Why People Wait So Long to Tell

Paul Ashton

People wonder sometimes about disclosures. When victims come forward to report that someone sexually abused 30 years ago, there often is a question in people’s minds of “what took them so long to report this?” They ask questions such as, why do people wait so long to come forward? What happens to people that they don’t speak up right away? Is this really true all these years later? Are these people making these memories up? Do psychologists plant these stories and doubts in people’s minds? Don’t victims just like being victims and look for something or someone to blame for their broken lives?

All of these doubts are exactly what assists offenders to carry out their crimes against children and vulnerable adults. They know that children have great difficulty in coming forward and they rely on this to keep their abusive behaviors a secret.

Fear is a primary motivator in not coming forward. Children’s minds are young, fragile and filled with mystery, awe and creativity. Children look for reasonable explanations that make sense to them when faced with difficult concepts. They blame themselves when things go wrong in their families. In trying to explain the pain they encounter, they sometimes look inward and quickly surmise that they did something wrong to make the bad things in their life happen.

Children often think to themselves, “If only they could behave better,” then their parents would not fight as much. “If they got better grades,” then their dad wouldn’t drink so much, and on and on the list goes. All very sad. But we all know it. We all remember from a time long ago when we were younger in our own families and we felt the pressures of the world on us. We prayed for a way out, and sometimes the prayers didn’t seem to be answered.

When someone hurts us as a child, shame sometimes takes deep root. Its roots drain us of creativity, spontaneity, and the fearlessness that every child needs to find their way in the world. Shame and guilt bond together tightly to form a core within us that shades the colors of everything we see. We live in anxiety that something will happen. That we will be found out. That someone will know. The feelings of dirtiness will be made visible for all to see and we will never be free from shame. We feel different, odd, unusual. We feel that all must be hidden, unknown, and secretive. We are loathe to share our deeper feelings with anyone, lest we show a glimpse of who we really are. We let the abuse define us, shape us and form us. We let ourselves be overtaken by what we thought was love, and in trying to love back, we deceive ourselves.

Some children don’t tell because they come from families where telling is not a part of what they do. There is no appropriate vocabulary that is taught or acceptable. There is no way for us to communicate an unspoken horror, because no one shows us how. We want it to all be OK, and in the process we die each day to ourselves a little more so that we begin to forget who is really to blame, and there is no one left to blame but ourselves.

Many abused children grow up and strive to survive in the best way possible. Some excel, some just remain under the radar, and others let themselves fall away to a drug- and alcohol-riddled place where no one cares. Everyone tries, but when they do, the world, the culture, the society, the church, the family, etc., makes them feel worse-more responsible, needier, more troubled.

Families are systems in which each subsystem relies on the other to complete a whole picture, to gain and regain balance, to absorb pain and difficulty, and to mediate the various ways of joy that each deserves. When you are robbed of your voice and cannot speak your truth, you don’t feel fully a part of this system, and sometimes you feel that you drag the system down, so you separate, isolate and move away from it all. Sometimes the other members help and reach out; sometimes they make it worse by blaming.

So, one day, when the time is right, and the journey has been long and arduous, and the burdens have become light enough to bear and share, the silence is broken. And the truth is told, and the heart is freed from the chains of secrecy, and your life becomes more real and liberated, and the world becomes clear enough for you to see the blueness of the sky, and you stop worrying about just making it through the day, and for another shoe to drop. And you breathe, just breathe. And you are born anew. And the rest of the family, and the culture, and the society and the world are left to see the nightmare that you have been living. And they don’t like it, and don’t want to accept it, or believe it, and the cycle continues. And the abuse can go on. But you know the truth, and you reach out to others who do, too.

Paul Ashton, Psy.D., D.Min. is a published author, speaker and consultant for the Virtus® program.


This article first appeared in March 2018 as part of The Healing Voices Magazine third annual Special Edition on Child Abuse Prevention.   The second Special Edition on Child Abuse Prevention is here.   The first Special Edition on Child Abuse Prevention is here.

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