Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?
More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.
More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.

Child Sexual Abuse

Understand the signs, prevention strategies, and how to seek help if you or a loved one was a victim of child sexual abuse.

Survivor Advocate

Key Takeaways

  • While child sexual abuse can happen to anyone and be perpetrated by anyone, it often occurs with someone the child knows and can take many forms
  • Child sexual abuse often occurs after building trust or grooming a child and the abuse can span over years, often starting subtly
  • Survivors of childhood sexual abuse have rights and options, and many states are lifting or expanding the statute of limitations

Most people believe that child sexual abuse is extremely rare in today’s society. Sadly, this isn’t the case. As many as 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.

More often than that, children are sexually abused by someone they know, children who experience sexual abuse typically experience it at the hands of someone they know — not a stranger. Alarmingly, almost 75% of child sexual abuse is committed by family members, foster parents, or other familiar individuals.

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

The World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a specific definition of child sexual abuse in 1999. The definition states that: “Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society.”

Child sexual abuse may occur between a child and an adult or a child and another child. Sexual abuse can involve coercing the child to perform sexual activities, exploiting a child through prostitution, or involving the child in pornographic performances or showing them pornographic materials, amongst other harms.

Child sexual abuse can happen to any child or teenager regardless of their demographics including race, religious, gender, or sexuality. Child sexual abuse often involves someone a child knows and may happen within organizations or institutions including foster care, medical facilities, schools, religious institutions, and, increasingly, in wilderness therapy programs

What are the Power Dynamics of Child Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse often involves a dynamic where an adult or older child builds trust with a child victim in order to later manipulate them. Children tend to be very trusting, especially with adults they know and rely on. Thus, those who engage in child sexual abuse tend to be older children or adults that manipulate the child’s trust to get them to engage in sexual activities.

Afterward, the child may feel that the abuse must be kept in secret and hidden, likely due to direct communication from the perpetrator or personal feelings from the child that talking about the harm could result in further harm, cause familial problems, or they may not even realize that they’re being abused.

It’s common for child sexual abuse to occur over long periods of time, sometimes even years. In some cases, it may begin at a very young age so that the child doesn’t know to expect anything different from the relationship. It usually starts very slowly, then becomes more serious over time, including using grooming tactics and techniques to build trust with the child.

As mentioned above, most perpetrator of child sexual abuse target people close to them – which can include family members, their own children, their partner’s children, or they may seek out opportunities to work or volunteer with children. Increasingly, perpetrators of child sexual abuse are finding victims online through using online grooming techniques.

Last Date Modified
May 15, 2024

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Are There Risk Factors That Increase the Chances of Child Sexual Abuse Occurring?

Any child has the potential to be a victim of child sexual abuse. However, certain risk factors can increase the chances of child sexual abuse occurring. Statistically, children with the following characteristics are more likely to be sexually abused:

  • Female gendered children
  • Children who are often unaccompanied or alone
  • Children whose parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol
  • Children who come from low-income households
  • Physically or mentally disabled children
  • History of experiencing past sexual abuse
  • Children living in warzones
  • Children who are adopted or who have step-siblings
  • Children whose parents experience severe mental illness

Children who have multiple risk factors may be in more danger of possible child sexual abuse than others. As mentioned above, any child can be the victim of child sexual abuse regardless of race, parental income status, and gender and victims should not be dismissed or not believed because they don’t identify with the above risk factors. If a victim of child sexual abuse discloses to you, it is you responsibility to take the claim seriously and provide assistance. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of child sexual abuse.

Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

It’s important to be observant if you suspect any form of abuse is occurring to a child, especially if you believe child sexual abuse is occurring. There are several signs that a child may be experiencing sexual abuse.

These signs may manifest physically, behaviorally, or emotionally within the child. A child’s response will be unique, and not all of these indications may be present. Do not dismiss a child’s claims or disregard them if they do not show the following signs as every child is unique and other life factors, such as drug usage or domestic violence in the home, can be contributing factors in their overall behavior and demeanor.

Physical Signs

Common physical signs of child sexual abuse include:

  • Wetting or soiling accidents after potty training
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Unexplained injuries to the genital area
  • Pain, bleeding, or discharge in the genitals, anus, or mouth
  • Persistent or recurring pain with urination or bowel movements
  • Unexplained general ailments, such as headaches or stomach aches

Parents, caregivers, or other adults who see physical signs of sexual abuse should speak to the child and notify authorities immediately. Physical signs can provide significant evidence of child sexual abuse, while emotional and behavioral signs may be harder to decipher.

