Child sexual abuse is something most caregivers don’t want to think about, let alone talk about. The idea that someone may intentionally harm our young people is unfathomable, and our fear of it often keeps us from having productive conversations with our young people and other adults.
But the reality is that if we can’t talk about it and learn about it, we lose our power to prevent it. Awareness, education, and communication are all the antidotes to this epidemic, so let’s dive in.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse is the use of a child by another person for their own sexual gratification or monetary gain.
It can take many different forms; at the most extreme end of the spectrum, it involves the sexual touching and/or penetration of a child’s body (vagina, vulva, penis, anus, breast, or mouth) by another person for sexual purposes. However, it can also involve exposing children to adult acts or pornographic content, photographing children in sexual ways, voyeurism, exhibitionism with children as the target, and trafficking a child.
Who Is at Risk for Child Sexual Abuse?
Any child — old, young, male, female, intersex, wealthy, poor — can be abused by an older child or adult; the power differential between the two is critical.
However, some children are more vulnerable than others. Children, preteens, and teens who do not have a close relationship with their caregivers, or another safe adult are at higher risk, as are those children who are uninformed and do not have adults in their lives willing to talk openly with them about sex, sexuality, abuse, and safety.
A child who has open lines of communication with the adults in their world around these challenging topics is far less appealing to a sexual predator than a child who does not.
What Do You Need to Know Before Talking to Kids About Child Sexual Abuse?
Empower Instead of Scare
First and foremost, the goal of any conversation about this should be to empower children, preteens, and teens, not scare them. Child sexual abuse is a terrifying idea, but if we parent from a place of fear, it does not serve our young people well. Our tweens and teens are in need of information, affirmation, and skills-based education.
It’s Not a Child’s Responsibility to Keep Themselves Safe; It’s The Adults
Second, while we must speak with our young people about this topic, we also need to understand that it is never a child’s responsibility to keep themselves safe — that is the responsibility of the adults around them. Children, preteens, and teens will make safety mistakes, and if adults can recognize those and use them as gentle teaching moments, the lessons will be more powerful than if we shame and blame them around those errors.
Don’t Rely on Common “Wisdom”
Finally, it is critical that safe adults recognize much of the common “wisdom” surrounding child sexual abuse is nothing of the sort. Many caregivers believe they could spot a predator or that a “feeling” would alert them to a problem; this is simply untrue.
Over 90% of child sexual abuse is committed at the hands of someone known to our young person, known to caregivers, or both, and perpetrators are often well-liked, prominent members of their communities. They are often skilled at gaining trust and ingratiating themselves to youth and their families.
Moreover, abuse does not happen solely at the hands of adult men. Approximately 40% of abuse occurs at the hands of older children and teens, and abuse also occurs at the hands of women. The bottom line is that anyone can be an abuser.
Many caregivers also believe their young people would report anything suspicious, harmful, or scary to them. However, because of the grooming tools used by most predators, most kids do not report the abuse they have been subjected to; indeed, child sexual abuse remains one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S. and other countries.
What Is the Best Way to Talk to Kids About Sexual Abuse?
Have Open, Honest Talks Early
First, it is important to have open, honest talks with children starting around age 4-5 about sex, love, and relationships. Opening these lines of communication early — and keeping them open throughout the teen years — not only provides children, preteens, and teens with information critical to their healthy development, it is highly protective against predatory behavior.
Establish Safety Rules
Second, it is important for families to establish known, easy-to-remember safety rules. These will evolve as children grow into teens, but the foundation of all rules should be that our young people have the right to be safe at all times, and that they have say-so over what happens to their bodies.
Empower Children With Body Boundaries & Consent
Next, caregivers should work to empower children, preteens, and teens with safe boundaries. These include
- physical boundaries, the idea that they own their bodies and their space,
- personal boundaries, an understanding of what types of conversations and questions are appropriate with members outside the home,
- and relationship boundaries, a clear idea of what healthy relationships between children and their teachers, coaches, babysitters, religious leaders, family members, and others look like.
