Understanding Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is an on-going, pernicious problem in our society, but parents are not helpless.  This section of the Coalition for Children website will walk you through key things you need to know to understand and help prevent child sexual abuse.

Parents, schools, and organizations can use all the avoidance technology at their disposal, but experience tells us that we are almost always surprised to discover perpetrators in our midst. In addition, a substantial percentage of child abuse happens at the hands of parents. We cannot expect children of these parents to receive adequate prevention messages at home.

Prevention of child abuse can be taught without talking about abuse. Children don’t need to be told what abuse is, who the offenders are, how they operate, what they do, or why. They don’t need to be told that the people they love might hurt them. Rather, we can deal with prevention positively and concretely, giving children the skills they need to act effectively on their own behalf when they are in a potentially abusive situation.

There are times when children can and must be empowered to act on their own behalf when we are not present and accountable for their well-being, such as when they are alone with a potential abuser. At such times, they need permission to speak up. They need specific techniques to stop what’s being done to them. And, they must know they will be believed and supported by the adults in their lives. The best overall defense children have against abuse is:

  • a sense of their own abilities,
  • the ability to accurately assess and handle a variety of situations,
  • knowing where and how to get help, and. knowing they will be believed.

Children have a right to be safe without being afraid and children who have been taught to think for themselves are the safest children of all.

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is any sexual contact with a child or the use of a child for the sexual pleasure of someone else, include exposing private parts to the child or asking the child to expose him or herself, fondling of the genitals or requests for the child to do so, oral sex or attempts to enter the vagina or anus with fingers, objects or penis, although actual penetration is rarely achieved.


  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused in some way by the age of 18 (Kinsey, 1953; Finkelhor, 1979)
  • 10% of those children are preschoolers (Children’s Hospital, D.C.)
  • 85-90% involve a perpetrator known to the child (Groth, 1982; DeFrancis, 1969; Russell, 1983)
  • 35% involve a family member (King County Rape Relief, Washington)
  • Only 10% of the offenses involve physical violence (Jaffee, 1975)
  • 50% of all assaults take place in the home of the child or the offender (Sanford, 1980)
  • The average offender is involved with over 70 children in his or her “career” of offending (Sanford, 1980, Abel and Becker, 1980)

Physical Indicators

  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Torn clothing,
  • Stained or bloody underwear
  • Pain or itching in genital area
  • Venereal disease, especially in preteens
  • Pregnancy

Behavioral Indicators in Child

Children often do not tell us with words that they have been sexually abused, or that they have successfully resisted an assault.   They hesitate to talk about what has happened for many reasons, including their relationship to the offender, fear of the consequences, retaliation or uncertainty about whether or not they will be believed.

Any one of the following signs or changes in behavior could indicate that there has been a sexual assault or it could be indicative of another problem. Whatever has caused a child’s change in behavior should be explored.

  • Sudden reluctance to go someplace or be with someone
  • Inappropriate displays of affection
  • Sexual acting out
  • Sudden use of sexual terms or new names for body parts
  • Discomfort or rejection of typical family affection
  • Sleep problems, including: insomnia, nightmares, refusal to sleep alone or suddenly insisting on a night light
  • Regressive behaviors, including: thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, infantile behaviors or other signs of dependency
  • Extreme clinginess or other signs of fearfulness
  • A sudden change in personality
  • Problems in school
  • Unwilling to participate in or change clothing for gym class at school
  • Runs away from home
  • Bizarre or unusual sophistication pertaining to sexual behavior or knowledge, including sexual acting out
  • Reports sexual assault by parent or guardian

Indicators of Sexually Abusive Parent/Guardian

  • Overly protective or jealous of child and friends
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • Encourages exhibitionism in child
  • Voyeuristic, seductive to child
  • Exposes child to pornographic and sexually stimulating pictures
  • Encourages the child in promiscuous and/or prostitute acts
  • Freely talks or boasts about sexual themes with child

Who Sexually Abuses Children?

Abusers can be family, friends, neighbors, teachers, clergy or coaches.  Child abuse happens in all socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious groups although it is now known that it does not occur equally over all groups (Fryer, 1990).  Eighty-five to 90% of sexual abuse happens with a person known to the child.

What is the Impact of Abuse on Children?

Children who have been physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused not only suffer a wide range of effects from their victimization, but are at greater risk to be abused again.

Abuse commonly produces feelings of:

  • guilt
  • violation
  • loss of control
  • lowered self-esteem.

Even those who seem to be handling their abuse are concerned that:

  • it might happen again
  • they did something wrong
  • future relationships might be abusive

Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse Works!

