), families, schools and societal institutions as target audiences.