Behavioral Signs

Behavioral signs can vary tremendously but may be more apparent than physical signs. These signs can be more important for parents, caregivers, or other adults who are more familiar with the child’s normal behavior to understand as they can realize when there are differences. Some behavior signs of child sexual abuse include:

  • Knowledge about sexual topics that seem inappropriate for their age
  • Withdrawal from regular interactions and conversations with peers or activities they previously enjoyed
  • Desire to spend an unusual amount of time alone
  • Reluctance to leave school or other activities; not wanting to go home
  • Trying to avoid certain places or people
  • Regressing behaviors not normal for their age
  • Frequent absences from school or other activities
  • New gifts, such as money or toys with no explanation of where they came from
  • Refusing to share secrets or talk about certain things
  • Talking about a new friend that is an older child or adult
  • Removing clothing at inappropriate times
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Running away from home
  • Fear of closeness with others
  • A drop in school performance or desire to participate in their typical school activities or hobbies

Any of these signs could indicate a sexual abuse problem, but they can also be indicators of other problems within the home.

Emotional Indicators

Signs of sexual abuse that cause emotional problems should never be ignored. While these signs may reflect other issues, they indicate a problem. Some emotional signs of child sexual abuse may include:

  • Self-harming or suicidal behavior
  • Nightmares, trouble sleeping, or fear of being alone at night
  • Change in mood or personality
  • New or increased depression or aggression
  • Disruption of normal eating habits
  • Decrease in self-confidence or the way they feel about themselves
  • Losing interest in school, friends, hobbies, or other things they used to care about

Emotional indicators of sexual abuse, like all signs of child sexual abuse, can vary from child to child. If any of the above signs are observed, providing a safe space and understanding what to do next is the most important thing.

What to Do if You Suspect Someone is Grooming a Child

Grooming is usually the first step a predator will take when they plan to sexually abuse a child. The grooming phase is a set of manipulative behaviors the abuser uses to gain access and build trust with a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the chances of being caught.

Grooming is usually done by someone who may already be close to the child, such as a family member, coach, teacher, or youth group leader. Increasingly, perpetrators are finding victims on online platforms such as social media, gaming platforms, and on forums to start the grooming process and be more anonymous as they can hide behind a fake online identity.

There is often a set pattern that occurs during the grooming process. It begins by selecting a victim based on ease of access. Next, the abuser will begin to isolate the child in some form. This may include one-on-one meetings under “normal” circumstances, such as tutoring for classes or playing sports.

During the isolation period, a sense of trust will begin to develop between the child and the predator. The child may actually begin to feel a bond or feel special since the perpetrator will often use gifts and attention as a way to make the child feel they are in a caring relationship. In some manner, the child will be encouraged to keep the relationship a secret.

Once trust has developed, which can take anywhere from a few private times over just a few days to years, the abuse will begin. Initially, any touching that occurs will appear to be harmless, such as hugging or tickling. Soon after, the abuser may introduce the child to pornography or discuss overtly sexual topics with them. Later on, it may increase to more aggressive sexual contact.

Abusers need to act under a cover of secrecy to make their behavior seem natural and normal. Once the abuse occurs, they will encourage their victims to keep it a secret using some form of influence or control. This could include threatening to harm the child or their loved ones if they tell anyone about the abuse, saying that the child is actually the one in the wrong, or continuing to make the child feel “special” by continuing to provide gifts or things they need or desire.

What to Do if You Suspect a Child is Being Sexually Abused

If you notice behaviors in a child that lead you to suspect they’re being sexually abused, it’s important to take action. Many state and local governments have specific laws and guidelines that establish what should happen if child sexual abuse is suspected. Make sure to familiarize yourself with them before taking action. Some professionals, such as those in the medical or teaching fields, may be obligated and required to report and this may vary across jurisdictions.

If you are unsure of how to report and/or speak with the child to understand what may be occurring, you can utilize resources such as the hotlines provided by VictimConnect or RAINN.

Generally, the most important thing is to create a safe space to begin to speak with the child. Some ways to start the conversation may be discussing some of the behavior or emotional signs you have seen within them, talking about something in the news that can lead into a conversation about this hard topic, or sharing age appropriate stories, movies, or other content that may discuss these topics to open the door. Ensure that you remain open, engaging, and non-judgmental during the process. At no time should they feel that they are being victimized or shamed for what may have occurred.