Ditch Antiquated Concepts
Finally, caregivers need to ditch antiquated and unhelpful concepts like “stranger danger” and update their vocabulary. “Stranger danger” is unhelpful and potentially dangerous to our young people for three reasons:
- Most child sexual abuse does not happen at the hands of a stranger so focusing on strangers can cause us to miss dangers closer to home;
- Children do not think of strangers in the same way as adults — it only takes an introduction before a child considers someone to no longer be a stranger;
- We do not want our young people afraid of all strangers — they may need help from one someday.
Instead of “strangers,” we should use the term “tricky people.”
- A tricky person can be a man, woman, or child;
- It can be someone we know a lot, a little, or not at all;
- It can be a friend, family member, or a stranger.
The defining characteristic is someone that tries to get a young person to break a safety rule. This concept is much more clearly defined for youth and more effective at helping them identify and report improper behavior.
What Are the Child Sexual Abuse “Red Flags”?
Caregivers can stay alert and aware of potential “red flag” behavior both for the older children and adults interacting with their young people, and their kids themselves. For more information about “red flag” behaviors visit: JoinOneLove.org
“Red flag” behaviors for potential abusers include:
- Repeatedly ignoring limits or refusing to allow a child to set his or her own limits;
- Insisting on being physical with a child even when the child does not want the contact, asking child to sit on their lap;
- Sharing or confiding inappropriate, personal, adult-like information with a child;
- Frequently pointing out sexual images or telling inappropriate stories or jokes;
- Insisting on spending uninterrupted alone time with a child;
- Appearing or acting “too good to be true”;
- Enticing children, preteens, or teens with toys and gadgets as a way to gain favor or convince them to spend time at their home;
- Seeming preoccupied with a particular child and lavishes them with inappropriate or disproportionate attention; and
- Acting overly interested in the sexuality of a particular child, or talking repeatedly about the child’s body
“Red flag” behaviors that may indicate a child is being abused include:
- New vocabulary or “pet names” for body parts or sexual behaviors;
- A dramatic change in behavior or demeanor from the norm;
- Withdrawal and self-imposed isolation from friends or activities;
- Depression, anxiety, or unusual/new fears;
- Changes in school performance, or interest in outside activities;
- Avoidance of an individual previously seemingly enjoyed;
- Frequent absences from school;
- Rebellious or defiant behavior; and
- Self-harm or attempts at suicide
What To Do if Child Sexual Abuse Is Suspected?
Caregivers should be very careful if they suspect their child is being abused. First and foremost, adults should never force a young person to tell something they are not ready to reveal. They have likely been threatened to keep quiet and may be extremely fearful of sharing what has occurred. However, even without a report, caregivers can work to take steps to protect a young person if they know the source of the suspected abuse.
If a youth does report having been abused, the most important thing is to BELIEVE THEM. Contrary to frequent myths, children rarely fabricate abuse allegations. Next, it is important to keep in mind some of the “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for responding:
- Do remain calm, even if this is not what you are feeling inside.
- Do find a private place to talk without distractions and away from other children.
- Do assure the child they are not in trouble and have done nothing wrong.
- Do use developmentally-appropriate language.
- Do let the child know what you will do to help them, and follow-up later to make sure they know what actions you took.
- Don’t press the child for details.
- Don’t ask “why” questions or leading questions.
- Don’t suggest the child has done something wrong, shame, or blame them.
- Don’t make promises not to tell anyone — that’s a promise you simply may not be able to keep.
Handling a report of abuse is a very scary, harrowing experience, and many caregivers blame themselves for not realizing sooner what was happening to their child. While these are normal emotions, they are not helpful, so it is extremely important that in addition to finding professional support for the young person, the adult caregiver also seeks the support of professionals in this area.
Some caregivers will choose to notify law enforcement and CPS, Child Protection Services; this decision is not always an easy one to make but can help protect the young person and others from re-offense.
If a youth does report having been abused, the most important thing is to BELIEVE THEM.
Additional Resources for Child Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse is an all-too common problem in our society, and while no child or family is immune to predatory tactics, there are things caregivers can do to insulate their young people. Communication is critical, as is vigilance. For additional resources, please refer to these well-respected national organizations: