What is Child Sexual Abuse?
Get The Facts
Being informed is the first step in ending the silence, shame, confusion and denial that have allowed child sexual abuse to occur and even thrive in our homes and communities.
This section will help you learn:
- What is child sexual abuse?
- Who are the victims?
- Who are the abusers?
- Behavior signs of abusers
- Behavior and Physical Signs that Might Indicate Sexual Abuse
- If you’re suspicious, check it out!
- Sexual Behaviors of Children – What’s Typical? What’s Problematic?
- Responding to Sexual Behaviors of Children
- Talk to Your Children Early and Often
What is Child Sexual Abuse?
To be effective in preventing child sexual abuse, we must have a clear understanding of what it involves.
Any sexual activity between an adult and child or adolescent is abusive and illegal. It is an exploitation of power and usually of trust. Sexual activity between two children of significantly unequal power or development can also be abusive.
1 in 10 children are estimated to be victims of child sexual abuse today. The average age for reported sexual abuse is nine; 20% of victims are even younger. This means that infants, toddlers, young children and teens are all considered at risk.
Does child sexual abuse always involve rape?
While most people believe that child sexual abuse always involves rape, the majority of cases are not characterized by penetration. As a matter of fact, a representative sample of youth reported penetration in only 14% of cases. The rate varied by age and gender, but even among the group with the highest proportion of cases that involved penetration (girls 16 and 17 years of age), the rate did not exceed 22%. Less than 1% of boys report penetration. A study of intra-family sexual assault found that penetration was much more common in the sibling incest group (71%) than in the father (35%) and stepfather (27%) incest groups. It’s important to know then that child sexual abuse can include both touching and non- touching behaviors. Both are damaging to children and teens, and both are against the law.
Examples of abusive touching behaviors include:
- fondling of a child’s genitals, buttocks or breasts;
- penetration of the child’s mouth, anus, or vagina by the abuser or with an object;
- coercing a child to fondle him/herself, the abuser, or another child.
Examples of abusive non-touching behaviors include:
- exposing oneself to a child;
- viewing and violating private behaviors of a child or teen, e.g., undressing, bathing;
- taking sexually explicit or provocative photographs of a child;
- showing pornography or sexually suggestive images to children;
- talking in sexually explicit or suggestive ways to children in person or by phone;
- sending sexually explicit or suggestive messages to children online or by text message.
Are child sexual abuse rates declining?
A 2006 study by researchers Finkelhor and Jones found that cases of child sexual abuse were down 49% from 1990 to 2004. However, this only included cases that were reported to authorities. It is estimated that 80% or more of child sexual abuse cases never come to the attention of law enforcement or child protective services.
Recent statistics indicate that children may be more at risk than previously thought. Reports of online child sexual abuse are growing exponentially at a pace that law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) warn us is alarming and unprecedented. NCMEC received more than 18.4 million reports including more than 45 million images and videos of child sexual abuse online in 2018 alone, and those numbers include only the images discovered by tech companies and reported by the public. The actual number online is likely even higher. Online child sexual abuse reports increased 35% in the U.S. in 2019 from 16.9 million to 29.3 million reports in 2021.
Reporting suspected child sexual abuse is everyone’s responsibility—whether a mandated reporter or private citizen. If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, contact your local child protective services. To locate the child protective services in your state, as well as other resources, call the Childhelp line at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. To report online child sexual abuse material, visit NCMEC’s Cyber Tipline at https://www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline.
Who Are The Victims?
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted on the links between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. Conducted by the federal CDC and Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest HMO, the study found that of 17,000 members surveyed, 16% of men and 25% of women indicated they had had sexual contact with an adult or older child when they were children. This supports other previous studies in which 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse or exploitation before age 18.
Victims include infants, toddlers, young children and teens. Children ages 8 to 11 comprise the largest number of sexually abused children while teens from 14 to 17 represent a third of victims. The fastest growing age group experiencing sexual abuse is children 6 and under. Children with physical and mental disabilities are especially vulnerable. The problem is enormous and so are its consequences.
Victims of child sexual abuse often experience feelings of confusion, guilt, shame, and anger about what happened to them. Survivors of child sexual abuse relate feeling robbed of their right to a safe and healthy childhood. They describe feelings of hopelessness, difficulty trusting others, low self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors. Many suffer into adulthood with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, relationship problems, and further physical or sexual victimization.
With support from loved ones and/or help from professionals, many survivors do find hope and healing. However, children who are sexually abused and who can’t tell anyone or don’t receive appropriate help when they do tell, are at far greater risk than the general population for emotional, social, and physical problems.
Without appropriate help as children to cope with their traumatic feelings many turn to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, overeating, or promiscuous sexual behaviors. According to the ACE Study, these attempts to cope with past trauma are also high-risk health behaviors that can cause diseases that are among the most frequent causes of death in our country, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Current research documents that our country is spending over $9.3 billion each year to deal with the aftermath of child abuse – costs which are born by our health care system, our courts, law enforcement agencies, and our child protection and social services systems.
If we can prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place or identify victims early on, we can significantly change these outcomes for children, our families, and our communities.
Who Are The Abusers?
Most people who sexually abuse children look and appear to act like everyone else. If they didn’t, we would all have an easier time identifying them. So what do we know about those who sexually abuse children and how can we use that knowledge to keep our kids safer?
First, it’s estimated that a third or more of abusers are either immediate family members (i.e., parents and siblings) or other close relatives (e.g., uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins). Others in the child’s circle of trust may also be abusers. These include those with easy access to children because of their work in schools, child care centers, youth groups, sports teams, religious organizations, and in other settings where children live and play.
It’s hard to face the fact that someone we know—and even like or love—might sexually abuse a child. But the truth is that in 90% of cases, the child or family knows and trusts the person who commits the abuse.
According to actual reports received by law enforcement, 96% of offenders are male. Studies show, however, that women may account for 20 to 30% of cases of child sexual abuse. Fewer than 5% of abusers have an identifiable mental illness—about the same as the general population.
Those who offend represent every ethnic group, and the vast majority are heterosexual. When compared to other American males, those who abuse look nearly the same in terms of whether they are high school graduates, have some college education, are married or formerly married, and even the degree to which they self-identify as being religious. More than half of those who abuse report committing their first offense before the age of 18.
Sadly, children and teens are also involved in sexually offending against their peers or younger children, with 76.7% of male victims and 70.1% of female victims of child sexual abuse being victimized by other juveniles. Some of these children have been victims of child abuse or neglect themselves, or have suffered other adverse childhood experiences and struggle with mental health issues; they need access to therapeutic services to help deal with their own current or past trauma. These children are especially in need of our understanding and compassion.
The encouraging news is that parents and trained child-care and education professionals can learn to identify problematic or abusive behaviors early on. With counseling from professionals skilled in this area and the support of their families, most children who have sexually offended can resume normal lives and become healthy children and adults.
If you want to find counseling services for you or someone you know has been sexually abusive, you can learn more here.
Remember: the most loving thing you can do for a person who has a sexual behavior problem is to make sure they get the help they need to stop the behavior.
Is anyone who abuses a child a pedophile?
While the media often refers to any sexual abuser as a “pedophile,” the truth is that many who sexually abuse children do not meet the criteria for “pedophilia”, a recognized mental illness. A pedophile is defined as an individual who fantasizes about, is sexually aroused by, or experiences sexual urges toward prepubescent children (generally younger than 13 years of age) for a period of at least six months.
Pedophiles are also referred to as “preferential abusers” because they often target children specifically because of the child’s gender, age, appearance, hair color, etc. While the percentage of these abusers is relatively small within the general population, their compulsive behavior makes them a great risk to children. Pedophiles on average commit 10 times more sexual acts against children than other types of child abusers. They remain the most difficult group of abusers to treat and manage.
The largest group of sexual abusers is referred to as “situational abusers”. For these abusers, the child’s age, gender and appearance may be less important than their availability. The behavior of these abusers may be impulsive rather than compulsive. They may not be socially comfortable with adults and may indicate that stress played a part in triggering their behavior, e.g., loss of a job, unavailability of a spouse, etc. Those in this group, which include those who commit incest, are the most likely to benefit from sex offender-specific treatment. With monitoring and support, many can often be managed and their threat to public safety can be reduced.
Another category is the “sociopathic or psychopathic abuser”. These individuals have personalities which lead them to feel entitled to their behavior. While, fortunately, they also represent a small percentage of abusers, their lack of empathy or accountability for their victims can result in some of the most heinous acts, including kidnapping, torture and murder.
While there are different types of sexual abusers and different theories about the causes of these behaviors, one thing that experts agree on is that sexual abusers represent a diverse group of individuals who commit a wide spectrum of different acts for a broad range of different reasons. One thing that parents agree on is that sexual abusers of any type must be identified and stopped from hurting our children any longer.
Behavior Signs of Abusers
“Niceness is a decision… a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.”
Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear (1997)
Grooming Tactics Used by Sexual Abusers
The next time you see a news story about an individual who was arrested for child sexual abuse or on child pornography charges, listen carefully to the words of neighbors and colleagues who are asked by the media for their reaction. You will often hear words like, “We are shocked. He was so nice.” or “All the kids liked her.”
Get rid of the notion that people who sexually abuse children look and act differently than you do. Individuals who sexually abuse children can be socially adept and even charming. Most are considered by those around them to be loyal friends, good employees and responsible members of the community.