Prevention of sexual abuse training begins with children’s natural abilities, what they already know, and the experiences they’ve already had. The fundamental messages in prevention of child abuse by people known to the child include:

  • Your body belongs to you.
  • You have a right to say who touches you and how
  • If someone touches you in a way you don’t like, in a way that makes you feel funny or uncomfortable inside, or in a way that you think is wrong or your parents would think is wrong, it’s okay to say “no.”
  • If the person doesn’t stop, say, “I’m going to tell” and then tell, no matter what.
  • If you’re asked to keep a secret, say, “No, I’m going to tell.”
  • If you have a problem, keep talking about it until someone helps you.

Children learn that they can have some control over what happens to their bodies when we teach them, and when we show them through our own behavior, that their bodies do indeed belong to them. Children as young as two and three already know what touch they like and what touch they don’t like. Touching they don’t like makes them feel uneasy and seems wrong to them. This approach to prevention simply gives them permission to speak up. It teaches them how to speak up effectively and in a way that is appropriate.

These prevention of child abuse techniques must be learned not just as ideas, but as real skills. This means practice. Part of effective prevention education includes role-play, giving children an opportunity to see how it feels to say “no” in a difficult situation. Parents can do some of this, but the essence of the classroom programs is actually giving children an opportunity to practice these skills so they can really use them if they should find it necessary. Just as children don’t learn to ride a bicycle by talking or reading about bicycling, children don’t learn to prevent child abuse without opportunities to work with the techniques, to practice and feel comfortable with the skills.

For more information on preventing child sexual abuse see the Safe Child Program information page.  Skip the purchase information meant for schools and read about the concepts and watch the video.

What to do if you Suspect a Child is Being Abused of a Child Reports Being Abused?

The trauma of a child reporting abuse is very real. If this happens, the first concern is to remain calm and supportive of the child. Give the child an opportunity to tell you in his or her own way what happened. Don’t overreact or criticize the child in any way.

The child needs to be told:

  • That you believe him/her and it is important and right that s/he told you.
  • That s/he didn’t do anything wrong.
  • That you will do your best to see that s/he is not hurt again and you will make every effort to get help.

Do not promise the child that you will do anything specific. You may not be able to keep that promise.

Children who report sexual or physical abuse need to be examined by a doctor. Make the child a part of the process. If possible, find a physician the child knows or one who is particularly experienced in abuse cases.

REMEMBER: Almost without exception children do not lie about abuse, except to deny that it happened.

REMEMBER ALSO: The trauma of abuse is long-term and not always apparent. When a child reports being abused, the process of recovery begins. The next step is to report the abuse and begin the process of treatment for the child and, whenever possible, the perpetrator.

Reporting Suspected Child Abuse

The decision to report abuse is almost always difficult. Remember that 85-90% of all sexual abuse and virtually all physical and emotional abuse involve someone known to the child. This means that the offender is usually known to the community. Interpersonal relationships and community considerations frequently bring hesitation to report.

At these times, it is important to remember that the TOTAL responsibility for the offense lies with the offender. Reporting protects the child and may ultimately result in getting the offender professional help. A person who re- ports suspected abuse is not responsible for ruining the offender’s life. The person who has the courage and takes the responsibility to report is saving a child.

Law says that any person who has knowledge or reason to believe that a child has been or is being abused is responsible to report to the Child Abuse Hotline on behalf of the child.


ANYONE may report a suspected case of child abuse or child maltreatment. It is important to know that the law does not require certainty before reporting and that you have no responsibility to investigate or to try to gather more information yourself. Any suspected case should be reported.

Reporting suspected abuse or maltreatment does not make a person legally liable, however there are penalties for failure to report. The law protects any person, official, or institution that makes a report in good faith (meaning an honest belief that a child is being abused) by providing immunity from any liability, civil or criminal, that might otherwise result from such actions.

While reporting child abuse can be difficult, if you do not act on behalf of the child, who will?

What to do After Abuse is Reported and Investigated? 

The degree of impact abuse has on a child is determined by several factors:

  1. The type and severity of the assault.
  2. The relationship of the offender to the child.
  3. The duration of the assault situation.
  4. The reaction of the people around the child after the assault is reported.
  5. Support available to the child which enables full recovery.

One of the most important things you can do to aid a child’s recovery is to make sure the child knows the offender is responsible for what happened. Parents have a role to play, but a professional can also be very important in helping a child to resolve the many issues which arise following abuse.

It is not true that a child will forget if the adults do not talk about the abuse nor allows the child to talk about it. The incident is very real for the child and can color every aspect of his or her life, whether s/he talks about it or not. Supporting the child to complete the process of recovery should not be undervalued.

Another area of concern is treatment for abusers. This is particularly important with adolescent abusers. Teenagers who abuse others are beginning a lifelong pattern of abuse that can result in hundreds of children being abused. Intervention at the earliest possible moment cannot be stressed enough and adolescence is the most successful moment for intervention.

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