Let them talk at a comfortable speed. Don’t treat it like an interview, but as a conversation, which they lead. If they ask questions, give them answers. Above all, let them know that they are safe with you.

Next, validate their feelings. Let them know their feelings are important, and don’t brush aside any feelings of shame. Discounting feelings may do more harm than good in the long run. If they appear numb, that isn’t unusual. It’s important to be transparent and clear while maintaining an age appropriate level of conversation. The child will likely be scared, especially of the perpetrator causing them or their family further harm, and it’s important for the child to know that they are not only safe in the moment but that you will continue to try to protect them.

Experiencing child sexual abuse is a very traumatic experience and every child will be impacted and will need help in their healing journey, which can include professional health, although this can be out of reach for some families and children. In this case, there are many free or low cost resources available such as books or online courses and journals that are age appropriate that can be really helpful tools. If you are not the parent or caregiver—but an adult they trust—you’ll need to determine the best way to get them treatment and may be required to take certain steps. These steps should always be clearly explained to the child to ensure they know what is going to happen and also prevent the perpetrator from further harming or manipulating them.

How to Respond if a Child Tells You They are Being Abused

Many children don’t report abuse to their parents for several different reasons. They may be scared of the repercussions, may fear that their parents or other family members will be harmed by exposing the abuse, may not realize that abuse has occurred, or not know who to tell. Thus, if a child tells you clearly that they have been abused—or uses language that indicates the potential for child sexual abuse—it’s important to take them seriously and create the safe space to begin the conversation.

When they tell you what has occurred, believe them, and engage them openly. Don’t be judgmental. Encourage the child to tell you exactly what happened in their own words. Stay calm, and tell them that their safety is important to you.

Find out the requirements in your state for reporting child sexual abuse and ensure that you follow them. If you notice signs of child sexual abuse, take actions immediately by getting the child medical help, notifying the proper adults (such as the workplace, volunteer organization, or other relevant community members. Many times, it is a requirement to report child sexual abuse to official authorities such as law enforcement or child protective services or a department of family and child services within the county. Doing so can prevent the abuse and potentially save a child from significant lifelong trauma. There is also potential to speak with a child sex abuse lawyer.

What Treatment or Assistance is Available to Victims of Child Sexual Abuse?

If a child is admitted for treatment to a hospital because of sexual abuse, they will normally be assigned a team of doctors to assist them. The doctors will treat any physical ailments first, and afterward, psychotherapy will occur to help begin the child’s emotional healing journey.

Trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of therapy that is effective in lessening the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD associated with sexual abuse. It can help to address the child’s underlying thoughts and fears related to the trauma.

Children may also be prescribed medication that can help lessen the symptoms of anxiety or depression that are common in survivors of sexual abuse. Children who experience sexual abuse typically experience some mental health impacts and the reporting process may traumatize them further. It’s important to provide them whatever support they desire, which may include healthy outlets such as hobbies, therapy with a licensed therapist specialized in child sexual abuse, and/or medication to help them with symptoms of anxiety or depression.

The Potential Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse

Even if the abuse stops but the child never gets the help they need to hand the emotional trauma, they can experience long-term detrimental mental health and negative effects. These can include an increased rate of depression, guilt, shame, eating disorders, dissociative patterns, sexual problems, financial stability issues, and relationship problems.

A research survey of over 4 million individuals found that experiencing child sexual abuse results in a significantly greater likelihood of borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Those with post-traumatic stress disorder that occurs as a result of child sexual abuse may experience flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. Their thoughts of the event can be uncontrollable. If left untreated, the disorder can disrupt relationships and cause self-destructive behavior.

Depression

Depression is a mood disorder that results in a persistent feeling of sadness or loss of interest. It can affect how an individual thinks or behaves. Depression can require long-term treatment, but most children, teens, and adults can improve with medication or psychotherapy.

Anxiety

People with anxiety disorders may have excessive worry and fear about everyday situations. These disorders often involve repeated episodes of anxiety that result in panic attacks.

Feelings of anxiety and panic may interfere with daily activities. If a child or teen develops anxiety due to sexual abuse, they will need therapy and medication to overcome it.

Eating Disorders

Since child sexual abuse is associated with the body, it’s not uncommon for victims to develop eating disorders to control the way their body appears. They may avoid eating to stay thin or develop a binge eating disorder. Eating disorders may require therapy to overcome.

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