Because they are skillful at manipulation and deception, there is no foolproof checklist of behaviors that will definitely spot a potential child sexual abuser. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one profile which fits all abusers. This makes it very difficult to immediately distinguish them from others who interact with your kids. However, by gaining insight into the ways abusers think and the strategies they use, parents, caregivers, and youth-serving professionals can learn to be more vigilant in protecting the children in their care.
But remember, public appearance does not always reflect private behavior. In a process called “grooming”, those who sexually abuse children often go to great lengths to appear trustworthy and kind, not only to the children they target and eventually victimize, but also to their parents and other adults around them. Grooming a child and family gradually over time allows them to build trust and gain access to their target while appearing to be above reproach or suspicion.
According to Psychology Today, grooming is defined as:
“The deceptive process used by sexual abusers to facilitate sexual contact with a minor while simultaneously avoiding detection. Prior to the commission of the sexual abuse, the would-be sexual abuser may select a victim, gain access to and isolate the minor, develop trust with the minor and often their guardians, community, and youth-serving institutions, and desensitize the minor to sexual content and physical contact. Post-abuse, the offender may use maintenance strategies on the victim to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or to prevent disclosure.”
Read more about Grooming in Psychology Today.
If you are looking for a resource to show your teenagers to explain what grooming is, you can show them this video, Elizabeth and Ziggy, from the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center. This fictional video shows the point of view of Elizabeth, a teenager who is groomed into a sexual relationship with her teacher/coach.
The grooming behaviors listed below, when taken alone or together, don’t predict sexual abuse. However, these behaviors can be warning signs that should lead you to reevaluate whether the person is a safety risk for your child.
Have you seen these grooming behavior signs in adults who interact with your children?
- Doesn’t appear to have a regular number of adult friends and prefers to spend free time interacting with children and teenagers who are not his own.
- Finds ways to be alone with a child or teen when adults are not likely to interrupt, e.g., taking the child for a car ride, arranging a special trip, frequently offering to babysit, etc.
- Ignores a child’s verbal or physical cues that he or she does not want to be hugged, kissed, tickled, etc.
- Seems to have a different special child or teen friend of a particular age or appearance from year to year.
- Doesn’t respect a child/teen’s privacy in the bathroom or bedroom
- Gives a child or teen money or gifts for no particular occasion.
- Discusses or asks a child or teen to discuss sexual experiences or feelings.
- Views child pornography through tapes, photographs, magazines or the Internet. In addition to being an important behavioral sign, possessing, viewing and/or selling child pornography is a criminal offense and should be reported.
Important points to remember are that people who sexually abuse children are experts at gaining our confidence. They look for situations where they can have easy access to children. Sometimes, they do this by choosing work that will give them “cover” at schools, youth groups, sports teams and other places where children live and play. Sometimes, they work to establish relationships with adults first so that they will eventually gain access to their children. Some abusers become involved with women just so they can gain access to their girlfriend’s children. Be careful and slow in choosing the people you allow into your family’s circle of trust and be ready to exclude someone from that circle at the first indication they might be unsafe.
There are additional grooming behaviors, also referred to as “boundary-violating behaviors”, that are inappropriate of adults in a school or youth organization context.
Do you or your child see or know about an adult in a school or youth organization that:
- Makes comments about a student’s body or physical appearance, either directly to students or to other adults in the school. For example, “You’re so pretty,” or “Oh, I see you’re really developing.”
- Makes sexual comments or dirty jokes, suggestive gestures, or flirts with a student.
- Gives gifts to selected students that violates school policies on giving or receiving gifts. Selects a student for special privileges, e.g. sending on personal errands.
- Shares their personal phone number or personal email address with a student instead of using school-based phone and email systems.
- Sends private, non-school related text messages to students or responds to text messages from students after school hours or during nighttime hours, unless it relates to their educational plan and with parental permission.
- Follows or “friends” students on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, or other social media sites.
- Takes pictures of students and shares them without parental permission.
- Tells students very personal things, or secrets, or shares stories about their adult relationships, marriage, or sex life.
- Asks a youth about their romantic life or relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Confides in and offers support to a student in a way that isolates a student from their friends or family.
- Uses pet names or words like, “baby,” or “darling” to refer to a particular student, or allows students to call them by their first name or a nickname, if that is not usual school culture.
- Touches students in a way that goes beyond a pat on the back or high five, such as lingering hugs, engaging in roughhousing or provocative physical games with students, or inappropriate touching, e.g. stroking hair, back massages, etc.
- Asks young students to sit on his or her lap or hand holds with older students.
- Kisses a student, gives them a lingering hug, or enters their personal space in a way that makes the student feel uncomfortable.
- Showers with students after athletic practices or events, undresses around students, or violates their privacy in the bathroom or changing rooms.
- Offers a student a ride in his or her car, unless in an emergency situation. The “rule of three” should be followed, where one adult and one student are not alone together.
- Shares a room overnight with students when traveling for any field trip or sporting event.
- Invites students to off-school events or trips or invites a student to hang out after school without other adults or students—at the school or elsewhere.
- Closes or locks doors when meeting with a student before or after class or covers classroom windows so that interactions with students will not be seen or interrupted.
- Uses their cell phone or camera in locker rooms or restrooms to take pictures of students.
- Sends inappropriate pictures of themselves or others to students or asks students for pictures of themselves.
- Gives or sends pornographic materials to students.
- Offers a student or students any alcohol, vape pens, cigarettes, or drugs.
- Acts as a boyfriend or girlfriend or dates a student or other child or youth, no matter how old they are.
- Engages in any sexual activity with a student no matter the age of the student. Even if a student believes such a relationship with an adult in a school or youth organization is okay, the adult’s actions are wrong and should be reported.
This list is not exhaustive and there may be others you can think of. As you are discussing boundary violating behaviors with your children, tell them if they are ever confused about any behaviors of adults, they can come and speak to you. Let them know that you will not be angry with them; you will listen to them, believe them, and do everything to make sure they are safe.
When discussing this with your child, if they say that an adult in a school or youth serving organization has been acting inappropriately with them, you as a parent can contact the school or youth serving organization leader and make them aware of their employee’s behavior.
If you learn that an adult or child in a school or youth serving organization has acted in a way that you believe may constitute sexual abuse, towards your child or another child, you should call your state’s Department of Children and Families to report the abuse. You can also call the police! Behaviors 1 through 11 on the list above may not rise to the level of reportable abuse, but may be early signs of grooming. Behaviors 12 through 25 should be reported immediately.
- Locate the child protective services reporting line in your state or county by calling the 24-hour National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453) or visit www.childhelp.org. A qualified counselor will assist you. After hours, call the Child-At-Risk Hotline at (800) 792-5200, 24/7.
What can you do to reduce the risk your child will be sexually abused?
Parents can definitely reduce the risk of sexual abuse by educating themselves about behavior signs in adults that might indicate they pose a risk to a child. Since more than 80% of sexual abuse incidents occur in one-adult/one-child situations, you can reduce the risk substantially by reducing opportunity. Carefully consider any situation that places your child alone with an adult in an unsupervised situation. Support activities for your child or teen that can occur in a group setting where there are several adults present.
Many children, however, benefit from and want to participate in private lessons or mentoring programs where one-on-one relationships are key, e.g. music lessons, tutoring, sports coaching, Big Brothers Big Sisters. If you choose to enroll your child in such a program, be sure to approach the instructor or mentor confidently and tell them you want to reduce your child’s risks of sexual abuse, just as you know they do. Ask what their policies are around leaving doors open during lessons, allowing parents to observe or drop in.
Observe any changes in your child or teen’s mood or behavior after they have been in the care of a single adult. Ask them for details about time spent with any anyone who has been supervising or babysitting your child alone.
By letting people know that you do not take your child’s safety for granted, you send a message to abusers that your child is not an easy target.
Behavior and Physical Signs that Might Indicate Sexual Abuse
“Sex offenders only rarely sneak into a house in the middle of the night. More often they come through the front door in the day, as friends and neighbors, priests, principals, teachers, doctors and coaches. They are invited into our homes time after time…”
Anna C. Salter, PhD, Sex Offender Specialist and Author
Stay Alert for Possible Signs in Children
Wouldn’t children just tell if they had been sexually abused?
Not always. Children may have been threatened or made to feel responsible. Sometimes children have told in a roundabout way and their clues have gone unheard. For example, a child might say, “I don’t like to be alone with Miss Smith,” or “Mr. Brown acts funny with me.” Some children might say nothing because they think no one cares what happens to them. Others might be too young to tell.
How can you know, then, if a child has been sexually abused?
Child sexual abuse can include a variety of touching and non-touching behaviors. Many of these behaviors do not leave any physical signs so we cannot reliably tell when a child is being sexually abused. It’s important for parents to know that while some of the physical and behavior changes listed below can be present in cases of sexual abuse, sexual abuse may or may not be the source of those changes. For the most part, these changes are signs that a child or teen is under stress or has experienced some sort of trauma. In any case, when you spot any of these changes, take them seriously and try to understand what is causing them.
Trouble walking or sitting, any irritation, abrasions, swelling, skin tears, bleeding or infection of the child’s genitals or anus, complaints of pain upon urination, or any unexplained injuries around the mouth, should be brought to the immediate attention of the child’s pediatrician. In babies and young infants, any roughened or calloused area between the baby’s buttocks may signal chronic rubbing of the area from sexual abuse. Confirmation of a sexually transmitted disease in a child is a strong sign of sexual abuse, as is pregnancy in a young teen.
Headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite, bathroom accidents and bedwetting, and sleeping problems or nightmares are some of the ways children may respond physically to the anxiety, confusion, anger, fear and shame that can be brought on by sexual abuse. These physical symptoms, however, can also be associated with many other stresses that children experience as a result of family or school problems, e.g., bullying, divorce, custody issues, etc. So if you see these signs, don’t immediately conclude that sexual abuse has occurred.
Changes in a child’s or teen’s behavior can sometimes be clues that sexual abuse has occurred. However, just like physical signs, these changes can be brought on by other stresses and events. Again, there is no foolproof checklist of signs that will flag for you whether a child has been sexually abused. Still, vigilant parents and caretakers should be aware of some of the behaviors that have been reported in children who have been previously sexually abused.
Have you seen these behaviors in children or adolescents?
- Expressed unwillingness or fear to be left in the care of a particular person, babysitter, etc., or to play with a particular child;
- Discomfort or reluctance in giving details about time spent with another adult or child;
- Reluctance or fear of certain places, such as showers and bathrooms;
- Change in the child’s behavior when a particular person is present, e.g. a usually outgoing child becomes quiet or withdrawn or an easygoing child becomes agitated and unruly;
- The use of new words to describe genitalia or sexual behavior;
- Sudden self-consciousness about genitals;
- Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the age of the child, such as a young child “French kissing”;
- Involving other children in sexual behaviors or using toys or dolls to act out sexual scenarios;
- Regression to babyish habits, such as thumb-sucking;
- Nightmares, bedwetting, fear of the dark, difficulty falling asleep, new fears;
- Clinging, anxious, irritable behavior;
- Fearful behavior towards examination of the mouth;
- Increase or decrease in appetite;
- Apathetic about or refusing to do homework;
- Impaired concentration and attention in class;
- More school absences;
- Unusual irritability, anger, aggressiveness;
- Having money, new clothes, electronics or other personal items and you are unaware how the child or teen received these and from whom;
- Abuse of alcohol or drugs;
- Cutting or self-harming behavior;
- Changes in actual school performance and grades;
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs);
- Teenage pregnancy.
What You Can Do
If you see any of these signs in your children, don’t panic. Remember, it doesn’t mean that he or she is being or has been sexually abused. It may mean that your child is experiencing stress or trauma related to something happening at home, in school, or with their friends.
- To understand what may be causing these changes in behavior or physical signs, find a quiet moment and place. Ask your child in a gentle, supportive tone, how they are feeling. Even if they are not ready to tell you what is upsetting them, it will let them know that you care, are interested in their well-being, and are there for them when they are ready to talk.
- If you suspect that your child may have experienced sexual abuse, you may want to ask them in a caring tone, “Is someone hurting you?” Again, if they are not ready to speak about it, they will know that you are there for them when they are ready to tell you.
- If they disclose, remain calm. Your child will be greatly reassured if you don’t react in an angry or excited way. Don’t press for details immediately. Reassure the child that you believe him or her. Make sure the child understands that it was not their fault. Let them know that you will get help to deal with the problem. Make sure the child is safe from the alleged abuser.
- Reporting suspected child sexual abuse is everyone’s responsibility— whether a mandated reporter or private citizen. If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, contact your local child protective services. To locate the child protective services in your state, as well as other resources, call Childhelp at 800-4-A-CHILD.
- Finally, get support for yourself. Remember, you do not have to handle this on your own. Go to the “Get Help” section where you will find resources for you and your child.
If You’re Suspicious, Check It Out
“When I was ten years old, I was raped by my Little League coach, a man who violated more than 400 kids before he was stopped at the age of 68. Those who prey on children don’t stop until someone stops them.”
Richard Hoffman, Author, Activist and Survivor
Because child sexual abuse can be difficult to identify, many people who suspect abuse aren’t sure what they should do. They sometimes hesitate to share their suspicions with others who could help, such as a confidential helpline, pediatrician, the Department of Children and Families or the police. While this hesitancy is understandable, the tragic result for children is that almost 90% of sexual abusers are never reported.
We can change these odds.
For years, sexual abusers have counted on our reluctance to raise suspicions about someone because they might turn out to be innocent. Parents and other caring adults, however, are recognizing that they can protect their children more effectively by learning about grooming techniques that abusers often use, asking questions about those who spend time with their children, and paying attention to and following up on their instincts that something may not be “quite right.”
By acting on your suspicion that a child is being sexually abused, you could:
- Save that child from further abuse;
- Save countless other children from future abuse by that abuser; and
- Prevent the potentially devastating physical, emotional and social effects of sexual abuse for that child, his or her family, and your own community.
Remember that even if you suspect someone you know and love is sexually abusing a child and are concerned about what will happen if they are reported, the best thing you can do for that person is to get them to stop!
Have you seen behaviors that make you suspect child sexual abuse?
If you suspect sexual abuse of a child or teen in your family or circle of acquaintances, you may want to approach the non-offending parent(s) with your concerns. Provide them with this website address or download the information and share it with them so they can learn what to do. Support them in contacting a professional that can help them discuss the situation and their options.
Go to the Get Help section of this site for contact information in your area if:
- You suspect sexual abuse of a child and want to make a report to authorities;
- You want help for you or someone you know who has been sexually abused; or
- You want help for someone you believe is sexually offending.
Skilled and compassionate professionals are ready to give you assistance and support you in your efforts to stop child sexual abuse.
Sexual Behaviors of Children – What’s Typical? What’s Problematic?
“Protecting kids from molestation requires being vigilant while still giving children freedom to learn about their world, make friends, and become independent adults.“
Jessica Snyder Sachs, Mother and Survivor of child sexual abuse
Parents and professionals who work with children are aware that most children, at various ages and stages of their development, are involved in behaviors that explore their bodies and their sexuality. This is normal and a healthy part of growing up.
Some sexual behaviors between and among children, however, are inappropriate, coercive, abusive or illegal, and should be stopped. In fact, according to a 2019 study by Gewirtz-Meydan and Finkelhor published in Child Maltreatment, children and teens are also involved in sexually offending against their peers or younger children in 76.7% of child sexual abuse cases involving male victims and 70.1% of cases involving female victims.
This is new information for most people and can seem quite alarming. However, experts believe this gives parents and the professionals who supervise children and youth an important prevention opportunity. By being vigilant and learning how to identify and respond to these behaviors early on, adults can actually help prevent the future abuse of children and the likelihood that a child will grow up to be a sexually abusive adult.
In fact, the Enough Abuse Campaign’s two main goals are to prevent adults from sexually abusing children today, and to prevent children from developing sexually abusive behaviors in the future. Most adult abusers report having committed their first act of sexual abuse before the age of 18, so if we focus our efforts only on adults after they’ve abused, we will never reach our vision of a sexual abuse-free society.
Typical or Problematic?
Because some sexual behaviors of children are in fact expected at different ages and stages of their development, parents, child care professionals, educators and other youth-serving professionals need to learn how to tell these typical behaviors from those that might actually cause a problem for the child or other children. Here are some tips to help you better learn the differences:
A sexual behavior is considered problematic and may be abusive if there is a difference in power or authority in the relationship between the participants. Sometimes, the difference in power or authority is obvious:
- Age – one child is 3 or more years older than the other
- Size – one child is physically larger, or one is small for his/her age.
- Strength – one child is physically strong, or the other slight.
- Development – one child may have mental or physical disabilities that set them apart.
Sometimes the differences in power or authority among children are not always obvious to adults. When evaluating the sexual interactions of children, it is important for adults to understand the ways children think about themselves in relation to their peers and older children. Some of the factors that can greatly influence children’s behaviors can be subtler, for example, when there is a difference in:
- Popularity—one child’s popularity gives him or her influence over others.
- Self-image—one child has low self-esteem and little confidence.
In addition to these obvious and subtle differences, there are also temporary differences in power or authority that can result from the actions of adults or through child play. For example, when:
- An older child is put in charge of another child, such as when babysitting; or,
- Children are playing a game where someone is made the “king” or the “leader”.
Have you seen behaviors in children that you are confused or concerned about?
If you have, don’t panic. It is important to stay calm and not to confront your child in an angry or shaming way. If you suspect the behaviors you have seen are the typical behaviors of children who are exploring their bodies and their sexuality, you may want to calmly interrupt the behavior, and redirect the children to another activity. You may also want to speak privately to your child later about the behavior and discuss your family’s rules or beliefs about it.
If you have witnessed or been made aware of any signs of unequal power or authority in the sexual behaviors of specific children, you should intervene and make sure these behaviors stop. If you are confused or have questions about what you are seeing, go to the Get Help section of this site. Professionals in your community have been trained to assist you and will help you decide what to do.
Responding to Sexual Behaviors of Children
Skills You Can Learn to Respond Appropriately
In the section above, we discussed ways to distinguish “typical sexual behaviors” of children that are a common and expected feature of normal child development from “problematic sexual behaviors” that are inappropriate, coercive or abusive. We also indicated that in over 70% of child sexual abuse cases, older children or teens are involved in committing these offenses. So, it’s important for parents and those who supervise children not only to know how to distinguish these behaviors from each other, but also how to respond appropriately when witnessing either type. By refusing to ignore what you have witnessed, you can help children feel safe and protected.
While we learned earlier that those who sexually abuse children can be socially adept, in fact, many have deficits in their ability to communicate feelings that are not superficial. Modeling good communication for our children, therefore, can help them gain these skills and protect them, not only from being victims of sexual abuse but from developing behaviors that could lead to the abuse of others.
- Remain calm. This can be challenging, given that most of us are uncomfortable witnessing sexual behaviors in children and probably haven’t had much practice talking about them. In fact, depending on the situation, you might have very strong feelings about what you have observed. No matter what you feel, however, approach the situation with calmness. This will send the message that you are in control of the situation, willing to understand what is happening, and able to respond in the right way.
- Avoid shaming. Don’t begin the conversation with statements like: “What on earth are you doing!” “Get out of here right away!” “You are bad to do something like this!” “Wait until I tell your parents!” First, you really can’t assess the situation until you ask about it and get more information. Secondly, whether the behavior is typical or problematic, it is important not to shame the children involved. Shame is when a person does something wrong and is made to believe, therefore, that he or she must be bad, too. Children need to know that even if the behavior is wrong or bad, it doesn’t mean that he or she is a bad person.
- Describe what you are seeing. Begin the conversation by simply stating what you see. Don’t be afraid to use the correct names of private body parts. For example, from a parent: “I saw you showing Jenny your penis.” From a teacher: “I saw that you and your friend pulled down your pants near the tree in the school yard.” From a school bus driver: “I see that the two of you are making out on the back of the bus.” From a teacher: “I see that you are in the girls’ bathroom and looking at girls from under the stalls.”
- Label your feelings. It’s okay to say: “I am very confused by what I’m seeing.” “I am uncomfortable…” “I’m embarrassed…” By accurately labeling how the sexual behavior is making you feel, you let the child or children know that their behavior can have a strong effect on others. By labeling and expressing your feelings, you provide the opportunity for the child or children to modify their behavior in response to those feelings.
- Foster empathy. Point out how the behavior affects other bystanders. If there is another child or children involved who seem/s upset or uncomfortable, point out what you observe that leads you to that conclusion. For example, “I think that Jenny is uncomfortable. She seems confused and upset seeing your penis.” or “I was alerted to this behavior at the back of the bus because others were very uncomfortable and embarrassed by what they saw.” By doing this, you help children learn that their behavior affects others and that it’s important to pick up visual cues about other people’s feelings. In addition to deficits in communication, those who sexually abuse children often have deficits in empathy. They dismiss or don’t care that their behavior hurts others, only that it satisfies themselves. By pointing out how a child’s behavior affects others, you set the expectation, because of empathy for those around them, that children should be deterred from public displays of private behaviors (e.g., masturbation in children, making out in teens) or from inappropriate, coercive or abusive behaviors.
- Hold children accountable. In responding appropriately to children’s typical or problematic sexual behaviors, remember that it’s not about blaming or shaming. It’s not about finding out why or even about breaking rules. It is about helping the child own their behavior, feel responsibility for the impact it has on others, and change the behavior so others won’t be hurt.
Getting More Information is a Good Thing
A kindergarten teacher walked into the boys’ bathroom to discover one child standing and another kneeling with his hands inside the other boy’s pants. She stopped for a minute and then calmly described what she saw: “I see, Johnny, that you have your hands inside your classmate’s pants. I am confused about this. Can you tell me what is happening?” The child then went on to say that Johnny had gotten his shirt stuck inside his pants zipper and that he was trying to help get it unstuck.
Melanie’s teachers were becoming upset about her constantly rubbing her genitals in school. At first, they tried to redirect her to other activities. It wasn’t working. They called her parents to say that her behavior was starting to affect other children and that if it didn’t stop, she would have to stay home from school until it was resolved. Instead of shaming the child, her parents calmly asked her about the behavior. She complained about being itchy and uncomfortable. A visit to the pediatrician confirmed a common urinary tract infection. After a bout of antibiotics, the child was fine and returned to school.
What You Can Do
If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, contact your local child protective services. To locate the child protective services reporting number in your state, as well as other resources, call Childhelp at 800-4-A-CHILD.
If you suspect or know that your child is exhibiting problematic sexual behaviors, you should be aware that there is help available to your child and family. For information about the assessment and treatment resources available in your state, go to the Get Help section.
Talk to Your Children Early and Often
“When I was a child, I was abused over a five-year period by my pediatrician. He told me he would kill me if I told anyone. My parents never warned me about child sexual abuse because they didn’t know it existed. What’s our excuse? … Don’t wait until your child is ‘just a little older”. I was only 7.”
