Guidelines for Child Care Providers Talking with Children about Suspected Abuse or Neglect

Depressed toddler boy

Hearing a disclosure — a child telling you that someone has abused or hurt him — can be scary for child care providers. Many thoughts may run through your mind. You may be worried about the child and yourself, unsure of how to respond or what to say, or angry with the parent or alleged abuser. Responding to a disclosure of abuse or neglect is a big responsibility.

Being Sensitive Is Essential

Children often are reluctant to tell about abuse. In over 80 percent of abuse and neglect cases, the parents are the abusers. Many children love the person who is abusing them and just want the abusive behavior to stop. Because they love and care about the person, they may be reluctant to get the person in trouble. Many abusers tell children to keep the abuse a secret and frighten them with unpleasant consequences.

Children may start to tell someone about the abuse. If the person reacts with disgust or doesn’t believe them, the child may stop disclosing the events. Then the child may not tell anyone about it until he feels brave enough or has established a sense of trust with someone else. This may delay the child from seeking help.

Guidelines for Talking with Children about Alleged Abuse

If a child begins to tell you about possible abuse, please listen carefully. The following guidelines may help you respond to a child’s report of abuse.

  • Take a child’s report seriously. If a child comes to you with stories of abuse, take those stories seriously. Tell her that you believe her and that you are going to contact people who can help. Take reports of sexual abuse especially seriously. It is rare for a child to lie about sexual abuse.
  • Help the child feel safe. Choose a place that is quiet, familiar, and non-threatening for your conversation. Make sure you can talk, uninterrupted, for as long as needed.
  • Show respect for the child. Allow her to share her injuries if she wants to, but don’t force her. Never press the child to remove clothes.
  • Manage your own reactions. Reporting abuse to an adult is scary for many children. Keep your reactions neutral. Don’t display horror or shock and don’t show disapproval of parents or the child.
  • Choose your words very carefully. Ask open-ended questions and do not suggest answers. For example, it would be appropriate to say, “That bruise looks like it hurts. Tell me how that happened.” Stay away from statements like, “Did you get that bruise when someone hit you?” Listen more and talk less. Avoid “why” questions. Children usually have limited understandings about why they are abused and often feel it is their fault.
  • Avoid leading questions and statements. When talking to a child about suspected abuse or neglect, remember that the child may have to share the story with law enforcement professionals later. Avoid probing for answers or supplying the child with terms or information. Several major child sexual abuse cases have been dismissed in court because the adults who first interviewed the children inappropriately influenced or biased them.
  • Ask for only enough information to clarify whether you need to make a report. It is not your job to decide whether the child has actually been abused or neglected.

For More Information

To learn more about preventing, recognizing, and handling child abuse and neglect in child care settings, visit the Child Abuse and Neglect section, or check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: