You may be a parent, teacher, or someone else who cares for and loves children. You want to keep children safe in every way. That includes protecting them from sexual abuse. The first step is to educate yourself and your children about it.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse is when an adult behaves in a sexual way with a child or adolescent. It may also involve an adolescent engaging in sexual activity with a younger child.
There are different forms of sexual abuse. A child may not know what is happening. The child only feels uncomfortable. Child sexual abuse may include:
- Touching behaviors
- Touching a child’s genitals, breasts, or anus—for sexual pleasure or other unnecessary reason
- Playing sexual games—or making a child touch someone else’s genitals
- Putting objects or body parts (fingers, tongue, or penis) inside the vulva, vagina, mouth, or anus of a child—for sexual pleasure or other unnecessary reason
- Non-touching behaviors
- Exposing genitals to a child
- Showing sexual photos or movies to a child
- Making sexual remarks to a child
- Having a child pose, undress, or act in a sexual way (including for photographs)
- Looking into bedrooms and bathrooms—to see the child without clothes
The child often knows the person who sexually abuses them. It is often someone the child trusts or loves. It could be a parent, neighbor, or relative.
Signs and Symptoms of Child Sexual Abuse
Children often do not tell others about sexual abuse. They feel scared, ashamed, and confused. Their abusers often tell them that it must be kept a secret. Be alert for possible warning signs, such as:
- Underwear that is torn, stained, or bloody
- Problems walking or sitting
- Redness, pain, bleeding, or bruising in the outer genital area, vagina, or anal area
- Unusual discharge from the vagina or anus
- Urinary infections or sore throats that happen often—for no apparent reason
- Sexually transmitted infections
- A lasting low mood and thoughts of suicide
- Lack of trust
- Change in response to adults or older children
- New or extreme fear
- Low self-esteem
Depression with physical symptoms such as:
- Headache, stomachache, or chest pain
- Problems sleeping
- Loss of hunger
- Sleep problems
- Bed-wetting, thumb sucking, or loss of bowel control
- Wearing extra clothes, or fear of undressing
- Fear of going to the bathroom, or problems passing stool
- Problems making friends
- Getting to school early and staying late—to avoid being at home
- Strong fear of a person (including parents) or certain places
- Early sexual behavior or interest in sexual matters
- Frequent sex play with peers or toys—or touching their own genitals a lot
- Skipping school or no longer doing as well in school
- Running away from home
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
When You Suspect Sexual Abuse
- Stay calm. If you show anger or disgust, the child might think it is their fault. Do not panic or overreact. The child needs help and support.
- Take what the child says seriously.
- Listen carefully to the child. Answer questions honestly. Be kind and gentle.
- Be positive. Child abuse is never the child’s fault. Reassure the child that they are not to blame. Tell the child that you are proud of them for telling you. Give lots of love, comfort, and reassurance.
- Respect the child’s privacy. Do not force the child to talk about the abuse. The child will talk about it at their own pace. Do not discuss the abuse in front of people who do not need to know about it.
- Report the abuse to the local authorities right away. They can help keep the child safe. They can get help and resources.
- Take the child for a medical exam. The child might have an injury, damage, or disease due to the abuse. An exam may also provide evidence.
- Get help from a variety of sources : the child’s doctor, a counselor, police officer, a child protective service worker, or a teacher.
- Let the child talk about the abuse. They need your support. They do not need to feel ashamed.
- Do not confront the offender. Keep the child away from the suspected abuser. Tell the authorities and let them handle the legal matters.
How to Help Prevent Sexual Abuse
To help prevent child sexual abuse:
- Tell children, “If someone tries to touch your body and do things that feel funny, say NO. Tell me right away."
- Teach children when they should obey adults/older kids and when they should not. Teach them about safe and unsafe behaviors.
- Ask for sexual abuse prevention programs in the local school.
- Know the people who spend time around your child—especially caregivers.
- Talk to your child often and openly. Do this without judging them.
American Psychological Association
Prevent Child Abuse America
Canadian Centre for Child Protection
Canadian Child Abuse Association
Child abuse. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/child-abuse.html. Accessed June 30, 2021.
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Child sexual abuse. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Child-Sexual-Abuse-009.aspx. Accessed June 30, 2021.
Defining child sexual abuse. Stop It Now! website. Available at: https://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/defining-child-sexual-abuse. Accessed June 30, 2021.
Responding to child sexual abuse. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Responding_To-Child-Sexual-Abuse-028.aspx. Accessed June 30, 2021.
Sexual abuse. American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children website. Available at: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-home/Pages/Sexual-Abuse.aspx. Accessed June 30, 2021.
Tip sheet: Warning signs of possible sexual abuse in a child's behavior. Stop It Now! website. Available at: https://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/warning-signs-possible-abuse. Accessed June 30, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 6/30/2021