Ann McCarron, Worcester, Survivor of Child Sexual Abuse
As we have learned, child sexual abusers frequently groom children gradually over time. As a result, a child will often not fully understand what is happening until the abuse is well underway. At that point, the child may believe—in fact, will most likely have been told by the abuser—that they are to blame for what is happening, and that, if they tell, they will get into a lot of trouble.
As adults, it is our responsibility to communicate to children that it is okay to talk to us or ask questions about any situations that make them feel confused or uncomfortable. We need to help children understand that, no matter what, their feelings will be respected and taken seriously.
There are key prevention messages we can share with children about their bodies and their rights that will help them feel more confident, and that may reduce their risk of abuse. Sharing these messages with your child will make it more likely that he or she will talk to you about anything confusing that might happen to them in the future, including any behaviors that might lead to sexual abuse.
You can begin sharing these concepts with children as early as three years of age. Remember these are prevention messages. It’s easy when you start early and reinforce these messages often. Don’t postpone speaking to your child until they are “just a little older”. The most frequent age of child abuse victims is nine and nearly a quarter of victims are under eight years of age.
Parent Talking Points
Here are some “Parent Talking Points” that you can use to increase your child’s safety. Practice saying them, and then share them with your child.
- “All the parts of our bodies are good and special and they deserve care and respect. Just like knees and noses, all body parts have their own names. We can refer to them by those names without feeling embarrassed. The names for what some people call ‘private parts’ are penis, vagina, breasts, and buttocks.”
Talk to your child about these body parts in an open and relaxed way. Mentioning the correct names for private body parts during your child’s bath time can be a comfortable and natural occasion to share this information. Remember, when we purposely avoid mentioning private body parts, we send our children the message that these parts are not to be spoken about and mentioning them makes us uncomfortable. Sexual abusers count on children to follow their parents’ lead not to bring up matters involving private body parts. If they know that children will be reluctant to bring up any issue about private body parts, the abuser gains confidence they can abuse without being found out.
2. “Grown-ups and older children have no business ‘playing’ with a child’s private body parts. Sometimes grown-ups need to help children with washing or wiping these body parts, but that’s not the same as playing with them. Sometimes doctors need to examine these body parts if there is a problem. But they never do that without a nurse or parent present and it’s never a secret.”
3. “Grown-ups and older children never, ever need help from children with their private body parts. If any grown-up or older child should ask for this kind of help, you can come and tell me right away, even if it’s someone in our family or someone we know. Also, if any grown-up or older child shows you their private parts or pictures of private parts, you can come and tell me. I promise I will listen and I will not be angry. If you are ever feeling ‘mixed up’ about anything, including secrets, feelings, or private body parts, you can tell me and I promise I will help you.”
4. “Children, and adults, too, have body boundaries that you should not cross. So it’s important to follow the bathing suit rule—never touch other children on the parts of their bodies that would be covered by their bathing suit. It will be upsetting to them and to their parents, teachers, and friends. It will be a problem for you, too. If you are curious about all this, come and tell me and we can talk about it. Remember, if you are ever feeling ‘mixed up’ or confused about anything, including secrets, feelings, or private body parts, you can tell me and I promise I will help you.”
5. “Surprises are good for children but secrets are not. Surprises are secrets that are meant to be fun when they are told, like a surprise party. But secrets that are not supposed to be told can be dangerous because they don’t let me know if you are safe. For example, if a friend is playing with matches, someone offers you drugs, or someone is playing with your private body parts or asking you to help them with theirs, I won’t be able to keep you safe if I don’t know about it.”
6. “You are a special person and deserve to be treated with love and respect. You are special in so many ways. You are…”
Children with a strong sense of self-esteem and who are confident and assertive may be less likely to be targeted by a sexual abuser. Find ways and words to express love to your child every day. Spend quality time with your child and always provide appropriate supervision. Just as parents have to remind children regularly to do homework, clean their rooms, brush their teeth, etc., parents need to have ongoing communication with their children about these important body safety messages.
Avoid a one-time lecture or discussion about child sexual abuse. Instead take the opportunity to weave these simple prevention messages into everyday conversations and situations. Let your children know that talking to them about these issues means you are serious about your responsibility to protect them.
REMEMBER—it’s easy, if you start early and communicate often.
We hope these tips have helped you better understand the nature and scope of child sexual abuse. If you are ready and interested in speaking with other parents, concerned adults, and trained professionals about this information, go to the Get Involved section of this site. There, you will find out about actions you can take in your community that will help you gain the skills to be an effective advocate in the fight against child sexual abuse.
Working together, we as parents, adults and communities can prevent the sexual abuse of our children!
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Whether you identify as a victim, survivor, or as someone working through the trauma of sexual abuse, know that you are not alone, you are not to blame for what happened, and support is available to help you on your journey to healing.
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